Shiism is a minority branch of Islam which makes up about one tenth of the total population of the muslim world. It dates back to the first decades of the Islamic era when the shiites formed the party (shi’a) of Ali, the fourth Caliph who directly descended from the Prophet, against Mu’awiya, governor of Damascus who claimed the caliphate but had no kinship with Muhammad.

The first Shiites (or Shias) were Arabs who split from the Sunni mainstream in the seventh century AD. They form an important part of the population in a number of Arab countries: Iraq (+ 50 %, Twelvers), Bahrain (+ 50 %, Twelvers), Lebanon (about 25%, Twelvers), Oman (60%, Kharidjis) and Yemen (about 55 %, Zaydis).

Main shiite sects:

The « Twelvers » (from the Arabic, « Ithna », twelve) are by far the largest group of Shi’a Islam. Within the Arab world they form about half the population of Iraq and there are Twelver minorities in Lebanon, Bahrain and in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. The Twelvers believe that the line of Ali became extinct with al-Askari, the Twelfth Imam (guide of the community of believers), who mysteriously disappeared in 873. They however refuse to accept that al-Askari died and believe he will appear shortly before the end of the world.

The Ismailites or Seveners are the second largest shiite sect, spread thinly throughout the muslim world. In the Arab world they are mainly present in Egypt and Syria. Their spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. The Ismailites only recognize the seven first Imams.

A split within the Ismailite sect gave birth to the Alawi sect which integrated a number of doctrines from other religions in particular from Christianity. More than one million Syrians are Alawi.

The Druze (Syria, Lebanon, Israel) are a still more heterodox branch of Ismailite shiism and are so different in their doctrines that they are not considered by some as Shias and sometimes even not as Muslims.

The Zaydites – named after Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Ali – are the closest to the Sunnis with regard to Islamic law. Contrary to the Sunnis they reject any attempt to establish dynasties of rulers; they believe that the Imam should be chosen amongst the descendents of Ali and can be deposed if he does not prove up to the task. The Zaydites live mainly in Yemen.

The Kharidjites – sometimes called Ibadites – consider that Ali made a mistake in looking for a compromise with Mu’awiya. They believe that the Imam should be elected for his moral qualities. For this reason they are not considered as properly Shiite by some authors. Oman has a Kharidjite majority and there are important Kharidjite minorities in Tunisia (in Djerba, about 50.000) and in Algeria (in the Mzab, more than 100.000).