Who Are the Shi'a?

The Ashura festival at a Shia Mosque in Karbala, Iraq. Photo from 2007.
Shiites Celebrate the Ashura festival in Karbala, Iraq, 2007. Wathiq Kuzaie / Getty Images


A Shi'a or Shi'ite is a member of the smaller of the two primary branches of orthodox Islam, the other being the Sunni. Approximately 20 to 30% of Muslims are Shi'a today. The three primary sects of Shi'ism are the Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaidis.

Islam split into Sunnis and Shi'as during the first Islamic civil war, 656-661. The Shi'a believe that Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, was the rightful successor to Muhammad.

Sunni Muslims recognize Abu Bakr as the true first caliph, after his election by a 632 CE council of leaders in Medina.Ali became the fourth caliph in 657 CE, but was assassinated in 661 while he was praying.

The word Shi'a comes from the Arabic sh'a, meaning "a following or sect," from the larger phrase shi'atu Ali, meaning "followers of Ali." Today, Shi'a are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. They also represent a significant minority in Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.


Pronunciation: "SHEE-ah"

Alternate Spellings: Shia, Shiah, Shiite


"The Shi'a are the most populous Muslim sect in Iran."

Glossary Entries: A - E | F - J | K - O | P - S | T - Z