When the word Shiites (styled “Shia”) is mentioned, involuntarily the name Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, his unending detention without trial by Buhari and the Zaria Massacre come to mind, for many. But you might have wondered, what do the Shia want? What do they believe in? Why are they so maligned? We have researched on these thoughts and here are the five frequently asked questions on the Shia and the answers.
1. What is their origin?
The Shiites derive their root from the battle for succession that broke out after the death of the Prophet Muhammed. At the death of the founder of Islam, the majority of the elders of Medina appointed Abu Bakr as the caliphate. Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law having the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah the contested this decision and refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr. Their decision is based on three facts. a) Ali was Muhammed’s kin whereas Abu Bakr wasn’t even from the same clan as the Prophet. b) Ali was married to the Prophet’s daughter and therefore the progenitor of the Prophet’s descendants. c) Ali was one of the earliest converts to Islam and a close apostle of Muhammed.
Ali would become Caliph after Abu Bakr and the death of his two successors. But the enmity has been sown and many Muslims refused to recognize him, this ultimately led to a civil war. It is out of this battle that the Shia and the Sunni came to be. Their origin was political.
2. What are their central tenets?
While their foundation was largely political, today, the Shiites have spiritual and theological differences with the Sunnis. This difference can be seen in the prayers. Muslims pray five times a day but Shias have the choice of making a series of combination to pray three times a day, something that is extremely rare among other adherents of Islam.
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While all Muslims believe in the Quran, Sunni and other Muslims consider the Sunnah very important guide to their faith. On their part, Shias pay a great deal of respect to the words of their imams whom they ascribe special relationship with God. This is evident in their Shahada (profession of faith), while Muslims recite: “There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The Shiites recite, “There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; Ali is the Wali (custodian) of Allah.”
Majority of Shias believe in occultation in which a messianic figure, a powerful imam known as Mahdi would one day emerge and rule the world with Islamic Justice and constitute Islamic State on earth.
There are many other small dissimilarities between Shias and Shiites, but the main difference is that, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, 40% of Sunnis do not consider Shiites as fellow Muslims. This disparity is made more obvious by the rivalry of the two top Muslim countries Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite).
The Izallas, a sub-group of the Sunnis in Nigeria have special scorn for Shiites.
3. When did they come to Nigeria?
It didn’t come to Nigeria. A certain student Al-Zakzaky left the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and came back with the movement. Prior to this time, Shias are hardly heard of in Nigeria. Al-Zakzaky successfully converted millions of Muslims to his sect, appealing to the deprived poor of Northen Nigeria. Today, the figure of Shias while unknown is put at one out of every ten Muslims. It is even harder to calculate their number because of their umbrella body the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) which draws both Sunni and Shia membership (every Shia is a member of IMN but not every IMN member is a Shiite).
4. Why do Shias seem to be so hated by other Nigerian Muslims?
They are not hated by other Muslims, at least the average Muslim has no qualms against the Shias. So what is the issue? There are radical Shia preachers; there are radical Sunni preachers. Most of the time, these preachers preach vehemently against the other sect. When, therefore, any harm befall one of these preachers, they blame the other sect as it happened in 2007 when Imam Umaru Danmaisahiyya was assassinated in Sokoto and both the state government and mobs blamed the Shias, resulting to a mass arrest of Shia members and the destruction of dozens of Shia homes.
Since the Sunnis are in the majority and hold political power, they can easily intimidate Shiites or rally their followers against them. Mostly, when Shias clash with the authorities, they hold Sunnis accountable. When the Zaria Massacre of Shias happened in 2015, the governor of Kaduna State El-Rufai, the Chief of Army Staff Tanko Buratai and the Commander in chief Muhammed Buhari had one thing in common, they are all Sunnis. This fits the narrative that Shias are being persecuted by fellow Muslims.
There is a sub-group of Sunnis known as the Derikas who are particularly accommodating to Shias.
5. What do Shiites in Nigeria want?
They want to worship God in the way they best understand it. They want a little extra. They want some relevance, especially politically. The foundation of Shi’ism in Nigeria is political, inspired by the Iranian Revolution and mentored by the Iranian government whose propagation of Shiism is nearly matched by their disdain for Sunnis. It is, therefore, only practical that the Shias nurture political aspirations.
The Shias in Nigeria are covered by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). This group is complicated in that it has both Shia and Sunni membership and sympathy. This movement is a religio-political pressure group. They carry out procession yearly in which they, among many things, show support to the Palestinians, pushing for their liberation from Israel.
The tone, body language and message of Zakzaky have mostly been anti-establishment, if not anti-government, which, has indeed, been construed as anti-government by successive governments be they military and civilian since the 1980s. In 2001, the Sheikh told the BBC that, “If we want a million people out on the streets on any issue, we can do that.”
While it is unsubstantiated and, perhaps, far-fetched, that the Shias want to political control of Nigeria, they have been so accused and their link with Iran makes such allegation not easy to dismiss. At the very least, the Shias want some influence in the political direction of Nigeria.
Note: Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, we are constantly reviewing and rewriting the article.