Iraq was the cradle of Shiʿism, where it evolved as a political and religious movement, yet, Shiʿites became a majority there only during the 19th century. Shiʿism emerged in Iraq when the first Imam, ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb (q.v.), drew his supporters from Kufa, his capital in 656-61. Following his assassination in 661, ʿAli was buried in nearby Najaf. The massacre of ʿAli’s son, Imam Ḥosayn, and his companions on 10 Moḥarram 61/9 October 680—the crucial event of Shiʿism—took place in Karbalāʾ, where he and his half-brother ʿAbbās were buried after their uprising had been crushed. Both towns, together with Kāẓemayn, the burial place of the seventh and ninth Imams, Musā al-Kāẓem and Moḥammad al-Jawād, and Samarrāʾ, where the tenth and eleventh Imams, ʿAli al-Naqi (q.v.) and Ḥasan al-ʿAskari (q.v.), are buried, are called the ʿatabāt-e ʿāliyāt (exalted thresholds; see ʿATABĀT) and are regarded as the holiest sites for Twelver Shiʿism.
The Proto-Shiʿite era. The first Shiʿites, ʿAli’s supporters in Kufa, were comprised of veteran believers, named Qurʾan readers (al-Qorāʾ), and new Muslim converts among the Arab tribes. According to Michael Morony (pp. 492-94), this support cannot be ascribed to Arab traditions or to the Kalb-Qays (South-North) tribal divisions. Rather, some elite members, whose position was threatened because of the rise of the new Arab elite under the third Caliph, ʿOṯmān (r. 644-56), supported ʿAli’s family hoping to rescue their position. The other aspect was the social polarization of the population as a whole, which led some Arabs to see ʿAli’s family as the symbol of their hopes to restore social and economic justice. Staying with ʿAli, despite his misfortunes, required a special explanation, the attribution of charismatic qualities as Moḥammad’s heir (wāreṯ) and executor (waṣi), with some of his followers (e.g., Solaymān b. Ṣorād) going as far as describing him as a rightly guided one (Mahdi) (Morony, pp. 492, 495) or saying that he was Moḥammad’s closest assistant.
Kufan notables (ašrāf and roʾasāʾ) invited Ḥosayn to lead a rebellion against the Omayyads in 680, but refrained from helping him, fearing the approaching Omayyad army. Following the massacre of Ḥosayn and his followers, 3,000 Kufans, known as the Tawwābun (penitents), went to die in battle against the Omayyads, in order to atone for their sin of having forsaken Ḥosayn. Their act rendered the massacre of religious significance and served to transform Shiʿism into a distinct branch of Islam.
With the Shiʿite banner providing the ideological justification for those rejecting the status quo, Kufa continued to serve as the center of opposition to the Syrian domination of the Arab empire. Most significant was the revolt of Moḵtār b. ʿObayd in 685-86 in the name of ʿAli’s son Moḥammad (Moḥammad Ebn al-Ḥanafiya), which was supported by dissident tribesmen, mawāli (clients), and slaves, in addition to Kufan notables (ašrāf), who later abandoned him because of the growing importance of slaves and mawāli. Eventually, Moṣʿab b. Zubayr, military leader of the Medina-led rebellion against the Omayyads, defeated Moḵtār, massacring about 6,000 of his supporters in April 687.
By the early 8th century, Kufa and Madāʾen (q.v.) were the main Shiʿite centers in Iraq, with Kufa serving as the center for the failed revolt in February 740 of Zayd b. ʿAli (half-brother of the fifth Shiʿite Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer), founder of the Zaydiya. The 8th century also saw the emergence of extremist Shiʿite groups (ḡolāt, q.v.) in Iraq that fused pagan and Islamic beliefs manifested in the attribution of divinity to ʿAli. At that stage they acquired greater support than the future Imami Shiʿites.
That the many claims of the various branches of the Hashemite family—Moḵtar, descendants of Ḥosayn and Ḥasan, and the future ʿAbbasids—for a special right to rule were able to attract Shiʿite sympathy during the 8th century indicate that most people did not give special importance to direct descent from ʿAli. Rather, discontent with Omayyad rule and socio-political considerations were the crucial factors. The only successful revolt on behalf of descendants of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt, q.v.), brought the ʿAbbasids to power, leading to a split between them and the ʿAlid supporters, among them the future Twelver Shiʿites.
The first ʿAbbasid Caliphs, Saffāḥ (r. 749-54) and Manṣur (r. 754-75) sought to win over the ʿAlids by having them as honored guests at their court with high pensions. Shiʿite sources, however, maintain that Manṣur harassed the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (d. 765), and had him imprisoned several times. Some members of ʿAli’s family, who saw the ʿAbbasids as usurpers and refused to give up their claim, went into hiding. From this position they attracted the allegiance of those who were dissatisfied with ʿAbbasid rule. Most notable was Moḥammad b. ʿAbd-Allah, called “the Pure Soul” (al-nafs al-zakiya) from the Ḥasanid branch. His brother Ebrāhim led a revolt on his behalf in Basra in October 762. Although he received some aid from Kufa, he was defeated in February 763. The old ʿAlid constituency of discontented Iraqis, especially Kufans, was now hopelessly divided by Man-ṣur’s claims to lead the Ahl al-Bayt, by the establishment of Iraq as the center of government, and by differing views among themselves about their role in the community.
