Center for Strategic Communication

With the recent advance of the Sunni-extremist group the Islamic State and the increasing sectarian divisions that are cleaving apart the Islamic world, it is more important than ever to understand the differences and similarities between distinct Muslim groups, particularly Sunnis and Shia. With such an understanding, citizens and policy-makers can make more effective decisions and accurate judgements in assessing the current situation in Iraq, predicting possible outcomes, and devising solutions.

Background and History

Statue of Shah Ismail

  Statue of Shah Ismail in Ardabil, Iran,                           Courtesy of Ashena Iran

The Shia branch of Islam primarily differs from the Sunni branch in that it emphasizes the authority of Muhammad’s descendants as leaders of the international Muslim community, which the Shia call Imams, rather than Muhammad’s companions and their successors. Generally, the sects of Shia Islam differ from one another in the number of Imams they recognize to be legitimate, who they recognize those Imams to be, and what role those Imams possess. The death of the third imam Husayn at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I on the battlefields of Karbala, Iraq is a particularly important event for Shia Muslims and is commemorated by the holiday The Day of Ashura.

Throughout history, different regimes have instituted Shia Islam as the official religion, the most important of which for the identity of modern Shi’ites was the reign of Shah Ismail I in the early 16th century Safavid Empire who instituted Twelver Shia Islam as Iran’s official religion. Since then, Twelver Shia Islam has grown to be the largest branch of Shia Islam and Iran has become the center of the Shia Muslim world.

Five Charts that Explain Shia Islam

These five charts , ‘Percentage of Shia Among the World Muslim Population,’ ‘Percentage of Shia Muslims Per Country,’ ‘Size of Shia Population Per Country,’ and ‘Dominant Shia Sect In Each Country,’ and ‘Timeline of Main Shia Imams By Sect’ give a compelling account of where Shia Muslims live and how they understand the world. Explore the Shia Muslim world by scrolling over these interactive charts.

Percentage of Shia Among the World Muslim Population

Main Takeaways: Sunni Islam is the sect of the majority of Muslims while Shia Islam is the second largest with approximately 11 – 13% of the world Muslim population.

Percentage of Shia Muslims Per Country

Main Takeaways: Generally, the countries with the most solidly Shia Muslim populations are located near the Iranian plateau, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the south-western corner of the Arabian peninsula. The countries with the most solidly Shia populations are: (1) Iran, (2) Azerbaijan, (3) Bahrain, (4) Iraq, (5) Lebanon, and (6) Yemen.

Size of Shia Population Per Country

Main Takeaways: Generally, the countries with the largest Shia Muslim populations are located near the Iranian plateau, southern Asia, the south-western corner of the Arabian peninsula, and Turkey. The countries with the largest Shia populations are: (1) Iran, (2) Iraq, (3) Pakistan, (4), India, (5) Turkey, and (6) Yemen.

Dominant Shia Sect In Each Country

Main Takeaways: Twelver Shia is the dominant Shia sect in most countries where Shia are present, but there are notable exceptions. In Syria, the Alawites are the dominant Shia sect, in Yemen, the Zaidis are the dominant Shia sect, and, in Turkey, Alevis are the dominant Shia sect. Sevener Shia, or Ismailis, constitute a significant minority in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, but do not form a majority in any country.

Timeline of Main Shia Imams By Sect

This timeline shows the lives of the figures that each Shia sect considers to be their main Imams. Scroll right to see the entire length. The design of the timeline emphasizes the Imams that are shared among the various sects and the point at which the sects diverged from one another. The Zaidi and Ismaili categories omit several successors to the Imamate after the point of divergence for the sake of clarity and brevity. Also, the two main groups of Ismaili Shia recognize different figures as the first and second Imams; both are included for a total of eight Imams even though each group of Ismailis respectively acknowledge seven of the eight. Finally, Alawites and Alevis acknowledge the same Imams as Twelvers so a separate timeline for them is not included.
Main Takeaways: All the listed Shia sects share the first four Imams: 1) Ali ibn Abu Talib, 2) Hassan ibn Ali, 3) Husayn ibn Ali, and 4) Zayn al-Abidin. The Twelvers have 12 Imams, the Zaidis have 5, and each Ismaili sect has 7. Twelvers believe that the 12th and final Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi underwent a period of occultation and will remain hidden from the world until the Day of Judgement when he will return to help redeem the world from sin.

Calligraphic representation of Ali, the First Imam of Shia Islam, Courtesy of Petermaleh.

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