The religious rites practiced by Twelve-Imam Shi’ites are essentially the same as those of the Sunnis with certain minor modifications of posture and phrasing which are little more than the differences that are to be found among the Sunni schools (madhhabs) themselves, except in the addition of two phrases in the call to prayer. For Shi ism, like Sunnism, the major rite consists of the daily prayers (sal?t in Arabic, namaz in Persian and Urdu) comprised of the prayers of sunrise, noon, afternoon, evening and night. Altogether they consist of seventeen units (rak ‘ahs) divided in the ratio of 2, 4, 4, 3 and 4 for the respective five prayers. The only singular quality of Shi ite practice in this respect is that instead of performing the five prayers completely separately, usually Shi’ites say the noon and afternoon prayers together, as well as the evening and the night prayers.
Shi’ites also perform supererogatory prayers and prayers on special occasions such as moments of joy, fear and thanksgiving, or when visiting a holy place of pilgrimage. In these practices also there is little difference between Shi’ ism and Sunnism. However, we can sense a distinction in the Friday congregational prayers. Of course, these prayers are performed in both worlds but they definitely have a greater social and political significance in the Sunni world. In Shi’ism, although these prayers are performed in at least one mosque in every city and town, in the absence of the Imam, who according to Shi’ism is the true leader of these prayers, their importance is somewhat diminished and more emphasis is placed upon individual prescribed prayers.
As for the second basic Islamic rite of fasting, it is practiced by Shi ites in a manner that is nearly identical with that of Sunnis and differs only in the fact that Shiites break their fast a few minutes later than Sunnis, when the sun has set completely. All those capable of fasting and above the age of puberty must abstain from all drinking and eating during the month of Ramadan from the first moments of dawn until sunset. The moral and inward conditions that accompany the fast are also identical for the two branches of Islam. Likewise, many Shi’ites, like Sunnis, fast on certain other days during the year, especially at the beginning, middle and end of the lunar month, following the example of the Holy Prophet.
Also, for the pilgrimage (hajj), Shi ite and Sunni practices have only very minor differences. It is the pilgrimage to other holy places that is emphasized more in Shi’ism than in Sunnism. The visit to the tombs of Imams and saints plays an integral role in the religious life of Shi’ites, one which in fact is compensated for in a way in the Sunni world by visits to the tombs of saints or what in North Africa are called tombs of marabouts. Of course, these forms of pilgrimage are not obligatory rites such as the prayers, fasting and hajj, but they play such an important religious role that they can hardly be overlooked.
There are certain religious practices besides the basic rites which are specifically Shi’ ite, yet curiously enough found also in certain parts of the Sunni world. There is the rawdah-khani, that combination of sermon, recitation of poems and Qur’anic verses and drama which depicts the tragic life of the different Imams, particularly Imam Husayn. Although the rawdah began to be practiced widely only during the Safavid period, it has become one of the most widespread and influential of religious acts in the Shi’ite world and leaves a profound mark upon the whole community. The rawdah is perfumed most of all during the Islamic months of Muharram and Safar during which the tragedy of Karbala’ and its aftermath took place. The rawdah does not exist in Sunni Islam in the exact form it has taken in Shi’ism but other forms of elegy (marathi) and dramas depicting the tragedy of Karbala’ are seen during Muharram as far away as Morocco.
Connected with the rawdah during Muharram is the passion play (ta’ziyah), which has become an a elaborate art in both Persia and the Indo-Pakistani world. It is no longer directly a religious rite in the sense of the prayers, yet it too is a major manifestation of religious life as it traverses the depth and breadth of society. There are also at this time elaborate street processions in which people chant, cry and sometimes beat themselves in order to participate in the passion of the Imam. In this matter also, equivalences in the Sunni world must be sought in the Sufi processions, which have become rarer in many Muslim countries during the past few years.
On the popular level, there are certain Shi’ite religious practices which must be mentioned because of their wide popularity. These include almsgiving, in addition to the religious tax (zakat) promulgated by the Shari’ ah, petitioning God for the acceptance of something asked in a prayer by giving to the poor, arranging special religious tables whose food is given to the poor, and many other practices of the kind which carry religion to the intimate activities of everyday life.
The recitation of the Holy Qur’an is a rite par excellence and it is a basic Shi’ite practice as much as a Sunni one. The Qur’an is chanted during special occasions such as weddings, funerals and the like, as well as at different moments of the day and night during one’s daily routine. In addition, the Shi ites place much emphasis upon the reading of prayers of great beauty in Arabic from the prophetic hadith and from the sayings of Imams as contained in the Nahj al-Balaghah, al-Sahifah al-Sajj?diyah, Usul al-Kafi, etc. Some of these prayers, like the Jawshan Kabir and Kumayl, are long and take several hours. They are recited only by the especially pious, on certain nights of the week, particularly Thursday night and the nights of Ramadan. Other believers remain satisfied with shorter prayers. But the whole practice of reciting litanies and prayers of different kinds constitutes an important aspect of the rites of Muslims and their religious devotions in both the Shi’ite and Sunni worlds. And in both worlds, these devotional prayers and litanies come from the works of the saints, who in the Shi’ite world are identified with the Imams and the Household of the Prophet and in the Sunni world with Sufism in general.
Adapted from: “Shi’ah” by: “Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i”