The Imamate of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, which marked the major doctrinal development of Imami Shiʿism, had a profound impact on Shiʿite-ʿAbbasid relationships. As Jaʿfar elaborated the concept of the emāma as a spiritual leadership that stands above political rulers and postponed his claim for actual authority to the distant future, his followers could acquiesce to ʿAbbasid rule. The Imams whom they recognized lived quietly under the ʿAbbasids, although at times there were under confinement in the capital.
Under the ʿAbbasids, relationships between the Shiʿites and the ruling dynasty fluctuated according to the changing policies of each Caliph. The Caliph Mahdi (r. 775-85) attempted to heal the rift by granting the ʿAlids estates and by promoting their supporters to high positions in his bureaucracy. Conversely, Shiʿite sources maintain that Rašid (r. 786-809) had hundreds of ʿAlids killed. Yet, some pro-ʿAlid families, such as Jaʿfar b. Moḥammad al-Ašʿaṯ held high positions in the Caliph’s court.
The Caliph Maʾmun (r. 813-33) made the most serious effort to reconcile the ʿAlid and ʿAbbasid branches of Ahl al-Bayt by marrying his daughter to the eighth Imam ʿAli al-Reżā (q.v.) and designating him as his successor. While encountering opposition among ʿAbbasid branches, his decision failed to generate much support among ʿAlids, since it promised no change in the unpopular policy of rule from Khorasan. With the death of ʿAli al-Reżā in 818, the plan for a Shiʿite succession was abandoned. The Caliph Motawakkel (r. 847-61) even adopted a strong anti-ʿAlid policy as part of his struggle against his father’s entourage. Seeking public support among the Traditionists in Baghdad, he ordered the public cursing of ʿAli from the pulpits and the destruction of his descendants’ tombs in Karbalāʾ.
Several processes led to the evolution of Shiʿism as a full-fledged religious sect during the 9th-10th centuries. Still, up to the 9th century, the Imamis were a minority among the Shiʿites, compared with the Zaydis and Ḡolāt. The establishment of Baghdad as the ʿAbbasid capital in 762 led to the growth of a large Shiʿite community in Karḵ, a quarter situated on the west bank of the Tigris river, and to the expansion of religio-political affiliations to the communal sphere. Under ʿAbbasid rule, the Imams developed networks of agents (wokalāʾ) in order to facilitate communication with their followers and to collect the ḵoms (“the fifth”) and zakāt (alms) taxes, thereby creating the basis for a continuous existence of the Shiʿite community in the future.
A corollary development was the growing importance of the visitations (ziārāt) to the tomb of Imam Ḥosayn in Karbalāʾ as a basic element in Shiʿite identity. In the first decades following Ḥosayn’s death, the visitation was observed mainly by the Imams and their families. By the 9th century, the Imams had institutionalized the practice of ziārat al-ʿāšurāʾ and ziārat al-arbaʿin on the major Shiʿite observances (see ʿAŠURĀʾ and ARBAʿIN). They highlighted the future heavenly rewards which awaited the visitors to the burial sites and attributed blessing and healing power to its soil.
The death of the eleventh Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskari in 873 in Samarrāʾ, to the mind of most of the Imamis apparently without leaving a successor to the leadership of their community, caused a major theological and communal crisis among them and led to splits into up to 14 factions over the issue of the succession. The theory of the Occultation (Ḡayba) of the twelfth Imam, developed by Kolayni (d. 940/41) and above all by Shaikh Mofid (d. 1022) of Baghdad, became the most prevalent idea among the Shiʿites during the 10th century, marking the rise of the their ulema as leaders of the community. This theory was furthermore supported by powerful ʿAlid families, as it enabled them to cooperate with the ʿAbbasids while keeping spiritual allegiance to ʿAli’s family. Enjoying the backing of the heterodox bureaucrats of al-Moqtader’s caliphate (r. 908-32), the Shiʿites enjoyed communal resurgence, prompting strong Hanbalite reactions. In 935, the Caliph Rāżi (r. 934-40) was obliged to issue a decree to prevent the Hanbalites from attacking them.
