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Shia Islam is often viewed as a deviant or heretical form of orthodox Islam. However, Shia Islam is the result of schism and, as scholars correctly observe, the elements for a Shia interpretation of Islam are present in the Quran as well as in the hadith. The catalyst for Shia's development was the political turmoil over a temporal successor to Muhammad and the ensuing murders of Ali and his sons. Shia maintain, however, that SunniShia polemics are not as much about who should have succeeded the Prophet as about the function of the office of the successor and the qualifications of the man to hold it.

Shia Islam's distinctive institution is the Imamate, which holds that the successor of the Prophet is more than a political leader. He must have walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and sharia; only those who are free from error and sin (masum) and have been chosen by God (nass) through the Prophet possess walayat.

The five Shia principles of religion (usual ad din) are: belief in divide unity (tawhid); prophecy (nubuwwah); resurrection (maad); divine justice (adl); and the belief in the Imams (see Glossary) as successors of the Prophet (imamah). The latter principle is not accepted by Sunnis.

Implied in the Shia principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals, principle very similar to the notion of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

The Imamate began with Ali, because it is his descendants who are the Imams. To justify their beliefs, Shias emphasize the close lifetime association of the Prophet and Ali. When Ali was six years old, the Prophet invited Ali to live with him, and he is considered by Shias to be the first to make the declaration of faith to Islam. He also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra, when it was assumed that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. Ali fought in all except one battle with the Prophet, and the Prophet chose Ali as the husband of his only child. Also regarded as especially significant is a hadith that records the Prophet as saying: "God placed the children of all the prophets in their backbone but placed my children in the backbone of Ali."

Most Shia religious practices are comparable to those of Sunni Islam. There are, however, two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practices: mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyah, or religious dissimulation. Mutah, that is, marriage with a fixed termination contract subject to renewal, was practiced by Muslims as early as the formation of the first Muslim community at Medina. Banned by the second caliph, it has since been unacceptable to Sunnis, but Shias insist that if it were against Islamic law it would not have been practiced in early Islam. Mutah differs from permanent marriage because it does not require divorce proceedings for termination because the contractual parties have agreed on its span, which can be as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. By making the mutah, a couple places the sexual act within the context of sharia; the act then is not considered adulterous and offspring are considered legitimate heirs of the man.

Taqiyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shia Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shia imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyah has been continually reinforced.

Shia play only a minor role in Syrian politics. They are among the least educated religious groups, and their members are more resistant to change. In religious affairs, they look to Shia centers in Iraq, especially Karbala and An Najaf, and to Iran. However, Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Syria's alliance with Iran in its war with Iraq, have elevated the prestige of Syria's Shia minority. As hundreds of Iranian tourists began to visit Damascus each week, the Shia shrine of the tomb of Sitt az Zaynab, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, located in Al Ghutah outside Damascus, became a major pilgrimage destination, replacing those areas no longer accessible in Iraq. However, the government of Syria has viewed with caution the resurgence of Shia Islamic fervor in Syria and has taken steps to dampen it.

Data as of April 1987

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