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Where Shia Islam begins and ends

Where Shia Islam begins and ends

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Shiite Islam emerged in the 7th century following conflicts that arose partly over who had the right to carry on the Caliphate. Two schools of thought emerged and the Sunni-Shia divide was established, irrevocably changing the world of Islam in ways that would have unprecedented – and often devastating – effects.

In Muslim nations throughout the world, the month of Muharram is a period of abject mourning. But Shiites worldwide express their lament in different ways, and Shia Islam in its entirety has followed different trajectories everywhere.

The role and prominence of Shia Muslims in the subcontinent, and later in Pakistan, has been analysed primarily through a political lens.

Most historical overviews trace Shia Muslim leadership to Sir Aga Khan III who had the privilege of becoming the Muslim League’s first ever president. Shias played a pivotal role in transforming and strengthening the League. It was a Shia Muslim, Raja Sahib, who brought Muhammad Ali Jinnah on board in 1913. Later, Raja Sahib and Aga Khan – and later on the former’s son – became the financial backbone of the Muslim League.

Shia Islam in Punjab particularly gained more traction from a religious perspective after 1915, when the first seminaries were constructed. However, politics continued to dominate the narrative surrounding Shia Islam after partition. Even now, Shi’ism in Pakistan tends to be explored in relation to Irani politics and bloody sectarianism. But how did this religious sect proliferate elsewhere – in mainstream social spaces, for instance?

Modern-day Shi’ism in Pakistan has evolved differently than its politically driven predecessor. Young Muslims are taking charge of their religiosity and deciding where their own Shi’ism begins and ends.

Young Shia Muslims today all behave differently when attempting to identify with a culture and a political landscape that is often harsh, abrasive, and unforgiving towards Shias. Their Shi’ism at home and the Shi’ism that is often shown to be marginalised and persecuted can be two very different things. One struggle is deeply personal and hushed, while the other communal and starkly public.

Even amongst the followers of Shia Islam, clear demarcations are present. There is no one widely accepted way to practice Shi’ism, and no one way to be Shia.