The takeover of Iraq by the pro-ʿAlid Buyid dynasty (945-1055; see BUYIDS) marked the full-fledged consolidation of Twelver Shiʿism as a system of belief and as a distinct religious community within Islam. Although they did not challenge openly ʿAbbasid nominal suzerainty and Sunnite ideology, the Buyids extended patronage to Shiʿite scholars and favored the Shiʿites in their policies. Shiʿite intellectual activity was centered in Baghdad, especially in the commercial center of Karḵ, as scholars from the entire Muslim world, such as Shaikh al-Ṭāʾefa Moḥammad b. Ḥasan al-Ṭusi, resided there. In addition, Bahāʾ-al-Dawla’s vizier Ṣābur b. Ardešir, established a major Shiʿite library there in 991-92. Both the Imamis and the Zaydis profited from Buyid patronage. However, the former were the more numerous group and devoted themselves more assiduously to the study of law and tradition, while the Zaydis were absorbed into the Moʿtazelite group of theologians in Baghdad.
Pro-Shiʿite Buyid policies proved decisive in exacerbating the hitherto unorganized Shiʿite-Sunnite tension. Moʿezz-al-Dawla split the Neqābat al-ašrāf, or “office of superintendent of the Prophet’s descendants,” which included the ʿAbbasid and ʿAlid branches, by appointing a Shiʿite as head of its ʿAlid branch and leader of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. With the added duty of supervising the Maẓālem, or “court of appeals,” the ʿAlid neqāba was directly involved in the government structure of the city and was able to displace the ʿAbbasid group in public affairs. In addition, it could rally the support of the Shiʿite aḥdāt and ʿayyārun, armed bands from the lower levels of the population. Moʿezz-al-Dawla also appointed in 961-62 a Shiʿite as chief judge (qāżi al-qożāt) in Baghdad, who served for only a short while. Subsequently, the Caliph Qāder (r. 991-1031) was able to thwart Bahāʾ-al-Dawla’s attempt to appoint another Shiʿite as chief judge in 1004. Still, there existed a special judge in Mosul for the Imamis, and there were probably also some more in other towns in the south.
Buyid backing encouraged the appearance of new public manifestations of the Shiʿite creed, particularly the public disavowal (barāʾa) of the first two Caliphs Abu Bakr (r. 632-34) and ʿOmar (r. 634-44), the public ʿĀšurāʾ (q.v.) mourning ceremonies for al-Ḥosayn on 10 Moḥarram, and the celebration of Ḡadir Ḵomm on 18 Ḏu’l-Hejja. Pilgrimage to the shrines of the Imams (ʿatabāt) became a large-scale phenomenon manifested inter alia in extensive building at the shrines in Kāẓemayn. Burial in Karbalāʾ as a pious act became increasingly popular.
Processions on Shiʿite holidays provided flash points for sectarian riots in Baghdad, which erupted in 949, 951, 959, 962, and 964, apparently as part of ʿAbbasid effort to rally opposition to the Buyids. The rivalry reached a breaking point in the crisis of the Buyid amir Baḵtiār’s reign from 972. (Ebn) Meskawayh (q.v.), a contemporary observer, noted that the dispute between the two factions, which had formerly been on religious questions, turned political as well, as the Shiʿites sided with Daylamite troops, while the Sunnites supported the Turkish units. The conflict exacerbated the division of cities into Shiʿite and Sunni quarters, each under a shaikh associated with armed bands.
The new rites, in addition to the formation of a corpus of distinctive Shiʿite Hadith, and, based on that, of jurisprudence (feqh), served to define the Shiʿites as a distinct community or religious sect, with the Muslims of Iraq being divided into two increasingly hostile camps, distinguished by peculiar formulae and prescriptions. While the Shiʿites called themselves al-emāmiya, their rivals termed them al-rāfeża, for their rejection (rafż) of Abu Bakr, ʿOmar, and most of the Companions of the Prophet.
The 1055 takeover of Baghdad by the Sunnite Saljuqs and the Buyid demise marked the end of the Shiʿite century and the beginning of the Sunnite revival in the eastern Muslim world. Following the Saljuq conquest and the pillaging of his house and library, Shaikh Ṭusi (d. 1066/67) left Karḵ for Najaf, which emerged as the major Shiʿite center until the death of his grandson Moḥammad b. Ḥasan in 1145.
The powerful Saljuq vizier, Neẓām-al-Molk, was the principal opponent of the Shiʿites championing the building of Sunnite seminaries (madāres) in Baghdad. Only after his assassination in 1096 was the pressure on the Shiʿites lifted. The reassertion of caliphal power following his death, culminating in al-Nāṣer-le-Din-Allāh’s reign (1180-1225), improved the Shiʿites’ lot, as various ʿAlid families gained influence at the court.
The Buyid period saw the emergence of semi-independent emirates in Iraq. Most powerful was the bedouin Shiʿite Mazyadid dynasty of the Banu Asad tribe. The Buyids recognized them as amirs in 1012, but they came into their own only during Saljuq rule. Their rule ended with the death of Amir ʿAli in 1150. Another Shiʿite dynasty, the ʿOqaylids, ruled in Mosul from 990 until about 1096.
The Mazyadid capital Ḥella, established in 1102, became an important Shiʿite center of learning under Ebn Idris Ḥelli (d. 1202), who was the first to express views opposed to those of Shaikh Ṭusi. He in turn was followed by Moḥammad b. Jaʿfar Ḥelli (d. 1239 or 1248) and his son Jaʿfar b. Moḥammad (d. 1281). Subsequently, Iraq lost its primacy as the center of Shiʿite learning.
