Shi’ite Islam, like many religions, has taken on distinctly indigenous forms in the different lands that it has spread. The practices of “popular Shiism” are where the differences are most pronounced. These popular practices are often the most important agents in spreading a religion in lands where it is foreign and must be understood through a reconstructed native understanding. A very important example of this is found in Iranian history when Safavid rulers sent out Sufis across the vast regions of Iran to proselytize people in the doctrine of Twelver Shiism. Here, we see how the Gnostic inclination of Iranians was reconciled with the charisma of the Twelver Imami line. The Iranian practice of visiting Sufi shrines transformed itself into popular pilgrimages to the shrines of the Imams and their lineage.

Eventually, Iranians became so attached to their new faith that they created the first drama in the Middle Eastern world, the taziyeh. The taziyeh is a distinctly Iranian dramatic reenactment of the events at Karbala. Persia’s conversion to Shiism was so strong that later attempts to convert Iran back to Sunnism by Afghan rulers were unequivocal failures. With the example of Shiism in Iran, we can see how religion must be willing to adapt to indigenous ways of understanding the world if it wishes to survive in foreign territories.