Shiites live in Iran and nearby countries. Most Muslims who live in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman and Azerbaijan are Shiites. Hezbollah is Shiite.
Shiites are led by religious scholars, known as mullahs in Iran and sheiks in the Arab world. The highest of these are called ayatollahs. They receive the taxes that believers pay (one fifth of profits).
Their holiest city, after Mecca and Jerusalem, is Najaf in Iraq. The golden mosque of Ali, the first imam, is there. Najaf and Qom in Iran have the top religious schools.
Iran was not always the centre of the Shia world. It was once Egypt, which is now mainly Sunni. Iran did not become Shia till about 500 years ago.
Like Sunnis, Shiites follow Muhammad and his book, the Koran.
Unlike Sunnis they also follow the imams who came after Muhammad. Imam can mean the one who leads prayers in the mosque, but in this sense it means those who lead and guide the whole Muslim world. The Shiites say an imam must be a direct blood relation of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, the first imam. Their teachings are without error.
Because even Ali’s part of the family tree has many branches, Shiites are split three ways – Ismailis, Zaydis and Twelvers – about which is the true branch and how many imams they accept.
Nine Shiites in ten are Twelvers. They are called Twelvers because they accept twelve imams. They stop at twelve because the twelfth one, al-Mahdi, the Hidden Imam is still alive. God has kept him alive and hidden among us for over a thousand years. Before the world ends, al-Mahdi will come out of hiding at the right moment and bring Islam and justice to the whole world, as Muhammad had promised long ago.
Only one imam has ever ruled the Muslim world: the first one, Ali. Ali was murdered and Muhammad’s enemies took over. Hussein, Ali’s son, Muhammad’s grandson and the third imam, tried to set things right. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Karbala in 680. Shiites still remember this terrible day and mark it each year on a day called Ashoura: it is the day the world went wrong, when the forces of darkness took over.
The religious divide between Shiites and Sunnis is not deep. In the mixed cities of Baghdad and Beirut they even get married. The Wahhabis along with other extreme Sunnis play up the differences to create trouble for their own ends. They are the ones who have been bombing the mosques of the imams to pitch Iraq into a civil war.
The Alawis and Druze of Lebanon and Syria are not Shiites, but have Ismaili Shia roots. The Alawis believe that Ali was God on earth, which means they are not even Muslims.