The rise of Safavid Iran in 1501 and the Ottoman conquest of Baghdad in 1534 transformed Iraq into a battle zone between the rival empires. The struggle for political supremacy was expressed in the terms of the Sunnite-Shiʿite strife, with the ʿAtabāt perceived as a prize by the Safavids. The two periods of Safavid rule over the ʿAtabāt (1508-34 and 1622-38) resulted in some construction work in the shrines, although the Safavids cultivated Isfahan and Mashad as major centers of learning and pilgrimage. Shiʿism in Iraq at the time was confined to the cities, where only a small minority of the population lived, and among a few tribes.
The 18th century marked a turning point in the history of the Shiʿites of Iraq. The fall of the Safavids and the crisis in Iran drove ulema to migrate from Iran and Bahrain to the ʿAtabāt. The failure of Nāder Shah (r. 1736-47) and Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751-79) to take over Iraq and the weakness of the Ottoman-Mamluk government in Baghdad provided the Shiʿite ulema there with sufficient latitude to build important centers of study without government interference. The growing number of pilgrims and improved supply of water provided the necessary financial and physical infrastructure for learning. Finally, the demise of Aḵbārism (see AḴBĀRIYA) and the reemergence of Oṣulism as the major legal doctrine prevailing among Twelver Shiʿites enabled their ulema to exercise a greater religious and communal role.
From the late 18th century to the mid-20th century the ʿAtabāt functioned as the leading centers of learning and religious leadership for the Twelver Shiʿite world, attracting also students from other Shiʿite communities abroad. Unlike Ottoman or Persian theological seminaries (madā-res) that relied mainly on charitable trusts (awqāf), the ʿAtabāt were sustained primarily by donations from pilgrims and believers, as well as by the massive burial industry. Hence they were oriented toward the communities of believers rather than towards the state.
The Ottoman-Safavid political rivalry, as well as Persia’s claims to be the rightful protector of Shiʿite interests in Iraq, aroused suspicions on the part of Istanbul towards the Shiʿites, particularly their ulema, as agents and potential allies of Iran. The Ottomans never granted the Shiʿites the status of an independent religious school (maḏhab) or community (millet), but regarded them as sinning Muslims. Concurrently, they sought to extract the maximal revenue from the growing Shiʿite pilgrimage to the ʿAtabāt. Hence, they never went too far in their anti-Shiʿite measures. Facing hostile Sunnite Ottoman rule, the Shiʿite ulema often had to resort to Iranian and British mediation and pressure vis-à-vis the Ottomans in order to offset discriminatory measures, and were therefore obliged to adopt a more quietist attitude toward the Qajars than their colleagues in Persia. Thanks to the growing Indian-Shiʿite population in the ʿAtabāt, the British were sympathetic to Shiʿite plight and sufficiently influential to gain concessions from the Ottomans.
Mamluk policies towards the Shiʿites were shaped by their military strength and the constraints of Ottoman-Iranian relations. Taking advantage of Mamluk weakness towards the end of the 18th century, the ʿAtabāt avoided paying taxes for several years. Likewise, Shiʿites in Karbalāʾ practiced the cursing and disavowal of the first three of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (sabb wa rafz). Subsequently, as the Mamluks feared Ottoman reprisals, Shiʿites in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra were at times denied free exercise of their religion religious practices.
The Wahhābi movement, which emerged in Najd during the second half of the 18th century, regarded the Shiʿite reverence for the Imams as polytheism. During the Ḡadir Ḵomm celebrations of 21 April 1801, the Wahhābis attacked Karbalāʾ, killing about 5,000 people. Similar raids on Najaf in 1806 encountered stiff Shiʿite resistance, which was led by the mojtahed (see EJTEHĀD) Jaʿfar Āl-e Kāšef al-Ḡeṭāʿ.
The Mamluks ruled Najaf by playing the local urban gangs—the Zukurt allied with the Āl-e Kāšef al-Geṭāʿ family and the Šomurt allied with the Mellāli clan—against each other. Karbalāʾ and Ḥella took advantage of the war between the governor Dāwud Pasha and Iran in 1825-26 to cease paying taxes. Dāwud subdued Ḥella but was forced to accept a compromise, mediated by the ulema, under which Karbalāʾ paid a lower tax, but retained its semi-independent status until 1843.
Thanks to the reverence they enjoyed in Iran, the mojtaheds of the ʿAtabāt played mediating roles between Iran and the Ottomans in the 1806, 1812, 1818, and 1821-22 conflicts. They then used their success to regain Ottoman tolerance for the holding for open taʿzia sessions in Najaf.
Relations between the Shiʿite ulema and their Sunnite counterparts were mostly antagonistic. Yet, as members of a minority which sought to attract believers from the majority, various Shiʿite ulema attended the classes of Sunnite jurists in Baghdad and even received ejāzāt (authorizations to teach) from them.
