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  Shi\'a, from which the word Shi\'ism derives, means ‘party’, that is the party of \'Ali, a cousin, son-in-law and close companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad\'s unexpected death led to uncertainty as to who should be his caliph or ‘deputy’. Shi\'ites believe that it should have been \'Ali, followed by \'Ali\'s descendants. However, three others preceded \'Ali, and after his death, his son Hussain died in a massacre at Karbala. This martyrdom is important to all Muslims, but at the time it precipitated an unbridgeable gulf between Shi\'ites and Sunnis. A distinctive feature of Shi\'ism today is the festival of \'Ashura in commemoration of the martyrdom. In Iran and southern Iraq in particular, plays are enacted depicting the events, and processions take place in which men whip and cut themselves in a heightened atmosphere of identification with the martyr.

Shi\'ites also differ from Sunni Muslims (the majority) in believing that Muhammad instituted a succession of inspired leaders, Imams. Iranian Shi\'ites are ‘Twelvers’, accepting a particular succession of 12 Imams, the last of whom disappeared and is known as the Hidden Imam. He is expected to return prior to the Day of Judgement as a messianic figure. (Ayatollah Khomeini was often called Imam Khomeini, but only as a sign of the reverence in which he was held, not because he claimed to be the Hidden Imam.) ‘Ayatollah’ is an honorific title in Twelver Shi\'ism, which again differs from Sunnism in having a structured hierarchy of ulama (or mullahs), with a Grand Ayatollah at the apex of the pyramid. He has usually resided in southern Iraq, where the towns of Karbala (with the tomb of Hussain) and Najah (with the tomb of \'Ali) are the holiest centres of Imamism.

The other main group of Shi\'ites are the Seveners, who accept a particular succession of seven Imams. They have further subdivided into several groups, one of which is led by the Aga Khan. There is also a group of Fivers known as Zaidis, and a number of other sects such as the Alevites and \'Alawis, Babis, Yazidis and Druzes, but these have moved outside Islam proper. Shi\'ism, in its varying forms, represents about 10% of the Muslim world population. JS



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