Persecution of Shia Muslims

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Aftermath of the 2006 al-Askari Mosque Bombing in Samarrah, Iraq

Persecution of Shia Muslims has generally rooted out of the formation of the Shi'a and Sunni denominations of Islam. The elementary difference that traces its self back to the dispute over the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad has resulted in the Shi'as generally being alienated by the dominant Sunni sect. Throughout history, the Shi'a have faced persecution by many different political and religious authorities. Under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, who were at the forefront of carrying out such atrocities, many Shi'a would be imprisoned, persecuted and killed simply on account of being Shi'a. The persecution carried out, predominantly by the adherents of the Sunni denomination, has often been characterized by brutal and genocidal acts. Persecution under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs also gave rise to the heavily practiced concept of Taqiyyah. Presently, the Shi'as continue to remain a marginalized community in many Sunni Arab dominant countries without the freedom to practice their religion and have been subjected to labels of heretics by some scholars belonging to other sects.

In recent years, Shi'as continue to face target killings, imprisonment, lack of rights and other forms of systematic persecution in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.


Persecution in History

Persecution Under Umayyad Rule

Though the family of the Prophet (pbuh) and the followers of Ali had been undermined even during the Rashidun caliphate, it wasn’t until the rise of the Umayyad caliphate when persecution against the Shi’a started to become more apparent and brutal. Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the first of the Umayyad caliphs, managed to lay a strong foundation for the extreme hatred towards Ali and those who were sympathetic towards him. While a formal battle also took place between Ali and Muawiyah, many other companions were hunted down and killed under the orders of Muawiyah. During the rule of Yazid ibn Muawiyah, the Battle of Karbala took place in which Husain ibn Ali and many of his family and friends were brutally massacred while thirsty. Soon after the incident at Karbala, Yazid launched the siege of Harrah, during which his army attacked Makkah and Medina. Many Shi’a were killed during the siege and many women were raped, which resulted in the births of thousands of children.

During the rule of Abdul Malik ibn Marwan, his governor Hajjaj ibn Yusuf was notorious for his hatred towards the Shi’a. During his governorship of eleven years under Abdul Malik and 9 years under Waleed ibn Abdul Malik, Hajjaj killed more than 120,000 Shi’as in Kufa and Basra alone. When Hajjaj died, 30,000 men and 20,000 women who had been imprisoned by him were released.[1]

The Ummayad caliphs were also responsible for the martyrdom for 4 Shi’a Imams, namely Hasan ibn Ali, Husain ibn Ali, Ali ibn Husain and Muhammad ibn Ali.

Persecution Under Abbasid Rule

After the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, the persecution against the Shi’as did not end. Though many Shi’as had originally assisted the Abbasids in their revolt against the Umayyad, it did not put an end to the atrocities against them. It was during the era of the Abbasids when the label Rafidha (Rejecters) originated.[2] During and after the caliphate of Jafar al-Mansur, individuals were killed on grounds of being Shi’a or on mere suspicion that they sympathized with the Ahl ul-Bayt. Al-Mansur himself killed countless Shi’as during his reign and invented new and brutal methods of torture and death. Likewise, many of the subsequent Abbasid caliphs such as Musa al-Hadi, Haroon al-Rashid and Al-Mutawakkil continued to persecute Shi’as through various means. On the order of different Abbasid caliphs six Shi'a Imams were martyred, namely Ja'far ibn Muhammad, Musa ibn Ja'far, Ali ibn Musa, Muhammad ibn Ali, Ali ibn Muhammad and Hasan ibn Ali.

During the last decades of the 10th century, anti-Shi'a violence in Baghdad was rampant - mosques and Ashura processions were attacked and many Shi'as would be killed or burned alive. When Roman forces attacked the Abbasid kingdom in 971 C.E, the authorities were quick to blame the Shi'a citizens. Consequently, Shi'a houses in al-Karkh were set on fire and attacked while mobs chanted, “You [Shias] are the cause of all evil.”[3] By the middle of the eleventh century, it had become a custom for Sunni mobs to loot the Shia town of al-Karkh every Saturday. This anti-Shi'a attitude had further gained a level of legitimacy due to the verdicts by Hanbali jurists who condemned all Shi'a to be rejecters of the truth.