The massive tribal immigrations from the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century, ending with the 1795-1805 wave from the ʿAnaza and the Šammar confederations, produced the most profound religious and sociopolitical changes in the Shiʿite community. As Yitzhak Nakash (pp. 25-42) has demonstrated, the consolidation of Shiʿism as a majority religion in Iraq took place only following the conversion of the bulk of the tribes.
The opening in 1803 of the Hendiya canal, thanks to funds provided by the Shiʿite rulers of Awadh in India, which brought water to Najaf from the Euphrates, attracted tribal settlement there. Concurrently, the Hendiya drained the Šaṭṭ al-Ḥella waterway, thereby ruining the semi-sedentary tribal communities on its banks, who were forced to move toward the Hendiya. This development expanded after 1831, due to the Ottoman policy to settle the tribes and transform them into tax-paying cultivators. The settlement process diversified the tribal economy and sharply stratified tribal society. The weakening of tribal structure and solidarity created a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement. Oppressed by their shaikhs, who became their landlords, and by the increasing taxation of the Sunnite government, the tribesmen were receptive to Shiʿite messages from the ʿAtabāt that were attacking what was perceived by them as “government tyranny.” By adopting the religious customs or by participating in the religious life of the nearby towns, they acquired a new sense of identity and self-respect.
The ʿAtabāt had a particularly strong radiating power as centers of pilgrimage and trade and of energetic missionary activity by emissaries (moʾman) among the tribes. The conversion process was gradual, since it did not involve any formal act, but rather the adoption of Shiʿite practices. The missionaries encouraged the visitation of the shrines, the cult of Shiʿite saints, and the rituals of the commemoration of the slain Imam Ḥosayn. As Nakash has also demonstrated (pp. 142-54), they adjusted Shiʿite rituals to conform with Arab ideal attributes of manhood and tribal styles of celebration. Near Baghdad, Shiʿite activities were curtailed, and Sunnite influence was stronger. Therefore, tribes that settled near it or further north did not convert.
The Ottomans reasserted direct control over Baghdad in 1831, but the ʿAtabāt retained their de facto autonomy. When Karbalāʾ refused to accept an Ottoman garrison in 1843, the governor Najib Pasha subdued it, killing about 5,000 people and desecrating the shrines. Najaf had surrendered peacefully and thus escaped Ottoman reprisals.
From then onward, the ʿAtabāt were subjected to Ottoman centralization policies that were intended to maximize government revenues, impose military conscription, encourage Iranian subjects to adopt Ottoman nationality, and demonstrate the superiority of the Ottoman legal system over the Shiʿite courts. While the Ottomans did not extend financial support to the Shiʿite ulema, they respected the autonomy of the Shiʿite madrasa (see xi, below) and its financial support system.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman authorities in Baghdad struggled with the tribes over taxation and control of the countryside. While Shiʿite tribes occasionally rebelled, these conflicts did not differ from those which used to occur frequently in the past between the Ottomans and Sunnite Arab or Kurdish tribes. Rebellious tribal coalitions cut across sectarian lines, while the Shiʿite ulema remained neutral or played mediating roles.
The Constitutional Revolution (q.v.) in Iran and the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman empire politicized the ulema more than ever and elicited debates on constitutionalism and the political role of the clerics. Initially, most mojtaheds supported the constitutional effort, but gradually the majority, led by Sayyed Kāẓem Yazdi and supported by Arab tribesmen, turned against it. The minority, led by Āḵund Ḵorāsāni (q.v.), continued to support it.
Certain ecumenical Islamic tendencies appeared at the time, mainly because of the increase of the Western threat to the Ottoman empire and Iran and in response to Sultan ʿAbd-al-Ḥamid II’s (r. 1876-1909) pan-Islamic policies. Shiʿite mojtaheds issued fatwas supporting the Ottoman jihad against the 1911 Italian invasion of Libya, producing a wave of pro-Ottoman feeling. The mojtaheds also issued fatwas against the 1914 British invasion of Iraq following the outbreak of World War I. They called upon the tribes to join the Ottoman troops in defending dār al-eslām. Large numbers of Shiʿite tribesmen, accompanied by ulema, joined the fight, but after the Ottoman defeat at Šoʿayba in April 1915, most tribes left the war, and a few even switched sides. As sentiments increasingly turned against the Ottomans, the Šomurt and Zukurt gangs drove them out of Najaf in April 1915, dividing control in the town’s four quarters between themselves, with subsequent British consent. Karbalāʾ followed suit in April 1916.
Following the British occupation of Iraq, various Shiʿite leaders, mainly sayyeds and tribal shaikhs seemed amenable to the fact of British rule which replaced the Sunnite Ottoman regime. But the British policy of imposing tighter administrative control and growing opposition from the part of the ulema towards extended “infidel” rule over a Muslim land caused the estrangement of the Shiʿites from the British.
