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A Brief Look at Different Branches of Shia Islam

Islam is a civilization as well as a major world religion, with some 1.3 billion Muslims scattered across almost every region of the globe, especially in the Middle East (the birthplace of Islam), Asia and Africa. Currently, around 15 per cent of the Muslim population of the world belong to various communities or different branches of Shia Islam, with the Ithna Asheris (or Twelvers) accounting for the largest numbers.


Twelver Shiism has remained the official religion of Iran (Persia) since the beginning of the 16th century. The bulk, more than 95 per cent, of Iran’s current population of 78 million adhere to the Twelver branch of Shia Islam, and there are almost as many Twelvers in South Asia, across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The Twelver Shiism also form majority communities in Iraq and Bahrain. Twelver communities of various sizes may be found in every other country of the Middle East, notably in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics.


The Ismailis of various branches, numbering at least 10 million according to official estimates, account for the second largest Shia community in the world. Dispersed as religious minorities in more than thirty countries of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America, at the present time the majority of the Ismaili Shia  population of the world, belonging to the Nizari branch and acknowledging the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader, are concentrated in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Syria. In South Asia, the Nizari Ismailis have been designated as Khojas, while the Tayyibis, representing the other dominant branch of Ismaili Shiism, are known as Bohras there. Another important Tayyibi Ismaili community is located in Yaman, with adherents also living in Saudi Arabia. These sects form one of the largest branches of Shia Islam.


The Zaydis represent another significant Shia branch of Islam. In medieval times, important Zaydi communities existed in Persia, but in modern times the Zaydi Shias  are concentrated almost exclusively in Yamen, where they account for around 20–40 per cent of the country’s total population of about 24 million. In addition, perhaps another one million Zaydis live within the present boundaries of Saudi Arabia.


There are also the Alawi Shias, known more generally in earlier times as Nusayris. The Alawis are concentrated in the north-western province of Latakia in Syria, where they account for around 10 per cent of the country’s total population of 22 million. Alawi Shias, which make up another Shia branch of Islam, are also to be found in northern Lebanon and in southern Turkey.

To arrive at the total Shia Muslim population of the world, one also needs to take account of those communities and lesser groupings who do not always openly acknowledge their particular Shia or Shia- related identity, such as the Bektashis of Turkey. Furthermore, there are those communities, like the Druzes of the Middle East, who split from the Ismailis and are no longer affiliated to any of the Shia communities, nor do they regard themselves theologically as specifically Shia Muslims.

The major Shia communities which are going to be discussed in different posts of our weblog are notably the Ithna asheris, Ismailis, Zaydis and Alawis.

Taken from: A History of Shiʿi Islam

By: Farhad Daftary



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