Middle East - The Shi'a: Arcs and Crescents

The balance of power in the Muslim world has changed for good - the ‘Shi’a crescent’ benefitting at the expense of the Sunni arc. America’s war in Iraq has encouraged expectations, drawn attention to divisions and empowered critical voices at the expense of long-term allies.

The World Today Updated 13 November 2020 Published 1 December 2006 4 minute READ

Mai Yamani

Associate Fellow, Middle East Programme, Chatham House

Muslims have always had a problematic relationship with the moon. Precisely pinpointing when and where the crescent moon can be found is not an exact science. So we who base our calendar on the phases of the moon never know precisely when the fasting month of Ramadan will arrive or when its end will be celebrated with the festival of Eid. In October it was celebrated on three different days throughout the Muslim world.

But today our difficulty with the moon has taken on a whole new dimension. Muslims and non-Muslim scholars and politicians are confronted by a terrestrial incarnation of the lunar phase: the Shi’a crescent.

With the exception of a few scholars, the non-Muslim world knew almost nothing about the Shi’a until the 1979 Iranian revolution. No one talked about them in ethnic, religious or political terms, much less imagined a Shi’a crescent cutting a swath across the Islamic world.

Subscribe to read all issues

Articles from the current issue are free to read by all, the archive is exclusive to magazine subscribers and our members. Subscribe or become a member to view articles from the archive.