The 1919-20 period, amid a power vacuum between Ottoman rule and the solidification of its British successor, produced an alliance between the Shiʿite mojtaheds—most notably, Mahdi Ḵāleṣi, Moḥammad Ṣadr, and Moḥammad Taqi Širāzi—together with younger Shiʿite teachers from the modern school al-Madrasa al-Jacfariya in Baghdad, which was founded in 1909, with the Sunnite Hashimites led by King Fayṣal, who were then in Syria. They agreed on forming an Arab Islamic state ruled by an Arab amir, bound by a legislative assembly. Whereas the Hashimites considered this formula an opening for their rule, the mojtaheds hoped to oversee the legislative process in a way similar to the 1906 Iranian constitutional model. Conversely, Sayyed Kāẓem Yazdi opposed political activism, adopting a pro-British position, particularly when the British granted legal recognition to Shiʿite courts as equal to those of the Sunnites.
The May 1920 declaration of the British Mandate over Iraq brought Shiʿites and Sunnites together in calling for a revolt. A Shiʿite-dominated society, Ḥaras al-esteqlāl, was formed with branches in Kāẓemayn, Najaf, Ḥella, and Baghdad, calling for an independent Iraq under a Hashimite amir. Moḥammad Taqi Širāzi declared all service with the British illicit.
Concurrently, the introduction of the Tribal Civil and Criminal Disputes Regulation, which gave paramount tribal shaikhs the power to settle all disputes between their tribesmen and entrusted them with the collection of taxes, discriminated against middle and small shaikhs and sayyeds. Consequently, while the former refused to heed the mojtaheds’ calls for the revolt, most shaikhs with medium and small landed estates formed the backbone of the anti-British movement. The links between the spiritual centers of the ʿAtabāt and tribal leaders served to cast socio-economic considerations in an ideological mold which activated tribal values and evoked Islamic ideas.
The revolt was crushed by October 1920, costing the lives of about 6,000 Iraqis, most of whom were Shiʿites. Demonstrating short-term Sunnite-Shiʿite cooperation, it serves as the founding myth of Iraqi nationalism, yet its results proved disastrous to the Shiʿites. Fearing Shiʿite power and facing British superiority, the Hashimites and the Sunnite elites reached a compromise with the British, which secured their domination in Iraq under British tutelage. Attempts by the mojtaheds to thwart the 1922 British-Iraqi Treaty failed when the British deported Ḵāleṣi and Ṣadr and forced Moḥammad Ḥosayn Nāʾini and Sayyed Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahāni to a voluntary exile.
The formation of the Iraqi territorial state turned the Shiʿites into a numerical majority—about 56 percent according to the 1936 census with Sunnite Arabs constituting 22 percent and Kurds 15 percent—but also into a functional minority deprived of political and social power. Controlling the resources and coercive means of the modern state, King Fayṣal and the British set out to co-opt the Shiʿites while ensuring Sunnite hegemony. Fayṣal played the mid-ranking Arab mojtaheds against the Iranians and reconciled them by recognizing the Jaʿfari rite in civil status cases. The government co-opted the tribal shaikhs by enhancing their authority as landlords and by giving them tax immunities. The increase in their economic welfare and political weight weakened their sectarian identity, as they, together with their Sunnite counterparts, emerged as a landowning class. Concurrently, their influence among their tribesmen decreased. In addition, the army’s growing power was used to disarm the tribes.
During the 1920s, only one Shiʿite was usually appointed in each cabinet, on an average comprising 17.7 percent of the ministers. In the latter phase of the Iraqi monarchy, their share rose to 34.7 percent, but they were still excluded from real power. Out of the 58 cabinets in the period 1921-58, Shiʿites headed only five, and these too only during the twilight of the monarchy (1946-54). Since the Shiʿites did not undergo the same modernization processes as the Sunnite urban population, they lacked the manpower to compete for positions in the bureaucracy and military, while facing difficulties in penetrating the Sunnite networks of patronage. Consequently, though a majority, they held only 15 percent, of senior government positions during the 1930s and were totally absent from the high ranks of the military.
Shiʿite ulema were discriminated against, as they did not have charitable foundations (awqāf) to the extend of those of the Sunnites. Public ceremonies, in particular those of ʿĀšurāʾ, were held under tight police control in Kāẓemayn and Basra. In 1935, Prime Minister Yāsin Hāšemi tried to ban the Moḥarram ceremonies altogether, which resulted in the 1935 tribal insurrection. By the time of the end of the monarchy, in the late 1950s, the public Moḥarram observances lost much of their effectiveness as a political instrument. Concurrently, Iran under Reza Shah (r. 1925-41) sought to curtail pilgrimage to the ʿAtabāt and promoted Qom as a rival religious center. While the number of students in Qom increased throughout the century, Najaf’s student population plunged from some 8,000 early in the 20th century to less than 2,000 in 1957.
