Some Important Elements of Shi’a Culture

Siavosh Naderi Farsanii

Open Seminar for Shi’a Studies

Södertörn University

Stockholm, Sweden,2015


To explain some important elements of Shi’a culture as a religious culture, It is necessary to state an operational definition as well as an applied description of culture as far as Shi’a as a system of values, beliefs, traditions, institutions, symbols and as a system of thought or as a religious worldview is to be studied within the framework of culture including its related rules and components. Generally speaking, one should differentiate between the two methodological approaches while decoding or explaining any religious thought: The first approach employs such a methodology to decode presuppositions, beliefs, values, and any element of the related system of thought as it is stated by those founders and authorities that either established such a system of thought or played a role to introduce and develop it in the society. To study the elements and components of Shi’a worldview, one needs to decode the system of thought and values of the holy Qur’an, prophet and Ahlulbayt(s), and also the grand Islamic scholars who have been presenting Shi’a system of thought since the beginning of Islam till the present time. I am not employing such a methodological approach in this study.ii

Employing the second approach, one can decode the related system of thought as practiced by its followers, individuals and members of the target community and society. In the other words, in the second approach, one needs a methodology to decode the cognitive and concrete elements of a culture that is formed and practiced based on the interpretation and perception of certain people regarding some teachings presented by the founders and pioneers of that related system of thought. I employ the second approach in which the grassroots level of the society that represent the dominant Shi’a culture, is studied and decoded as the target population. That is why Its important to define and describe the key word “culture” operationally at first. After the description of culture in general, some main elements of Shia culture will be discussed in the next sections.

Operational Definition and Description of Culture:

There are so many definitions for culture each of which can be the basis of any cultural analysis in general. However, such an analysis may fail to present some important elements and components of the target culture as far as the related definition and description of culture fail to cover all aspects of both cognitive and concrete culture.1 I define culture as a set of rules, beliefs, values, presuppositions, attitudes, information sources and channels, symbols, customs, habits, institutions, and models of behavior, manifested in various cognitive and concrete realities such as language, art, music, literature, recreation, education, policy and power, communications, life style, economy, hand crafts and industries.2

Generally speaking, the above mentioned elements and components of any culture can be categorized in three layers as far as their level of abstractness and concreteness is concerned. These interrelated layers are as follow:

1- Worldview as the core cognitive level and layer of culture

2- Cognitive System as the second layer of culture

3- Concrete manifestations as the third layer of culture

The following list presents some main elements of any culture in the above three layers:

  • Food, Clothes and Lifestyle
  • Language, Literature, Music, Recreation
  • Architecture, Handicrafts and Industries
  • Defense and Security Mechanisms
  • judicial Tendencies
  • Economic values
  • Political Orientations and Capacities
  • Educational Teachings
  • Traditions, Customs and Ceremonies
  • Symbols, Attitudes, Tendencies, Institutions,
  • System of Thought & Models of Behavior
  • Beliefs, Values,
  • worldview(s) and Sources of Knowledge

At the deepest level of culture, one can find the most abstract and cognitive elements of the culture, yet the more one moves to the surface of the culture, the elements of culture become more concrete and material as it is reflected in the above list. As it is said earlier, all the above elements of culture can be categorized in three sections. To review the above components within Shia culture under the above mentioned three categories, one should start with worldview as the heart of any culture.

Part one: The Elements of Shi’a Culture at The Worldview layer

worldview as the basic framework of one’s basic beliefs about things and their relationships, is located at the deepest layer of any culture. Such a layer provides any related culture with macro theoretical foundations, frameworks and presuppositions as follow:

Epistemology: Beliefs about the nature of truth and sources of knowledge;

Metaphysics and Ontology: Beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality;

Axiology: Beliefs about the nature of value, what is good and bad, what is beautiful and ugly, what is pleasure and pain;

Theology: Beliefs about the existence and nature of God;

Anthropology: Beliefs about the position and nature of man in the universe;

Cosmology: Beliefs about the origins and nature of universe, life and Man:

Teleology: Beliefs about the meaning and purpose of the universe, its inanimate elements, and its inhabitants;

Praxeology: It presupposes the methodology and theory of action: Beliefs about how Man should attain his goals;

One can categorized all the worldviews in the five clusters as far as their sources and nature of knowledge is concerned: Mythical, philosophical mystic, religious and scientific worldviews. Furthermore; all worldviews based on the way they explain the relationships among the things in the world can be classified in two other macro types: Organic and Mechanic worldviews. To review the elements and components of one specific culture, it is of great importance to consider the interplay among these five worldviews as far as it is presupposed that the dominant culture in a society is influenced somehow by a few worldviews competing, permanently, the dominant worldview. Such a methodological fact can help researchers to differentiate between two approaches while studying a religion as explained by its founder at theoretical level and investigating a religious culture as practiced at the grassroots level of the target society by some ordinary people.

