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Afghanistan: Shia make constitutional gains

Shia Muslims, a significant minority in Afghanistan, made important gains in the new constitution passed Sunday at the end of the Loya Jirga.

Unlike the previous constitution of 1964, when the king who then ruled Afghanistan had to be a follower of the Hanafi Sunni school of Islam, a Shia Muslim can now become leader of the country.

The qualifications for the president under the new constitution only require a candidate to be a Muslim.

It recognises in Article 131 that Shia – who represent perhaps 15 per cent of the population – can use their own school of law in court cases involving personal matters.

Sulaiman Muradi, a Shia from Bamian province, said, “This new constitution is very different compared with the last one. We Shias are very happy. In the last constitution we couldn’t become leader of Afghanistan, and in school we had to study the Sunni school of Islam. Now I truly consider myself a real Afghan.”

Most Afghans are Sunni, and use the Hanafi branch of Islamic jurisprudence. The Shia have their own school of law, Jafari. Differences between the two often amount to minor variations relating to the conduct of prayers and funeral and marriage rituals.

While the Shia welcome the constitutional changes, some have pointed out that the community has always followed their own rituals irrespective of the country’s laws.

Nobody has prevented the performance of our religious rituals… even during the communist period,” said Shia scholar Ali Ahmad Fakoor.

A member of the constitution commission, Fatema Gailani, said article 131 was passed without debate. “There is no emphasis on the Hanafi school in the new Afghan constitution. So the followers of the Jafari school do not need to raise the issue and threaten national unity,” she said.

Gailani highlighted the political rift between Shia and Sunni factions which came to a head during the war against communist rule, increasing distrust between the two groups.

During the jihad period… whereas Saudi Arabia and United States tended to assist Sunni jihadi parties… the Shia parties sought help from Iran,” she said.

The Afghan deputy minister of Hajj, Sayed Mohammad Mubarez, who is a Shia, denied suggestions that his community is a source of tension.

We have taken part in jihad and in the reconstruction of the country. Those who say that Jafaris are stirred up by Iran are wrong. We are Jafaris, not Iranians,” he said.

Hasina Sulaiman, Shahabuddin Tarakhel and Hafizullah Gardesh

Hasina Sulaiman and Shahabuddin Tarakhel are independent journalists in Kabul participating in IWPR’s Loya Jirga reporting project. Hafizullah Gardesh is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.

This article was first published on 6 January 2004 (ARR No. 100) by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), London. Posted on Religioscope with permission.

Articles published by the IWPR on Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iraq  as well as other topics can be accessed on its website:

IWPR supports recovery and development in crisis zones by providing professional training, financial assistance and an international platform to independent media, human rights activists and other local democratic voices. IWPR's primary beneficiaries are local journalists who participate in its reporting, research and training programmes.

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