Persecution Under Ottoman Rule

Though the Ottomans allowed Sunni scholars to control religious endowments and derive income from them, they denied these rights to the Shi'a scholars. The clerics were also not allowed to exercise jurisprudence except in internal matters. Shi'a pilgrims going to Najaf and Karbala were limited to staying there only for ten days[4] as the Ottomans felt letting them stay longer could potentially be dangerous. Due to the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry, many Shi'a had begun to be persecuted. In 1513 on the orders of Sultan Selim I, close to 40,000 Shi’as were massacred throughout Eastern Anatolia on suspicion of being Safavid spies or potential traitors.[5]

Persecution In India

India had a significant Shi’a population due to many of them immigrating towards the East in order to escape oppressive regimes. Though several Shi’a states had arose across India, the Shi’as elsewhere still faced different forms of persecution under the rule of certain Mughal Emperors. Qazi Nurullah Shustari, an eminent Shi’a jurist and scholar of his time was killed under the rule of Emperor Jahangir. The Shi’as suffered most under the rule of Aurangzeb, who considered them as heretics on par with the Hindus and other non-believers.[6] Subsequently this brought an enforcement of Sunni law and suppression of all Shi'a practices, whether religious or cultural.

In Kashmir, Shi’a citizens saw series of on-going atrocities between the 16th and 19th century. With the Mughal Empire declining, the Durrani Empire under the rulership of Ahmad Shah Durrani had taken over Kashmir. Durrani brought biased reforms, subsequently doubling taxes and persecuting the Shi’a minority with vigour. The next fifty years, saw the Sunnis plundering and persecuting, destroying houses, burning libraries, torturing and killing Shi’as in large numbers.[7] These plunderings becoming somewhat of a ritual were referred to as Taarajs; most famously taking place in the years 1548, 1585, 1635, 1686, 1719, 1741, 1762, 1801, 1830 and 1872.[8]

Persecution in Modern History

A mass grave linked to the mass killing by the Taliban when they captured Mazar-e Sharif city in 1998


In the recent past, Shia-Sunni disputes in Afghanistan have been caused primarily due to the extremist Taliban regime and its left over elements. The Shi’as of the Hazara ethnic group had become the target of persecution for many years as they were not considered Muslims by the extremist militant regime. In the mid 90s, Pashtun guides were used to target Hazara households, whose occupants were then killed; women raped and thousands taken to the jails, locked in containers and left to suffocate. Roughly 5,000 to 6,000 Hazaras were killed with the sole objective to cleanse the Shi’a population of Afghanistan.[9] After the infamous Mazar Sharif massacre in 1998, Mullah Manon Niazi, the newly appointed Taliban governor delivered a public speech where he termed the Hazara Shi’as as infidels.[10] He legitimized their killing in the following manner:

Hazaras! Where would you escape? If you jumped into the air we will grasp your legs, if you enter the earth we will grasp your ears. Hazaras are not Muslim. You can kill them. It is not a sin. Oh Hazaras! Become Muslims and pray to God like us. We won't let you go away. Every border is in our control.[11]

Further massacres were committed by the Taliban in 2000 and 2001 when hundreds of Shi’as were killed.[12]

Thousands of Bahrainis protesting during the 2011 uprising


Shi'a Muslims in Bahrain have been enduring discrimination for many decades. Two-thirds of the population of Bahrain is Shi'a, however the country has ruled over by the Al-Khalifa family who are Sunni Muslims, since 1783. In the 1990s, Shi'a opposition groups depicted the Al-Khalifa regime as foreign invaders who established their minority rule due to British and Saudi help. The Shi'as further alleged that the Al-Khalifa family failed to gain legitimacy and instead established a system of political apartheid based on racial, sectarian and tribal discrimination.[13] Despite the commercial and economical growth of Bahrain, Shi'a citizens occupy less than 18% of total top jobs in government establishments and in many government ministries and corporations; no Shi'a Muslims are appointed in leading jobs.[14]

During the 2011 Arab Uprisings, many Bahrainis initiated their own series of demonstrations demanding political freedom, equal rights for the majority Shi'a population and as well as an end to the Al-Khalifa regime. Protestors were met with violence and hundreds of armed troops from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates arrived to repress the demonstrations.[15] On February 17th, a pre-dawn raid on protesting campers resulted in hundreds severely injured, including women and children. Other explicit forms of sectarian persecution was displayed through the demolition of Shi'ite mosques and arrests of Shi'ite nurses and doctors who treated injured protesters. More than a thousand Shi'ite professionals were fired from jobs and their pensions canceled; whereas numerous teachers and students who took part in protests were also detained.[16] Since 2011, these ongoing protests have resulted in dozens of deaths, thousands of wounded, arrested and tortured citizens.


