Shia doctrine is based on the teachings of the imams, descendants of Muhammad who were the original and sole interpreters of the Qur’an and Islamic articles of faith. Most Shia adhere to the Ithna ‘Ashariyah or “Twelver” tradition, which is the official state religion of Iran. Twelvers recognizes a succession of 12 imams, beginning with Ali and his sons Hasan and Hussein and ending with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the “hidden” imam. There are many other interpretations of Shiism, however, based on the acceptance or rejection of the individual imams, and over the centuries the individual sects within Shiism have developed distinct interpretations of their faith.
The Ismaili do not recognize Musa as the seventh imam of Shia tradition, but instead give that title to his brother, Isma’il. Some within the Isma’il are known as Sab’iyah or “Seveners,” and also consider Isma’il to be the final imam. The Ismaili faith began in North Africa and eventually spread to Pakistan, India, and Yemen.
The Zaidiyah, sometimes known as “Fivers,” believe that after the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, the next and final of the imams was Zayd Ibn Ali, rather than his brother, as traditionally observed. The Zaydiyah tradition is closer to Sunni doctrine than most other Shia sects, and was once the dominant faith of Yemen, where it still exists today.
The Alawites (or Alawi in Arabic) follow the teachings of Muhammad ibn Nusayr an-Namiri, a contemporary of the 10th imam. The Alawites believe in the deification of Ali, a notion that brands them as heretics in both Sunni and Shia Islam. Though viciously persecuted by both Muslim factions as well as the European Crusaders, the Alawites survived and eventually became a prominent minority in Syria, where today they are outnumbered only by the Sunni.
The Druze are mostly in Lebanon, and practice a secretive and eclectic religion based on Ismaili Shiism, Gnosticism, and elements of Greek philosophy. They are a small sect, permitting no intermarriage or conversion to or from their beliefs. Their theology is a secret to the outside world and even to several within the faith, and is guarded and preserved by an elite caste of scholars known as “uqqal,” meaning “knowers.” The Druze are not considered Muslims by most of the Islamic world.
Other, smaller sects exist throughout the world. The Bohra of India and Pakistan, for instance, were established by Ismaili Shia missionaries from Egypt in the 11th century. They originated in Egypt and transferred from Yemen to Sidhpur, India. The Bohra were divided in 1588 over the contrary claims to power of two of their leaders, creating further subsects.
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