The struggle over defining Iraqi and Arab nationalism increased Sunnite-Shiʿite tensions. The Sunnites who adopted pan-Arabism as Iraq’s official ideology cast doubt on the Shiʿites’ ethnic origins and loyalty to Iraq. The latter, in turn, rioted against school curricula that glorified the Omayyads and implicitly insulted ʿAli and the Shiʿites. Most Shiʿites rejected a pan-Arabism that would have made them a small minority in a large Sunnite Arab state. Rather, they adopted over time an Iraqi identity, based on their ethnic identity, thus becoming perhaps the “ultimate” Iraqis, who only sought integration and fair share of resources, while the pull of Iran was presented by them as rather spiritual than separatist.
Socially, the Shiʿites experienced massive urbanization and expansion of education. At the beginning of the 20th century, they constituted about 25-33 percent of the Baghdad population, becoming 70 percent or about 2,000,000 by 2000. About 4,000,000, or 20 percent, lived in towns in the south. Still, they retained many of their customs, rituals, and tribal affiliations, which became mostly a form of identity and network for mutual help. In Baghdad they resorted to government education and courts rather than to Shiʿite institutions. Najaf and Karbalāʾ suffered economic setbacks, as they failed to develop alternative sources of income in place of the declining traditional sources of livelihood: pilgrimage, corpse traffic, and donations.
Politically, the Shiʿites never acted as a unified community. Under the monarchy, they did not establish or initiate Shiʿite parties or other political movements, such as al-Nahża, which operated intermittently in 1920 and had pro-Shiʿite proclivities. Likewise, no bazaar-mosque alliance emerged, as was the case in Iran, even though the Shiʿite merchants took an important role in the state trade economy, following the 1951 Jewish exodus. Apparently, the merchants hoped that working with the king, as well at efforts to achieve a higher degree of integration in state institutions, would serve them better.
These divisions within Iraqi society under the monarchy produced three modes of Shiʿite political activity: (1) demands for equitable distribution of political, economic and cultural resources, as manifested in the 1932 memorandum submitted by the short-lived Shiʿite Executive Committee of Iraq, and Miṯāq al-ṣāʾeb in March 1935; (2) the failed 1935-tribal revolt protesting the 1934 conscription law and the rigged elections that excluded Shiʿite tribal shaikhs, and the arrest of Shaikh Moḥammad Ḥosayn Āl-e Kāšef al-Getāʿ; (3) younger and radicalized Shiʿites joined the Communist Party or nationalist movements, hoping that they would overcome sectarian differences and solve the Shiʿite problem within the broader Arab or socialist context.
Shiʿites dominated the Communist party’s rank and file and organization. Their share in the upper levels grew from 21 percent to 47 percent in 1949-55. Presumably, Communism was seen by many to appeal more to the Shiʿite sense of discrimination and struggle against oppression. Although pan-Arabism was less attractive, a Shiʿite, Foʾād al-Rekābi, founded the Ba’th (Baʿṯ) party branch in Iraq in 1952, and Shiʿites dominated the party’s leadership until 1965, when the Sunnite Tikriti clique took over.
The 1958 revolution which toppled the monarchy resulted in two opposing repercussions for the Shiʿites. Himself a Shiʿite from his mother’s side, President ʿAbd-al-Karim Qāsem (in office 1958-63) eased discriminatory measures against them and sought to integrate them better in the military and bureaucracy. Qāsem’s partial land reform improved the lot of the Shiʿite peasants. Likewise, he renovated the great Shiʿite slum in Baghdad by building Madinat al-ṯawra, the “City of the Revolution,” thereby attracting larger numbers of rural migrants. On the other hand, the spread of secularization, Qāsem’s close ties with the communists, and the new personal status law that gave greater equality to women alarmed the mojtaheds as threatening the foundations of Islam. The ulema in Najaf were divided between traditionalists, who advocated aloofness from politics, and activists preaching political involvement. The latter organized the Ḥezb al-daʿwa al-eslamiya in 1959, backed by Moḥ-sen Ḥakim, the leading mojtahed of Najaf. Moḥammad Bāqer Ṣadr became head of al-Daʿwa in the early 1960s and later its “supreme jurisprudent” (faqih al-ḥezb). The Daʿwa called for an Islamic state ruled by the clergy already in the mid-1960s, while rejecting political claims based on Arabism, which it associated with the Ba’th regime. It professed allegiance to an Iraqi identity, which it viewed as essentially Islamic.
The seizure of power by the Ba’th party on 14 July 1968 exacerbated Sunnite-Shiʿite tensions. Although espousing secular Arab nationalist and socialist ideology, the Ba’th became one more vehicle for Sunnite-Arab domination over Arab Shiʿites and Kurds. Between 1968 and 1977, Shiʿites were systematically removed or kept away from all senior positions in the party and government and from the burgeoning oil wealth. Only after 1977, under the influence of Saddam Hussein (Ṣaddām Ḥosayn), were Shiʿites integrated in leadership positions more as co-optation than as actual empowerment.