To decode some main elements of Shia culture based on the above description of culture, I start with main components of worldview as some seeds of Shia culture and then decode the related cognitive and concrete elements of such a culture that are developed and grown based on the dominant worldview’s seeds. In the other words, Shia culture is reviewed as a tree including its seeds, roots, branches and fruits at two concrete and cognitive level.

The Epistemological Elements of Shi’a Culture

What Shi’a people believe about knowledge in general, affects what they accept as valid evidence and what they define as truth. It presupposes basic belief about what is true and what is false.iii It also affects the learning process and some choices, priorities and tendencies toward finding solutions for any questions. The main epistemological characteristics of Shia culture are as follow:

  • Realism and the Correspondence theory:
  • Wisdom and Reason:
  • Revelation and Nabowat:
  • Infallibility and Imamat:
  • Authority:
  • Intuition:
  • Empirical Evidence:
  • Expediency:
  • Mythical Tendencies;

The Ontological Elements of Shi’a Culture:

Ontological elements of Shi’a culture focuses on the nature of reality. The defined reality within the framework of Shi’a culture does not consists solely of matter, energy, and information but it suggests that there is something outside the material universe.3 In such an ontological approach, one can find the concepts such as God, spirit, angels, life after death, supernatural forces, in the other words, reality is not mere concrete matter but there exists also something beyond the matter. The ontological elements reflected in both cognitive and concrete components of Shi’a culture are as follow:

  • Material and divine tendencies:
  • Monotheistic beliefs:

The Teleological Elements of Shi’a Culture

Teleological elements of Shi’a culture present the purpose of Man, society, history and the universe. These cognitive elements suggests that there is a purpose for the creation of universe, society, history and Man that are moving toward God as the ultimate supreme good. In this respect, as the universe has a purpose, then all humans have some obligations to fulfill other than what they, probably collectively, choose. There is also the cognitive teleological element of accountability to something higher than human beings. The other teleological element presupposes a meaning to life other than what humans choose. Such a universal purpose can be the criteria based on which all the human acts and intentions can be judged. That is why, there is a direct link between “is” and “ought” and this should make people to act in a certain way. At the same time, one can consider belief in the Ma ad (Hereafter) and Mahdi as the survivor of all human beings as two main teleological elements of Shia culture that reflects in all cognitive and concrete components of the culture. The root of Ma ad(Hereafter) is “Aud” which means to return or to come back as on the Day of Resurrection souls will be made to return to their bodies. In summary, some of the main teleological elements of Shi’a culture are as follow:

  • Meaningful Plan and Purpose;
  • Divine Movement and Supreme Good;
  • Obligation Oriented Acts and intentions;
  • Accountability and Responsibility;
  • The Link Between “Is” and “Ought”;
  • Maad (Hereafter- Al-Qiamah);
  • Mahdism;
  • Hope Oriented Tendencies;

The Theological Elements of Shi’a Culture

The theological elements of Shi’a culture can be reviewed as a part of ontological elements. Yet, as far as the significance of such elements are concerned, one can discuss them under a separate topic. Shi’a culture is a monotheistic one and such a monotheistic belief reflects a permanent presence in all other cognitive and concrete components of culture including the life style of people. The quality and quantity of such a monotheistic reflection in the Shi’a system of thought and behavior depends on its degree of socialization and acculturation, as far as people are also at the exposure of other worldviews functioning as some rivals in the mixed culture of society. The monotheistic relationships between Man and God is the relationship between the omnipotent creator and the created. Man as the created is to be trained and instructed based on the divine teachings.4 Some main theological elements of Shi’a culture are as follow:

  • Monotheistic Tendencies:
  • Obedience of The Divine Law:
  • Worship and pray:
  • Intercession(Shefa’at,Tawassul and Tawakol)

The Anthropological Elements of Shi’a Culture

To decode the anthropological elements of Shi’a culture, It is necessary to find some presuppositions as clear answers to questions such as what is Man, What is man’ s place in the universe, does Man have free will, what ought Man to do and is Man basically good or evil.5 Some of the main elements of Shi’a culture are as follow:

