Main content

Shi'ism: Waiting for the Hidden Imam

Shi'ism: Waiting for the Hidden Imam

Adherents of Shi'ism comprise less than ten percent of the more than one billion Muslims in the world today, but ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, with its indelible images of blindfolded hostages seized at the American Embassy in Tehran, Shi'ism has been perceived by most Westerners as a religious sect characterized by violence and fanaticism. The American ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq, which have led to a resurgence of Shia political activity after decades of oppression by Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, has provided Shi'ism with newfound political influence as well as an opportunity to improve its image.

SHI'ISM illuminates the historical roots of this branch of Islam, from its origins in a 7th-century dispute over the successor to the Prophet Mohammad and a political and theological war between Sunni and Shi'ite followers, through the sect's mythology of martyrdom established by the massacre in 662 at Karbala, followed by centuries of persecution and discrimination of Shi'ism as a minority faith, and outlines its basic tenets, including belief in the 'hidden' Imam, who will appear on the Last Day as the Mahdi.

Filmed in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, SHI'ISM blends both contemporary and historical footage and graphics with interviews with Muslim scholars, philosophers, writers, politicians and religious leaders, including Iran's Ayatollah Mussa Zein al-Abidin, Lebanon's Sheikh Mohammad Hassan al-Amin, and Islamic Encyclopedia Director Mohammad Kadhim Bujnurdi, among many others. The film also visits Shia holy sites, including the Tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, and the Mausoleum of Imam Abdul Azim and the Tomb of Bibi Shahrbanoo in southern Tehran.

SHI'ISM explores a wide range of historical and contemporary issues, from the basis of the original schism between Shia and Sunni followers, contemporary differences in legal and religious matters, the cultivation of martyrdom as the foundation of Shi'ite doctrine, the relative strength of Shi'ism in countries throughout the Middle East, the suicide bombings of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a political analysis of the Iranian Revolution's establishment of an Islamic Republic in which the clergy assumed political power, as contrasted with the belief of Iraq's Shia leader, Ayatollah Sistani, in a separation between religion and the state.

SHI'ISM offers valuable insights into the complex and largely unknown history, at least for Western viewers, of this small branch of one of the world's largest faiths, which recent events have transformed into one of the most politically influential and controversial religious movements.