Finally some sects command their followers to perform ziyara, or what they consider to be minor pilgrimages, to the tombs of Imams in addition to the pilgramage to Mecca ("Shiism," 2005).
While recognizing the two Islamic holidays Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha, Shi'ites incorporated additional festivals into their system, some of which will be described here. The first major festival is the Festival of Muharram and Ashura, in which Shi'ites observe the martyrdom of Husayn, the son of Ali. This festival is supposed to fall upon the 10th of the Islamic month Muharram. Sunnis observe fasting on this day for reasons completely different from the Shi'ites.
The second major festival is known as Milad-un-Nabi, which is supposed to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. Shi'ites consider the 17th of the month Rabi al-Awwal as being the prophet's birthday. Sunnis place the day to be 12th of Rabi al-Awwal; they do not place any special significance to it. The third major festival is known as Eid-ul-Ghadeer, which is celebrated on the 18th of Dhul-Hijjah. It commemorates Ghadir Khum, which is supposed to be the day when, according to Shi'ites, the prophet publicly declared the imamate of Ali before a gathering of Muslims. Other major festivals observed by Shi'ites include Arba'een, Mid of Shaban, and Al-Mubahila ("Shia Islam").
In terms of understanding the sources of Islamic jurisprudence, both Sunnis and Shi'ites accept them to be the Quran, Hadiths, consensus of the community (Ijma), and human opinion based on reason (ijtihad). Shi'ites, however, differ from Sunnis over how consensus should occur and what ijtihad should be based upon. In terms of consensus, Shi'ites believe that communal agreement has to coincide with that of the Imam. With regard to ijtihad, Shi'ites believe that an opinion has to be derived from reasoning (aql) while Sunnis state that it has to be derived from analogy (qiyas). Some Shia sects believe that human opinion is unnecessary since Imams are supposed to possess infallibility and divinely granted knowledge like the prophets. Therefore, according to this, only Imams are capable of performing ijtihad ("Shiism," 2005).
While both Shi'ites and Sunnis revere and regard the Quran and Hadiths as divinely inspired sources of jurisprudence, both differ over ways of approaching them. Shi'ites often make interpretations of Quranic text that Sunnis consider being invalid. Shi'ites use a different approach towards understanding the Hadiths, or recorded sayings and actions of the prophet. Shi'ites generally believe that the sayings and actions of Imams are as much worthy of being sources of guidance as the prophet's Hadiths because of their supposed infallibility and knowledge. Also they will base their acceptance or rejection of the prophet's Hadiths upon whether its transmitters were Imams or righteous Shi'ites. Sunnis may accept Hadiths transmitted by Imams but will reject those whose source was an Imam rather than the prophet. Due to differing opinions over the sources of jurisprudence, Shi'ites have often derived legal opinions unrecognizable to Sunnis, such as changes in the laws of inheritance and the allowance of temporary marriages or mu'ta ("Shiism," 2005).
Finally, one other difference in belief and system between Shi'ites and Sunnis is that Shi'ites will not view all the eminent Islamic personalities from Islam's early days favorably. For example, they do not view some of the prophet's companions, such as the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman as being paragons of Islamic virtue. Sunnis on the other hand hold all four of Islam's earliest caliphs, which includes Ali, in the highest honor and distinction.
After the death of Ali, Shi'ites began to look towards his various sons as possible candidates for the Imamate. Different Shi'ite sects began to form based upon whichever of Ali's descendants they supported for the Imamate. Originally formed in order to politically affiliate themselves with their candidates for the Imamate, these sects later differentiated themselves from each other based on innovated religious tenets. Throughout history, three major Shi'ite sects were in existence. The largest and most recognizable sect was the Imamis; they are distinguished from others by their belief that twelve successive imams have existed in the world. Despite their large numbers, they were never able to obtain political power like the imams of the two other major sects. The Imamis have been predominantly located in Iran since the 16th century AD and now have huge populations in present-day Iraq, South Lebanon, India, and Pakistan ("Shiism," 2005).