  • Man’s Vicegerency(khalifah) on the earth:
  • Divine Moral codes versus Natural Law;
  • Man is the Two- dimensional being: Spirit and Matter;
  • Man has free will;
  • Man is to be examined;
  • Progress and Attributes of God;
  • Responsibility and accountability;
  • The Inciting Nafs(an-nafs al- ammarah);
  • The Self- Accusing Nafs(an-nafs al- luwwamah);
  • The Inspired Nafs(an- nafs al- mulhamah);
  • The Nafs at Peace(an-Nafs al- mutma innah);
  • The Pleased Nafs (an- nafs aL-radiyyah);
  • The Pleasing Nafs(an- nafs al- mardiyyah);
  • The Pure Nafs(an- nafs al-safiyyah);

The Cosmological Elements of Shia Culture

Cosmological beliefs of Shi’a culture presuppose some beliefs about the origin of the universe, life and Man. The universe as it exists now is not the mechanical response of matter and energy to random events and the laws of physics over a long time but it is the result of the acts of a supernatural creator that formed the universe out of nothing.

  • The Universe: Creation versus Chance;
  • The Life & Man: Plan and Purpose versus Natural Selection;
  • Consistency with the divine Plan;

The Axiological Elements of Shi’a Culture

Axiological Elements of Shi’a Culture present the nature of “Good and Evil” which introduces a theoretical framework and also some practical procedures and guidelines to form the value system of Shia Culture. To decode the main axiological elements in the context of Shi’a culture, one should decode how such basic questions are answered: What is the nature of value, what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. In fact, all components of Shi’a worldview from ontology to cosmology are closely related to the axiological foundations which in another layers of culture will be manifested in all the cognitive and concrete elements including, symbols, ceremonies, traditions, life style, communications, food, cloth, economy, policy and other related elements. Some of the main axiological elements of Shi’a culture are as follow:

  • Comprehensiveness in The Value System;
  • Objectivity versus Subjectivity in The Value System;
  • Absolutism versus Relativism;
  • God as the Source of Value;
  • Approaching God as the Highest Good;
  • Duties and Moral Obligations;

The Praxeological Elements of Shia Culture

The praxeological elements of Shi’a culture are concerned with the conceptual analysis and logical implications of preference, choice, means-end schemes, and so forth. On the other words, It prescribes how one should attain his goals. The main praxeological beliefs in Shi’a culture are as follows:

  • Ijtihad
  • The Holy Ends Justify The Holy Means

Part Two: The Cognitive System of Shia Culture

This layer of Shi’a culture as the product of the above mentioned worldview presuppositions introduces and includes some main cognitive models, frameworks, guidelines, procedures, methods, instructions, principles, theories, attitudes, tendencies, reference groups, sources of information and knowledge, doctrines, paradigms, symbols and ceremonies some of which are as follows:

The Main Principles of Religion(Usul aldin):These elements that are the foundations of Shia worldview are as follows:

  • Tawhid as the Islamic concept of monotheism: it is the opposite of Shirk.
  • Adalah(Justice):There is intrinsic good or evil in things and God commands Man to do the good things.
  • Nubuwwah(Prophethood): God has appointed prophets and messengers to teach mankind his message.
  • Imamaah(Leadership): Prophet appointed them as the custodian of religion.
  • Yawm al Qiyamah: (The Day of Resurrection and Hereafter)6

Reference Groups and Cognitive Sources:

They include any group or sources of information to which Shia people refer as the source of knowledge and also as the standard for evaluating themselves and their own behavior. As far as the main elements of Shia worldview are concerned, their main reference groups are as follows:

  • Islamic Scholars(Ruhaniat):

It is believed that the study of Islamic teachings is continual, and is necessary to identify all of God s laws and such a process will facilitate in dealing with any circumstances.


  • Ijtihad versus Taghlid: Mujtahid’s Fatwas and Obedience of People

Islamic scholars interpret the holy Qur’an and the Twelve r Shi’a traditions employing the concept of “Ijihad” so that deal with current issues and problems in the Islamic society. It is not everybody’s job to do Ijtihad and people are expected to obey(Taghlid) the Ijtihad of high qualified experts and Islamic scholars.7 Following the book of Allah and the Sun’nah of prophet(s), the Shi’a scholars infer religious laws from four major sources as follows:


  1. The Holy book of Allah(Qur’an): It is regarded as the firmest source of jurisprudence and understanding divine laws.
  2. The Sunnah of Prophet(s): It includes the sayings and actions of the prophet(s) and whatever he approved and the Imams from Ahl al Bayt of prophet(s) are independently as the transmitters of the Sun’nah of the Prophet and repository of his knowledge. The prophetic hadisths that are reported by reliable people are also accepted.
  3. Consensus(Ijma): It refers to a unanimous agreement among Shia scholars regarding a religious ruling. Yet, it is not regarded as independent independent as other sources such as Holy Qur’an and the Prophetic Sun’nah, rather it is only reliable on the account of its significance and correspondence to the infallible Imams opinion.


