Wednesday, August 09, 2006

An Insight into Shia Islam - Part 3/3

The twelfth of the Shia Imams is referred to as the Mahdi – a prominent figure in Islamic eschatology and not only a source of inspiration for Iranian presidents. Born in 866 he is believed to be alive to this day but in occultation, absent from the physical world since the age of five. Shias await his return in a manner akin to those expecting the Messiah. In fact it is commonly held that his reappearance will herald an era of world peace and he is expected to return in the company of Jesus. During his period of concealment, the mujtahids are viewed as the Imam’s representatives in his absence. The clerical hierarchy unique to Shiism is indicative of this role of guiding the community by proxy.

The day-to-day practice of Shia Muslims is almost indistinguishable from that of their Sunni counterparts. Nevertheless, there are idiosyncrasies such as the insistence on prostrating on the ground (rather than a carpet for instance) and many Shias carry a small block of clay on them to ensure they can worship accordingly. There are some practices unique to Shia Islam though. One such article of faith is khums – derived from the Arabic number five – which refers to a one-fifth tax payable by adult Muslims who are financially secure and have surplus in their income. Half of the total is distributed amongst the destitute and needy descendants of the prophet and the other half (referred to as the Imam’s portion) is given to the individual’s mujtahid –which can amount to a considerable sum for popular mujtahids, strengthening their freedom from the state apparatus. Inheritance and divorce rights are arguably more favourable for women under the Shia interpretation of Islamic law. This may well be a reflection of the lofty status given to Fatima, the daughter of the prophet and matriarch of the imamate.

In his book The Failure of Political Islam, Olivier Roy writes “we find Islam divided into three geographic and cultural tendencies: the Sunni Arab Middle East, the Sunni Indian subcontinent, and Irano-Arab Shiism.” While the Pentagon reconsiders its ‘Neo-Con Shia-philia’ as one commentator puts it, ‘Irano-Arab Shiism’ continues to forge an emerging political presence. The strategic importance of the Shia diaspora has never been reflected in what is generally known of them and their beliefs. Perhaps now would be a good time to redress the balance.

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