However, three major reasons led subsequently to the aggravation of Shiʿite-Ba’thist relations: (1) The secularist Ba’thist ideology and policy; (2) the continuous exclusion of Shiʿites from the upper party and government echelons; and (3) the totalitarian nature of Ba’th system. The first crisis between the Shiʿites and the Ba’th erupted in June-July 1969 when Ayatollah Ḥakim refused the government’s demand to issue fatwas denouncing the shah’s new policy concerning the Iran-Iraq border at the Šaṭṭ al-ʿArab. Consequently, the Ba’th regime began persecuting Shiʿite ulema through arrests, deportations, and executions. It shut down Shiʿite institutions and enforced strict censorship on religious publications. It restricted religious activities that involved mass gatherings, for example, the ʿĀšurāʾ mourning ceremonies, thereby eliciting anti-government riots in 1977 in the provinces of Najaf and Karbalāʾ and the Ṯawra township in Baghdad. It also confiscated lands from tribal shaikhs leading to few tribal insurrections in southern Iraq. In the early 1970s, some 60,000 Shiʿites “of Iranian extraction” were expelled to Iran. Concurrently, the regime co-opted pliant ulema, renovated the shrines in the ʿAtabāt, and commemorated Shiʿite holidays but infused them with government messages. Moreover, it launched development projects in Shiʿite areas and promoted an Iraqi identity, which was preferred by most Shiʿites.
The 1978-79 Iranian revolution radicalized the Daʿwa, as well as Monaẓẓamat al-ʿamal al-eslāmi (founded in 1975) and Mojāhedun (founded in 1979), driving them towards armed struggle in an effort to topple the Ba’th and to establish an Islamic government in Iraq. While the three movements supported Ayatollah Khomeini, they saw themselves as Iraqi and did not seek merger with Iran. Hence, they stressed the Islamic, not necessarily the Shiʿite, component of their ideology, as they feared a sectarian image. The regime responded with severe repression, arresting and executing hundreds of ulema and other activists, most notably Ṣadr himself, and members of the Ḥakim family. The number of students in Najaf dwindled to a few hundreds.
The Iran-Iraq War (see vii, above; 1980-88) increased Shiʿite suffering, as about 80 percent of Iraq’s estimated 500,000 casualties were Shiʿites. Still, most Shiʿites identified themselves and fought as Iraqis, although they opposed Saddam Hussein, presumably because they were Arabs, and they were unenthusiastic toward Iran’s system of politicized Islam. Conversely, Shiʿite soldiers tended to surrender more than Sunnites, and most Shiʿite families did not regard fallen Iraqi soldiers as martyrs (šohadā) killed in a war seen as holy, but rather as its victims. In November 1982 Ayatollah Moḥammad Mahdi Ḥakim formed in Iran al-Majles al-aʿlā le’l-ṯawra al-eslāmiya fi’l-ʿErāq (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) as the umbrella organization for all Islamic opposition movements. Some 10,000 Shiʿite prisoners of war joined its military wing, the Badr Brigade.
Shiʿites finally rose in revolt in March 1991, following Iraq’s invasion of its neighbor Kuwait and its defeat in the subsequent war against a coalition led by the United States, which brought the Ba’th regime to the verge of collapse. The rebels comprised disaffected soldiers retreating from Kuwait, outraged citizenry, some ulema, and members of the Badr Brigade who infiltrated the country from Iran. Although the insurrection enjoyed broad support, many Shiʿites sided with the regime and took part in repressing it. For about two weeks, the rebels controlled southern Iraq, but, lacking organization, leadership, and resources, the Sunnite-dominated Republican Guards suppressed it brutally and effectively. Not only did the United States and Saudi Arabia ignore Shiʿites pleas for help, but Iran too refrained from giving any kind of active support, since it feared the renewal of the war with Iraq. This lack of support was perceived by large sections of the Iraqi Shiʿites as betrayal.
Reasserting its control during the 1990s, the Iraqi regime combined co-optation and harsh oppressive measure. It executed thousands of its own citizens and began draining the marshlands, forcing tens of thousands of the Shiʿite Marsh Arabs to flee to neighboring Iran. Iraqi Shiʿites also suffered disproportionately from the impact of the UN sanctions on their country, as the Ba’th regime channeled most of its resources to the Sunnite areas.
In Baghdad, Ayatollah Moḥammad Ṣādeq Ṣadr worked to reorganize the Shiʿites as a semi-autonomous community, re-establishing Shiʿite courts and re-instituting public Friday prayers despite government bans. He also worked with tribal leaders to find ways to address the issue of tribal customs and law within Shiʿite feqh. He was executed by the regime on 18 February 1999.
The toppling of the Ba’th regime, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, provided the Shiʿites with the first opportunity in modern history to use their majority to become the dominant political players in Iraq and address some of their socio-economic grievances.
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Originally Published: December 15, 2006
Last Updated: March 30, 2012
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Vol. XIII, Fasc. 6, pp. 581-588