The Sacred Door Project

One such work that explains Shi’i beliefs in detail is Doctrines of Shi‘i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, by Ayatollah Ja‘far Sobhani (b. 1929). In the same category as Tabataba’i, Sobhani is a leading Iranian scholar, theologian, and prolific writer. While he takes a traditional approach to defining Shi’ism, he is also aware of the many attacks and misrepresentations of Shi’ism, so he aptly addresses any concerns that readers may have. Many of his works provide a comprehensive understanding of that particular subject of Shi’ism.

Unlike Shi’ite Islam, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam is not simply an introduction to Shi’ism. Rather, this text was selected as one of the necessary texts on understanding Shi’ism due to the level of detail Sobhani delves into for every theological and jurisprudential issue. Even better, Sobhani also provides common counterarguments to Shi’i beliefs and offers further rational and textual evidence to support Shi’i beliefs on certain matters. Additionally, the text is also easy to navigate if the reader is looking for a particular response on a subject. The audience of the text is expansive, and it is a necessary resource for Shi’i believers themselves as well as scholars in Islamic studies.

Sobhani discusses a wide range of subjects from the problem of evil to the will of God. In addition, Sobhani touches upon sensitive topics that many misunderstand about Shi’ism, such as the status of the Imams in comparison to the Prophet. It is important to emphasize that the Prophet was at the peak of perfection. While the Shi’i Imams are held to a high station, this station is not higher than or equal to the Prophet in any regard. Sobhani aptly describes the status of the Prophet and the Imams in relation to God as well as the status of the Prophet in comparison to the Imams.

Allama Majlisi says: ‘Ghuluw in regard to the Prophet and the [Imams]… applies if we name them God, or that in our prayers and our worship we see them as partners with God, or that we see creation or our daily sustenance as being from them, or that we believe that God has incarnated Himself (hulul) in them, or that we say that they know the secrets of the unseen without [needing] inspiration from God, or that we think of the Imams as [having the same rank as the] Prophet, or that we presume that knowledge and recognition of the Imams renders us beyond the need for any kind of worship and absolves us of all religious responsibilities.[1] 

This excerpt is imperative to understand the exact relationship between God, his Prophet, and the Imams. In no regard are the Prophet or the Imams a reincarnation of God himself. Neither the Prophet or the Imams are leaders of the religion without divine guidance and inspiration. The Imams do not have any special station or power on their own, except what has been given to them by God. Even further, as lofty as the position of the Imams is, they are not on equal footing with the Holy Prophet. While the Prophet acts as a link towards reaching God, the Imams act as another link in the chain towards reaching the Prophet and God. Furthermore, while the Prophet was bestowed with revelation and the Holy Quran, the Imams were not. Thus, the Prophet remains as the seal of prophethood, and the role of the Imams becomes a source of the continuation of that same prophetic light and blessings. Lastly, following in the Imams’ footsteps does not absolve the believer from other religious obligations. Therefore, the role of the Imams is not to continue the line of prophethood or take a Godly position, but the Imams were sent by God as guides for humanity to follow the Prophet’s message.

By providing the information and sources for understanding the fundamental principles of Shi’ism, Sobhani makes Shi’ism approachable. He defines what is and what is not Shi’ism. All in all, Sobhani introduces Shi’ism as vibrant and complex, while in a concise manner.

Due to works like Sobhani’s that provide a broad overview of Shi’i beliefs, scholars like Saïd Amir Arjomand were then able to publish works pertaining to different aspects of Shi’ism, such as the Sociology of Shi’ite Islam. As a professor at Stonybrook University in sociology, Arjomand represents the beginning of Shi’i scholars in the West and the torrent of Shi’i literature in Western academia in the past decade or so. His background in sociology also shows how Shi’ism is not exclusive to the field of religion but transverses many disciplines. Sociology of Shi’ite Islam is critical to understanding the different rituals and social practices of Shi’ism in the contemporary world. Arjomand explores how Shi’ism developed from the 8th to the 20th century through a sociological lens. The three main topics he explores through his collection of essays are Imamate, occultation, and martyrdom. These three beliefs remain misunderstood and are often attributed to mispractice. Thus, Arjomand does a superb job of redefining Shi’i rituals and practices.

On the issue of Imamate, Arjomand provides a new argument for understanding the historical development of Imamate from the lifetimes of the Imams themselves. Arjomand discusses how the formative periods of the development of the Shi’i school of thought were marked by the crises of Imamate.[2]The term ‘Imamate’ juxtaposed with the noun ‘crisis’ offers a unique view on early Shi’ism, one that the Shi’i are presently far removed from. If each Imam is divinely appointed by God and named the successor of the preceding Imam, then, superficially, one would assume that the succession to Imamate would be straightforward. For Twelver Shi’i today, the names, lives, and martyrdoms of the Imams are memorized, venerated, and commemorated. For the Shi’i living during the time of the Imams, this foreknowledge and clarity were unavailable, leading to the persistent question of succession amongst the Shi’i. This created an environment that, according to Arjomand, can only be described as chaotic and, at times, even apocalyptic.[3]
caused schisms and conflict within the Shi’i school that re-occurred time after time, with the martyrdom of one Imam after the next martyred Imam. To put this into perspective, generation after generation the Shi’i was not only grieving the death of their
Imam, but they were fighting with each other over who the rightful successor should be, creating a lasting impact on Shi’ism. Arjomand successfully describes the issues that the Shi’i community was facing and how their beliefs were shaped.

