Islam is a religion that was formed by the prophet Muhammad. Following his death in 632 CE, Islam broke off into two distinct groups: Sunni and Shia. These groups disagreed over who the successor to Muhammad should be. While Sunni muslims chose Abu Bakr as the successor of Mohammad, Shia designated Ali Abi Talib.
Years of conflict has occurred between Sunni and Shia Muslim groups. Perhaps the most noticeable of these conflicts was the killing of the Imam Husayn, which occurred in 680 CE. October 10 is still considered a day of mourning for Shia Muslims. However, despite these differences, today both Sunni and Shia agree on Allah as the one true God and Muhammad as his messenger. They also uphold the five pillars of Islam and believe in the Koran, Islam’s holy book. Currently, there are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world with Shia Muslims accounting for almost 20%. While most global Muslims are Sunni, a handful of countries have Shia majorities or pluralities. These countries are outlined below.
Iran - 90-95%
In Iran, Shia Muslims make up the majority, with 92.2% of all Muslim population in the country belonging to this sect. Initially, Iran was a Sunni majority until 1500 when Shah Ismail I conquered Iran and forced a conversion of Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam with several Sunnis murdered in the process. The conversion and murdering of Sunni Muslims continued for two centuries during which the number of Shia Muslims increased immensely. Currently, only about 5% of Muslims in Iran are Sunni. Other religious groups in the country are Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Atheism is not allowed in Iran, and most must declare themselves as a member of one of the four religions in the country. The constitution of Iran recognizes Shia as the official religion in the country.
Azerbaijan - 65-75%
Azerbaijan and Iran were both conquered by Shah Ismail I around the same time where he also forced a conversion of Sunnis to Shia Islam. Azerbaijan has the second highest Shia Muslim population in the world accounting for 83.6% of the total population while the sect accounts for 85% of the Muslim population in the country. Sunni accounts for only 15% of the country’s total population. Most of the Shia population in Azerbaijan follows the orthodox Ithna Ashari and orthodox Hanafi school of Shia Islam. Religious extremism is on the rise among the Shia Muslims in Azerbaijan due to the persistent poverty, corruption, and disillusionment on the support from the West. Some of the sect members have joined terrorist groups in Syria.
Iraq - 65-70%
63.7% of the Iraq’s national population is made up of Shia Muslims. The sect accounts for 63% of all Muslims in Iraq. The country is home to some of the Shia common pilgrimage sites and holy cities including Najaf, the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s successor and Karbala, the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad’s grandson. Shia continues to fight Sunni Muslims in the country as a result of US inversion of Iraq in 2003. The tension between the sects has led to 2.7 million people being displaced from their homes.
Other Countries With Shia Majority
Bahrain and Lebanon also have a notable number of Shia Muslims forming a majority of their population. 65-70% of Bahrain's population identify with Shia Islam. In Lebanon, 45-55% of the national population is Shia.
Shia (Shi'a) Muslim Countries
|Rank||Country||Percentage of Muslim Population That is Shia (%)|
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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