  1. Reason: The binding testimony of reason means that if in a set of circumstances reason has a clear rule, then that rule, as it is definite and absolute, is binding.

The Books by Shia imams:

  1. Risalah al-Huquq by imam Sajad
  2. Al- Sahifa al-Sajjadyya by Imam Sajjad
  3. Golden Dissertation by Imam Redha
  4. Al-Sahifat al-Ridha by Imam Redha

The Books as the Classic Kalam

Eteqadat al- Emamya by Shaykh Saduq

Tashib al – Itiqad by Shaykh Mufid

Tajrid al-Itiqad by Nasir al-din Tusi(1201-1274)

The Four Books(Arbae): Hadith Collections

  1. Kitab al kafi by Muhammad ibn Yaqub al- Kulayni(329AH). 15176 hadith
  2. Man La Yahduruhu al faqih by Muhammad ibn babuya (Shaykh Sadoq,381AH).9044 hadith
  3. Tahdhib al-Ahkam by Shaykh Muhammad tusi.(460AH) 13590
  4. Al-Istibsar by Shaikh Muhammad tusi. 5511.

Nahj al-Balagha: Collected sermons of Imam Ali by Sayyad Razi

Supplications and Prayers: Collection of Dua

  1. Al-Sahifa al-Alawiya: Prayers of Imam Ali, the1st imam
  2. Al-Sahifa al- Sajadjyya by Imam Ali Zayn al Abidin, the 4th imam
  3. Sahifa al-Mahdi- prayers atributed to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th imam
  4. Mafatih al- Jinan: Collected by Shaykh Abbas Qummi
  5. Ahsan ul Aqayed: by Alama Muhammad Qasim zaidi

Tafsir Books:

  1. Tafsir e Masoomeen(as): Compiled by Wilayat Mission
  2. Tafsir Imam Hassan Askari(as)
  3. Tafsi al-Mizan-by Allamah Tabatabai
  4. Al-bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran- by Ayatollah Abu al- Qasim Al-khoei(ra)
  5. Al-Tibayan fi Tafsir al-Quran- by Al Shaykh al-Tusi
  6. Tafsir-al-Qummi- by Muhammad bin Ali bin Ibrahim AL-Qummi
  7. Tarsi-e-Mujahid- by abu AL-Hajaj Mujahidiv

Part Three: The Concrete Manifestations

The elements of this layer of Shi’a culture can be divided in the three sub layers: The first includes some concrete elements referred to as some practices (Foru-e-din), and the second layer includes some elements that affect the macro and micro systems of society including policy, economy, education, communication, family, defense and security, technology, art, language, music, literature, cloth, food and other related components. The final layer consists of some symbols, rituals and ceremonies.

The Principles of Behavior (Foru-e-Din):

As it was said before the cognitive principles of Osol-e- Din are considered as the pillars of Islamic belief system and obedience(Taghlid) is not required but Foru-e-Din are some practices that the followers can obey the grand qualified scholars(Maraje).8Such practices that form some main elements of Shi’a culture are as follows:

1. Salaat (Prayer): Praying the five obligatory prayers every single day.

2. Saum: (Fasting): Fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan in order to gain Taqwa (Closeness to God).

3. Khums (Islamic Tax): Paying one fifth of our income toward the community.

4. Zakat (Charity): Giving charity to the needy

5. Hajj (Pilgrimage): Embarking on the pilgrimage to the Holy city of Makkah at least once in one’s lifetime.

6. Jihad (Striving): Striving to overcome our evil desires and whims in order to improve ourselves.

7. Amr bil Mahroof (Commanding the good): To call people to do good deeds.

8. Nahi anul Munkar (Forbidding the evil): To stop people and call people away from evil deeds.

9. Tawalla (Loving and obeying the Prophet and Imams)

10. Tabarra (Staying away from the enemies of the Prophet, Imams and Islam


The Socio Political Systems

It goes without saying that there is bilateral influence and interplay between culture on one hand and some other realities such as economy, policy, communication and other related systems of the society on the other hand. Yet, some experts pose different views on the quantity, quality and degree of such interplay and influence. The most important question of any political system is concentrated on the nature of power and its distribution in the society. Some elements and variables of Shi’a culture that affect the socio political system are as follows:

The Celestial Origin versus The Earthly Powers:

Based on the Shi’a worldview, God is omnipotent and, as a consequence, a political power is legitimate if it is traced and related to such a power. The history of the political systems in Iran in where the dominant elements of Shi’a culture have been playing some major roles for last centuries, shows that any ruler in the process of gaining political legitimacy, would need to justify his policies somehow religiously: The more, the better.