The majority of the population in Iraq is presently Shi'a. The Shi'as nevertheless have suffered immense persecution since the beginning of the 20th century resulting in various revolts and consequent massacres. Revolts by Shi'ite tribes in the mid 1930s against the dominating Sunni authorities resulted in the Iraqi air force and army attacking villages. Prior to the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi Shi'ites were persecuted severely by the Ba'ath Party, particularly under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein that lasted just over two decades.

Under Saddam, Ashura and Arba'een gatherings were banned and various clerics were subjected to brutal forms of torture and subsequently death. During his tenure, Saddam ensured that majority of the Shi'as in Iraq lived in constant fear and he became responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shi'ites. Some families would lose four, five or six members in a day and at times hundreds of arrested Shi'as would be killed and thrown into mass graves.[17] In 1980, Ayatullah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr along with his sister Amina bint al-Huda were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. In March of 1991, a series of anti-government uprisings took place, but were repressed with brutal and indiscriminate force of Saddam's security forces. In the city of Karbala, the shrines of Imam Husain ibn Ali (as) and Abbas ibn Ali were heavily damaged due to artillery shelling. Kamal Hussein Majid, who was leading the assault against the Shi'ites stood on a tank outside the shrine of Imam Husain (as) and shouted "Your name is Hussein and so is mine. Let us see who is stronger now" and then gave the order to open fire.[18] Thousands of unarmed civilians were killed by indiscriminate fire from tanks, helicopters and later security forces began executing people on the streets, in homes and in hospitals. Doctors and nurses treating the wounded were arrested and killed, while patients were thrown out of hospital windows to their death.[19]

The number of Shi'ite clerics in Najaf was reduced from eight to nine-thousand in 1972 to two-thousand in 1982 and to 800 in the early 90s. Roughly 105 relatives, staff, students and senior clerics associated with Ayatullah al-Khoei were arrested after the 1991 uprisings and were never seen again.[20] Due to the brutal massacre in 1991, no plot or second uprising came near to unseating Saddam despite attempts, until the 2003 Iraq War.[21]

In the post-2003 Iraq War era, insurgents have periodically carried out attacks against Shi'ite Muslims. Suicide bombers have attacked thousands of civilians, as well as mosques, shrines, wedding and funeral processions, markets, hospitals, offices, and streets. Ayatullah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim was killed on August 29th, 2003 when a massive car bomb exploded near the shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib in the city of Najaf. In 2006 and 2007, the al-Askari Mosque that homes the graves of Imam Ali al-Hadi (as) and Hasan al-Askari (as) was bombed and severely damaged.


Shi’a Muslims of Pakistan have long been persecuted by terrorist and militant groups usually adhering to the Deobandi and Wahabi movements. One of the earliest incidents occurred in 1963, when Wahabi mobs attacked a procession and set fire to a house safeguarding approximately 200 Shi'as.[22] 118 Shi'as were brutally killed, in an attack popularily considered to be the beginning of Shi'a genocide and persecution in Pakistan. Though the country currently possesses the second highest Shi’a population in the world, the proportionally outnumbered population started to face increasing violence under and after the rule of Zia ul-Haq. During his dictatorship, he attempted to redefine the state through his Islamization program. Subsequently the anti-Shia organization Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was established, primarily to deter Shia influence in Pakistan in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. School curriculums were altered and Farsi was no longer taught to students in school. After the death of Zia, the Northern Areas of Pakistan were victims of frequent eruptions of Shi'a-Sunni clashes usually resulting in fatalities.[23]

In the 1980s, the SSP confined its activities to publicly abusing Shi'as and producing militant literature declaring them to be infidels and implicitly issuing their death warrants.[24] In the 1990s, further groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi came into existence while violence against the Shi'as continued to increase. Such groups and organizations have long tried for the Shi’as to be legally declared non-Muslims in Pakistan. In the mid-90s, many Shi'a government officials, lawyers and doctors were killed and Shi'a mosques came under attack as well.

In recent years, a greater increase in suicide bombings and militancy has added to the sectarian tension in a country swarmed with instability. Muharram processions are occasionally a target for militants, and during the turn of the 21st century a series of bomb blasts and shootings have taken place in various urban cities such as Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore. Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a newer trend became apparent where Shi'as traveling on specific routes would be taken off buses, lined up and shot dead or kidnapped.