Another substantial contribution Arjomand explores is the development of social displays of mourning and reenactments of Ashura. He specifically addresses the false claim that remembering the tragedy of Ashura historically belonged specifically to the Shi’i branch. Contrary to popular belief, during the second half of the 15th century, Sunni and Shi’i alike commemorated Muharram together. In tracking the origins of these practices, it becomes clear that only much later did these social rituals become uniquely defining to Shi’ism, setting it distinctly apart from Sunnism and its supposedly mainstream view of Islam.[4]
In particular, movements such as the Deobandi school in India splintered the harmony between Shi’i and Sunni. Moreover, Sufism itself contributed to the wides
pread practice of mourning rituals. Thus, it becomes clear that the commemorations were not limited to one branch or theological belief. Overall, Arjomand breaks many preconceived notions about Shi’ism, and he also redefines the meaning and nature of Shi’i ritualistic and social practices. This helped establish a new image of Shi’ism that was not blurred by misrepresentations.

The road has been paved for even more subjects on Shi’ism. While works like Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam, remain the foundation for understanding what Shi’ism is as a whole, texts like Saïd Amir Arjomand’s Sociology of Shi’ite Islam are just as imperative for breaking down the evolution of Shi’ism through a different lens, in this case, sociology. There remains many gaps in the literature on Shi’i Islam. A newer publication such as Hassan Abbas’s The Prophetic Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib, is one of the only academic biographies of Ali published in English using primary sources. To truly understand Shi’ism, there should be a similar work for every central figure to early Shi’ism. As shown by the bibliography, many texts including Women in Shi’ism: Ancient Stories, Modern Ideologies, by Amina Inloes, prove that the doors to academic writing on Shi’ism are opening wider. More and more diverse topics that stem out from introductory works on Shi’ism are now readily available.



  1. Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam, trans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 1979

  2. Muḥammad ibn ʻAlī Ibn Bābawayh al-Qummī Al-Ṣadūq; Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee. A Shīʻite Creed: A Translation of Iʻtiqādātu ʼl-Imāmīyah (The Beliefs of the Imāmiyyah) (Tehran: World Organization for Islamic Services, 1982)

  3. Martin J. McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd : (d. 413/1022) (Beyrouth: Dar el-Machreq, 1986)

  4. Wilfred Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, 1998

  5. Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi‘i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, 2001

  6. Hossein Modarressi, Tradition and Survival: A Bibliographical Survey of Early Shi’ite Literature, 2003

  7. Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, Kernel of the Kernel: Concerning the Wayfaring and Spiritual Journey of the People of Intellect, trans. Mohammad H. Faghfoory (New York, University of New York press, 2003)

  8. Muhammad Baqr al Sadr, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence According to Shi’i Law, 2003

  9. Sheikh Abbas al-Qummi, Nafasul Mahmoom, 2005

  10. Maria Massi Dakake, The Charismatic Community, 2007

  11. Andrew J. Newman, The Formative Period of Twelver Shi’ism: Hadith as Discourse Between Qum and Baghdad (Culture and Civilization in the Middle East), 2013

  12. Hamid Mavani, Religious Authority and Political Thought in Twelver Shi’ism (From Ali to Post-Khomeini), 2013

  13. Najam Haider, Shi’i Islam: An Introduction, 2014

  14. Rawand Osman, Female Personalities in the Qur’an and Sunna: Examining the Major Sources of Imami Shi’i Islam, 2015

  15. Matthew Pierce, Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism, 2016

  16. Saïd Amir Arjomand, Sociology of Shi’ite Islam, 2016

  17. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, What is Shi’i Islam? An Introduction, 2018

  18. Amina Inloes, Women in Shi’ism: Ancient Stories, Modern Ideologies (Islamic History and Thought), 2019

  19. Sayyid Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din al Musawi al-Amili, Foundations of Islamic Unity, trans. Batool Ispahany, 2019

  20. Dennis Hermann or Mathieu Terrier, Shi’i Islam and Sufism: Classical Views and Modern Perspectives (Shi’i Heritage Series), 2020

  21. Etan Kohlberg, In Praise of the Few. Studies in Shii Thought and History (Shi’i Islam: Texts and Studies), 2020

  22. Omid Ghaemmaghami, Encounters with the Hidden Imam in Early and Pre-Modern Twelver Shi’i Islam (Islamic History and Civilization), 2020 

  23. Hassan Abbas, The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib, 2021

  24. Liyakat Takim, Shi’ism Revisited: Ijtihad and Reformation in Contemporary Times, 2021

  25. Edmund Hays, Agents of the Hidden Imam: Forging Twelver Shi’ism, 850-950 CE, 2022

[1]Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi‘i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, 2001, 71
[2] Saïd Amir Arjomand, Sociology of Shi’ite Islam, 2016, 44
[3] Saïd Amir Arjomand, Sociology of Shi’ite Islam, 2016, 60
[4] Saïd Amir Arjomand, Sociology of Shi’ite Islam, 2016, 123-127