  • Imamat and Leadership

leadership is considered as a trust(Amanat) delegated by Allah to the Prophet(s) and in the same way, it was granted to the infallible Imams.9

  • Vilayat al- Faqih in The Absence of Imam

The theory of Vilayat al-Faqih originates from the concept of Imamat as one of the cornerstones of Shi’a worldview.10 So, It is significant to decode such a political doctrine within the context of leadership and Imamat.

  • Comprehensiveness and Accountability

There is such a political tendency within Shia culture that Islamic teachings have enough capacity to meet all individual and social needs of people.11 This belief prescribes a vast scope in which religious political leadership emerges to manage the nation.

  • Obedience and Obligation Oriented Tendencies:

Obedience of God, prophet and the infallible Imams and the pious jurists and Maraje is considered as an Islamic obligation and leads people to the obedience of Vali-e-Faghi in the political system.

Some Characteristics of Shi’a Culture:

  • Revolutionary and Free will Oriented Tendencies:
  • Religious Democratic Attitudes and Tendencies:
  • Down-Top Distribution of Power:
  • Grassroots Associations versus Political Parties:
  • Idealistic Political Tendencies
  • Economic & Social Justice
  • Anti Usury(Riba) Tendencies
  • Organic Tendencies versus Mechanic orientations
  • Truth Seeking as The Ultimate Goal of Education
  • Practical and Beneficial (Nafe)Sciences
  • Seminaries (Hawza Ilmiya) Educational Contributions
  • Jihad as The Strategic Defense Mechanism
  • Martyrdom Elements
  • Ashura and Imam Hussein Revolution
  • The Deterrent Orientations As Some Defensive Tendencies
  • Family Coherence and Unity
  • Multidimensional Tendencies in Communications: Self, God, People, Universe
  • The Islamic Jurisprudence Establishes the judiciary System
  • The Aesthetic and Artistic Products within The Islamic Teachings(Taziye,..)
  • The linguistic and literary Orientations(Names, Arabic Islamic lexicons, models,…)
  • Celebration, Mourning and Days of Remembrance (Moharam, Ghadir, Ghorban, Birth and Martyrdom of Prophet and Imams, …).

1Naderi Farsani, Siavosh, The philosophy of culture, IICT, Tehran, Iran(2010).


3Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2012), The instruction of philosophy, Ghom, Imam Khomeini research and educational institute

4Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2005), Instruction of beliefs, Ghom, Islamic propaganda

5Rajabi, Mahmud(2011), Anthropology, Ghom, Imam Khomeini research & educational institute

6Ostadi, Reza(-), The principles of religion, Ghom, Dar al fekr.

7Motahari, Morteza,(2005), Collection of works, Tehran, Sadr’a

8Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2005), Instruction of beliefs, Ghom, Islamic propaganda.

9Motahari, Morteza,(2005), Imamat and leadership, Tehran, Sadr’a

10Ruhollah, Khomeini(1993), Velayat al- Faqih(Islamic Government),Ghom, Institute for compilation and publication of Imam Khomeini’s works.

11Javadi Amoli, Abdollah(2003), Man’s expectations of religion, Ghom, Asr’a

iResearcher in the field of philosophy of culture and the founder and president of the international academic center for Islamic discourse(IACID) in Norrkoping, Sweden.

iiSuch an approach can be employed in the theological and religious studies.

iiiTo study the Islamic epistemology, one can refer to the related works of Abdol Husein Khosropanah and Morteza Motahari

ivA list of some references in Shi’a thought is as follows:


  1. Javadi Amoli, Abdollah(2003), Man’s expectations of religion, Ghom, Asr’a

  2. Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2012), The instruction of philosophy, Ghom, Imam Khomeini research and educational institute

  3. Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2005), Instruction of beliefs, Ghom, Islamic propaganda

  4. Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Taqi,(2005), Instruction of beliefs, Ghom, Islamic propaganda.

  5. Motahari, Morteza,(2005), Collection of works, Tehran, Sadr’a

  6. Motahari, Morteza,(2005), Imamat and leadership, Tehran, Sadr’a

  7. Naderi Farsani, Siavosh, The philosophy of culture, IICT, Tehran, Iran(2010).

  8. Ostadi, Reza(-), The principles of religion, Ghom, Dar al fekr.

  9. Rajabi, Mahmud(2011), Anthropology, Ghom, Imam Khomeini research & educational institute

  10. Ruhollah, Khomeini(1993), Velayat al- Faqih(Islamic Government),Ghom, Institute for compilation and publication of Imam Khomeini’s works.