As of January 2012, the projected numbers of death per year are estimated to be somewhere between 500 to 800 and 700 to 1000 injured.[25]

Saudi Arabia

The Shi’a population makes up approximately 15% of citizens in Saudi Arabia. After the country was taken over by the Family of Saud allied with the Wahabi movement, the Shi’as have seen religious, economical and socio-political discrimination on every level. In 1925, the regime purposely demolished the graveyard of Baqi alongside other historical sites, in a campaign intended to eradicate idolatry.

The discrimination extends into the education system where Shi’a students from a young age are many a times taught they are heretics. In the judiciary system, often times non-Shi’a judges disqualify Shi’a witnesses on the basis of their sect and Shi’as themselves are not allowed to become judges even in ordinary courts. There are no Shi’a government ministers, senior diplomats, or military officers; generally Shi’a students cannot gain admission to military academies.[26]

While low scale Ashura processions can be conducted in certain cities of the Eastern provinces due to a large Shi’a populations, public processions in general are banned throughout the country. In 2004, the Executive Director of The Saudi Institute Ali al-Ahmed, testified before the Committee on International Relations and made the following statements:

  • Saudi Arabia is glaring example of religious apartheid. The religious institutions extending from government clerics, judges, religious curriculums, and to all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population.
  • The Saudi government communized Islam through its monopoly of both religious thoughts and practice. Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations.
  • The Wahhabi sect doesn't tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not. Religious symbols by Muslims, Christians, Jewish and other believers are all banned.
  • Ali al-Ahmed The Saudi embassy in Washington DC is a living example of religious discrimination and hatred. In its 50 year history, there has not been a single non-Sunni Muslim diplomat in the embassy because the Saudi foreign ministry bans Shia from diplomatic positions.
  • Only Wahhabi Muslims can be appointed judges. There are no Maliki, Shafey or Shia judges in the country. This has proven especially hard on non-Sunni citizens who have to face judges deeming them as heretics.[27]


  1. The Hidden Truth About Karbala, by A.K Ahmed | ISBN 978-964-438-921-4
  2. The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims, By Graham E. Fuller, Rend Rahim Francke; page 44 | ISBN 978-0312239565
  3. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, By Vali Nasr; page 53 | ISBN 0393062112
  4. Iraq: Old Land, New Nation in Conflict, By William Spencer; page 52 | ISBN 9780761313564
  5. Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars, By Dilip Hiro; page 2 | ISBN 9780415254120
  6. Mughal Rule In India, By Stephen Meredyth Edwardes; page 358 | ISBN 8171565514
  7. Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, By Tariq Ali; page 15 | ISBN 1844677354
  8. Shias of Kashmir: Socio-political dilemmas, By Sajjad Haider
  9. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia, By Frank Clements; page 106 | ISBN 1851094024
  10. Afghanistan: The Massacre in Mazar-I Sharif, By Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch (Organization) – November 1998
  11. Religious Decrees calling Hazaras Infidels
  12. Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch – February 2001
  13. Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World by Yitzhak Nakash, page 24
  14. Sectarian discrimination in the kingdom of Bahrain:The Unwritten Law, Bahrain Center for Human Rights
  15. Saudi soldiers sent into Bahrain
  16. Bahrain's Sunni rulers target Shiite mosques, by Roy Gutman - May 11, 2011
  17. Saddam's Secrets, by General Georges Sada
  18. Karbala Journal; Who Hit the Mosques? Not Us, Baghdad Says, by Paul Lewis - August 13, 1994; The New York Times
  19. Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq and Its Aftermath, By Eric Goldstein; page 31 - Middle East Watch Organization
  20. Ibid, page 27
  21. Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, by Patrick Cockburn; page 78 | ISBN 1416551476
  22. MESSACRE OF Theri (Khairpur, Pakistan) Shaheed Foundation Pakistan
  23. Himalayan Frontiers of India: Historical, Geo-Political and Strategic Perspectives, by Kulbhushan Warikoo; pg 80 | ISBN 9780415468398
  24. Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism: Allah, The Army, And America's War On Terror, by Hassan Abbas; pg 205 | ISBN 9780765614971
  25. Asian Human Rights Commission, Feb 8 2012: Brutal sectarian violence against Shi'as continues unabated
  26. Saudi Arabia: Treat Shia Equally, Human Rights Watch – Feb 3, 2009
  27. Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2004, Testimony of Ali Al-Ahmed, Director of the Saudi Institute
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