The second major Shi'ite sect was the Ismailis, who believed in the existence of seven successive imams. They were able to obtain political power during the Middle Ages in various parts of the world. One line of Ismailis, known as the Fatimids, established a dynasty that ruled over Egypt from 909-1171 AD. Another line of Ismailis, known as the Qaramita, formed their own state in Bahrain and Oman. The Fatimids later split up into several smaller sects during the 11th century; these included the Nizaris, who left Egypt to form a small state in Iran and Syria, the Tayyibis, who formed communities in both Yemen and India, and the Druzes, who although now are apostates of Islam were once an off-shoot of the Fatimids. Today Ismaili populations are largely located in India, Iran, and Lebanon ("Shiism," 2005).
The third major sect was the Zaidis, who believed in the existence of five successive imams. This sect, named after Zaid ibn Ali, rejects the mainstream Shi'ite doctrine of the Imamate. They do not subscribe to the belief that imams possess powers and abilities equivalent to that of prophets. Instead they state that any descendants of Ali and Fatima who are learned, God-fearing, and politically active have the right to the Imamate. In many ways they share more ideological beliefs and practices in common with Sunnis than with their fellow Shi'ites. The Zaidis established their own political base in Yemen, which lasted from the 9th century to 1963. Another Zaidi state was formed for a short while in Tabaristan, Iran in the 9th century. Zaidis today are overwhelmingly located in Yemen ("Shiism," 2005).
Throughout their history Shi'ites as a whole were suspected of wrongdoing and subsequently persecuted by leaders of the Islamic caliphate. The most difficult time of persecution was during the rule of the first Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I. The Shi'ites' situation was slightly alleviated during the rule of Umar II. But Shi'ite communities had to often be suppressed because of frequent rebellions that they initiated against the caliphate. Almost all the recognized Shi'ite imams were assassinated. During the Abbasid caliphate, Shi'ites were initially spared persecution. However, it was not long before the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur initiated the suppression once again. Various Sunni scholars throughout history, such as Malik ibn Anas, Abu Hanifah an-Nu'man, Imam Shafi'I, Ibn Hanbal, al-Bukhari, and Al-Ghazali among others, labeled Shi'ites as disbelievers or kafirs. It was not until the Middle Ages when Shi'ite-Sunni relations improved significantly due to Shi'ites gaining political influence in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate ("Historical Shia-Sunni Relations").
Today Shi'ites represent 10% of the Muslim population and are predominantly located in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan have significant Shia minorities. Other than gaining political influence in Iran, Shi'ites have no political autonomy or representation in other parts of the world. Relations between Shi'ites and Sunnis today have continued to remain tense, although some Sunni scholars and institutions, such as world-renowned Al-Azhar University, have begun calling for unity. Other Sunni scholars and groups, such as the Salafis and House of Saud, however continue to regard Shi'ites as being kafirs or disbelievers. The group Al-Qaeda has openly committed violent attacks against Shi'ites at their mosques and shrines, most notably in Iraq ("Historical Shia-Sunni Relations").
Sunni-Shi'ite relations both before and after the Iraq war have deteriorated rapidly. Before the war successive Sunni-dominated governments ruled Shi'ites, who comprise 60% of Iraq's population and are thus its majority. During their rule, Sunnis dominated the country's economy, military, and educational system and ruled using military might ("Fact Sheet," April 17, 2003). Since 1932 Shi'ites experienced persecution while under Sunni rule, particularly during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Hussein was notorious for killing Shi'ite religious leaders and for violently suppressing the Shi'ite uprising after the first Gulf War ("Historical Sunni-Shia Relations"). Not only were they denied political power, but Shi'ites were also denied access to Iraq's economic prosperity. Thus Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq were already strained prior to the war.
After the Iraq war, Sunni political power was dissolved by the American coalition. This led to a political vacuum, which was slightly eased by the coalition's formation of a provisional government headed by American official Paul Bremer. A governing council consisting of Iraq's political and religious leaders from Sunni, Kurd, and Shi'ite sectors was also created by the coalition. In March 2004 the council agreed to an interim constitution and to allow national assembly elections to take place. Despite these measures, the American coalition has still not declared Iraqi sovereignty.
Iraq's disenchanted Sunni population feels most threatened…