September 23rd, 2004
Red Lines and Deadlines
Map 2: Sunni and Shi'a ~ The Worlds of Islam

While Shiites have remained a minority throughout most of the Islamic world, they are still the majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. These areas — primarily non-Arab — were home to the first popular movements in support of Husayn’s rebellion against Umayyad authority. Sunni dynasties continued to control the region up until the beginning of the 16th century, when the early leaders of the Safavid dynasty declared Shia the sole legal faith within their territory, which encompassed present day Iran, Iraq, and Azerbaijan. It is the legacy of the Safavids that today endures in the geographic concentration of Shia followers in this area.

Husayn was buried at Karbala. That site and the tomb of Ali, in nearby Najaf, have become pilgrimage sites for the Shia faithful, secondary for them in importance only to Mecca. The anniversary of Husayn’s death, Ashura (the tenth day of the first month of the Muslim year) is one of the major holidays in the Shia calendar.

Mecca is the only pilgrimage site officially accepted by all Muslims, but Iran and Iraq are home to a number of sites considered holy to the Shia faithful, and the primary centers of Shia learning are also located in Iraq and Iran.

Because of this relationship, there have been centuries of intellectual exchange between Iran and Iraq, as scholars and clerics moved between the schools in Najaf, Karbala, and Qom, and visited the pilgrimage sites in both countries. Iran had been officially Shia since the Safavid dynasty, but Iraq had only a brief period of Shia rule, and had been administrated by Sunni leaders since the middle of the sixteenth century, continuing under the Ottomans, the British, and Saddam Hussein.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government sought actively to export its ideas, and the secular (though nominally Sunni) Iraqi government feared that the Shia majority would heed the call and revolt themselves. This led to increased oppression of the Iraqi Shia population, and was one of the causes of the Iran-Iraq conflict. Saddam Hussein’s fears proved groundless, however, as nationalism trumped any pan-Shia feeling on both sides, and Shia troops fought one another throughout the war.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, the provisional Iraqi government has had to deal with new fears of an Iranian-inspired Islamic revolution. Shia leaders in Iraq have been debating the appropriateness of adopting “velayat-e-faqih” in that country; the traditional leadership, including Iraq’s senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, rejects the idea, while the popular radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — whose father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein — champions it. As of 2005, the outcome remains to be seen.


The eighth Imam, Reza, is buried in Mashhad, and his golden-domed tomb is the most important Shia pilgrimage site located in Iran itself, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. The city itself is laid out in a circle around the shrine, and the region surrounding the tomb serves as “bast” or a place of refuge; the shrine itself has statelike authority, and can grant asylum to those who seek safety.


Qom is the center of Shia scholarship in Iran, home to the country’s most important madrassas; the tomb of the sister of the eighth Imam makes the city an important Shia pilgrimage center as well. Khomeini trained here as a student, and returned here in 1979, making it a base for the Revolution. It continues to be a center for Shia scholarship.


The city of Shiraz is an important pilgrimage site — though not for its Shia heritage. Historically, Shiraz has been a center for Iran’s Sufi intellectuals. Sufism is a mystical movement that first emerged in Shia communities during the 8th century (though there are Sufi groups in Sunni Islam as well). While an incredibly wide variety of beliefs and practices exist among the Sufi brotherhoods, Sufis in general reject the literalism of traditional Islamic jurisprudence in pursuit of a personal — and often mystical or ecstatic — relationship with God.

Many of the Islamic world’s greatest writers and thinkers — including Hafiz, the Persian language’s greatest lyric poet — were attracted to Sufism, joining the Sufi brotherhoods. Hafiz is buried in Shiraz, and his tomb has become a destination not just for Sufi adherents, but for Iranians in general, who consult his collected poems as an oracle. It is believed that if one keeps a question in mind and chooses at random one of Hafiz’s poems, the first couplet will provide an answer.


Najaf is the site of the tomb of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, the Fourth Caliph and First Imam, and like Qom it is a center of Shia scholarship. The Shrine of Ali is one of Shia’s holiest places, and the city that grew up around it has remained a center of Shia thought, even under Sunni and secular governments. Khomeini moved to Najaf in 1965, after being sent into exile by the Shah, and spent thirteen years there, during which time he formulated much of the political theory he was to put into practice following the 1979 Revolution. Najaf has never been an easy city to govern — its residents revolted against both the Ottomans and Saddam Hussein — and as of summer 2005 it remains a hotly contested place, with radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia fighting the postwar Iraqi government and the U.S. Army.


Husayn, Ali’s son, Muhammad’s grandson, and the central martyr in the Shia tradition, died at Karbala and is buried there. For Shiites, his tomb is the holiest site outside of Mecca and Medina, and many make the pilgrimage there — up to a million pilgrims visit the city to observe Ashura, the anniversary of Husayn’s death. Like Najaf the city has become home to a number of Shia madrassas.

At Ashura, Karbala is the site of the “ta’ziya,” a passion play that reenacts the circumstances leading up to the martyrdom. The ritual is practiced elsewhere, but the observance is particularly intense in Iraq in general and at Karbala in particular, including a bloody self-flagellation ritual — in which young men not only whip themselves, but cut their scalps with swords — rarely practiced elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Baghdad (Kazimayn)

The shrines to Musa al-Kazim and Muhammad al-Jawwad, the 7th and 9th Imams, are located in Kazimayn, now a Baghdad suburb. Baghdad itself served as the capital of the Sunni Caliphate on several occasions from the 8th through the 13th centuries; it was only part of a Shia state for the first few decades of the 16th century, when it came under Safavid rule.


Samarra is the site of the shrines to the 10th and 11th Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari, though more interestingly the city is also the place from which the 12th “Hidden” Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is believed to have entered his period of occultation. There is a shrine built atop the cellar in which the child Imam was last reported seen.


While Medina is an important, if optional, stop for pilgrims on the hajj, it is a pilgrimage destination for Shiites. The shrines to the 2nd and 4th Imams, Hasan and Ali Zayn al-Abidin, are located there; Muhammad’s daughter Fatima is also buried in Medina.


Pilgrimage to Mecca is compulsory, at least once in a lifetime, for all Muslims who can possibly afford it. The “hajj” (pilgrimage) itself centers on the Great Mosque surrounding the Kaaba, the cubical structure thought to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael — the shrine that the world’s Muslim’s face in prayer everyday.

The hajj is tightly regulated by the Saudi Arabian government, which limits the number of visitors (generally to two million) for the annual observance, and forbids political activity or sloganeering during the pilgrimage. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, however, Iranian Shia pilgrims challenged this authority, waving portraits of Khomeini and openly chanting anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. slogans along the route and at the Kaaba itself; tensions came to a head in 1987 when 400 pilgrims were killed in fighting between Iranian demonstrators and Saudi police. The Iranian protests were widely seen — as was the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie — as challenges to Sunni dominance. Since the 1990s, relations have improved, especially following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the hajj has been peaceful since.

Map Data Sources: CIA World Factbook 2004;


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