A Minority in the Making: The Shia Muslim Community in Norway

In: Journal of Muslims in Europe
View More View Less
  • 1 Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion (AHKR), University of Bergen
  • | 2 The Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo
Full Access


In this article, we document and discuss transnational links and localising dynamics that are relevant for a young Shia community in the making in Norway. The Shia community is a minority in the Muslim minority population of Norway, and has been an almost neglected field of research. With this article we therefore aim to add knowledge to this field. First we provide an overview of the development of Shiism in Norway, and then we examine what kind of dynamics have come to the fore in ritual practice and in shaping a Norwegian Shia Muslim identity, through institutionalisation, knowledge, production and visibility.


In this article, we document and discuss transnational links and localising dynamics that are relevant for a young Shia community in the making in Norway. The Shia community is a minority in the Muslim minority population of Norway, and has been an almost neglected field of research. With this article we therefore aim to add knowledge to this field. First we provide an overview of the development of Shiism in Norway, and then we examine what kind of dynamics have come to the fore in ritual practice and in shaping a Norwegian Shia Muslim identity, through institutionalisation, knowledge, production and visibility.


The main objective of this article is to document and analyse transnational links and localising dynamics among the Shia Muslim Community in Norway. According to Basch, Schiller and Blanc, “transnational” refers to “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement”.1 Transnational links can thus be established “from above” by institutions or actors on a global level, as well as “from below” by individuals and groups at a grass-root level.2 The concept of “localisation”, instead, refers to a process “from below” that has an impact on its new socio-cultural, economic and topographic surroundings, or is influenced by those surroundings.3

In our discussion, we are particularly interested in how transnational and localising dynamics interact in efforts towards shaping a Shia Muslim community in Norway. The Shia community is a minority within the Muslim minority population of Norway, and so we are interested in how these dynamics play out in terms of institutionalisation, knowledge and visibility. The article is divided into five main parts. In the first section, we introduce an overview of the historical development and demographic background of Shiism in Norway. Then, we turn to the institutionalisation of Norwegian Shia Muslim communities, identifying processes of division and collaboration, as well as transnationalism and localisation. In the third section, we look at the new generation and examine their efforts to build a Shia Muslim identity in Norway. In the fourth part, we turn to the recent increase in public visibility as a result of ritual practice, while the fifth section sums up how transnational and localising dynamics interact in efforts towards shaping a Shia Muslim community in Norway.

Data referred to in this article has been collected from available facts and figures (e.g. Statistics Norway, The Directorate of Integration and Diversity [IMDi]), as well as information available online at Shia Muslim communities’ and organisations’ websites. The authors have also gathered material through participant observations and interviews conducted in Shia Muslim mosques and organisations in Oslo, on the west coast and in northern parts of Norway.

1 Historical Development and Demographic Background

Most Shia Muslims in Norway belong to the Twelver (Ithna Ashari) branch of Shia Islam, also referred to as Imami or Twelver Shiites. The Shia Muslim presence is the result of immigration, mainly from Pakistan (since the mid-1970s), Iran (since the late 1970s), Iraq (since the 1980s), Afghanistan (since the early 1980s), and also from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, India and Bahrain. While the Shiites’ presence was at first connected to labour-migration, most immigrants in the following decades were refugees and asylum seekers, in addition to some students. This pattern continues today. While there is an increasing number of second and third generation Shiites of migrant origin raised in Norway, the community also includes a small number of Norwegian converts to Shiism. As such, the introduction of Twelver Shiism to Norway and its continuous presence follows a pattern resembling that applicable to the Sunni Muslim population.4 The introduction of Islam to Norway and its gradual development from being a “migrated” religion to becoming a “local” religion also coincides with patterns observed elsewhere in Western Europe.5 In this respect, Shiites, although a Muslim minority, do not differ much from the Muslim majority. The main difference between the minority and the majority communities has to do with aspects of visibility.

Research on Islam and Muslims in Norway evolved in the 1980s. Shiism, however, is an almost neglected field of research, as is the case elsewhere in Europe. Shia Muslims and Shiism in Norway have occasionally been main topics of research, but are more often only mentioned anecdotally in scholarly publications.6 One explanation for this is that the number of Shiites and Shiite organisations is substantially less than the number of Sunnis and Sunni organisations. Moreover, Shiites tend not to publicly self-identify as adherents of any particular branch of Islam, and have therefore remained invisible as Shiites both to the general public and to researchers.

The demographic mapping by the Pew Research Center from 2009 on Sunni and Shiite populations worldwide suggested that most Muslims are Sunnis, and an estimated 10-13% are Shiites.7 A significant methodological challenge for estimating the number of Shiites in the Norwegian context is that there is no official register of the religions or faiths to which people belong. While demographic data is, as Larsson argues, an unreliable source of information for estimating the number of Muslims residing in Europe, some rough estimation can be made on the basis of immigration patterns and the number of registered members of Muslim organisations.8 While we must take precautions related to the use of demographic data into consideration, the country of origin can offer some insight into the estimated proportions of Shia Muslims living in Norway. If we consider how many immigrants have come from countries with a Shia population, and take into account the approximate percentage of the Shia population in each of these countries, we arrive at an estimate of about 40,000 people in Norway as of 2015 who are likely to have a Shia Muslim background.9

Available records of the number of members listed in faith and life stance communities offer an alternative method.10 In 2015, the estimated number registered in Muslim organisations was about 126,000.11 Although there is no record of the Muslim organisations’ denominational orientation, it is to some extent possible to discern their affiliation by deduction from the organisations’ names. A preliminary estimate is that the total number of members registered in Shia Muslim organisations in 2015 was 13,616.12 This number is considerable lower than the 2015 demographic estimate referred to above. There are several possible explanations for the discrepancy: there is not necessarily a correlation between a person’s country of origin and his or her religious belief, or between a person’s religious background and his or her current religious views.13 Some people who define themselves as Shiites may refrain from registering as members in any religious community. In countries like Iran and Pakistan, for instance, the practice of registering as members of a religious community is uncommon.14 Moreover—given the lack of designated Shia Muslim communities in Norway—Shia Muslims either do not have anywhere to register, or choose to register with larger Sunni-based organisations and communities. Considering that many Shia migrants have fled religious persecution, some might also be cautious of revealing their religious identity and choose instead to conceal their religious belief (taqiyya). Another explanation could be that small, informal networks of Shia Muslims prefer not to register with the state or apply for state funding, and our interviews suggest that some individuals may prefer to commemorate Shia events in private, and refrain from attending organised public rituals. Membership lists do not therefore provide completely reliable information. Accordingly, there is reason to believe that the number of Shiites resident in Norway in 2015 was higher than 13,616 (based on membership lists), but lower than 40,000 (based on immigration from countries with a Shia Muslim population).

2 The Institutionalisation of Shiism in Norway

Despite their minority position, Shiites are scattered across the elongated country of Norway and form communities that are diverse in terms of national and ethnic origin and cultural background, as well as religious practices and ideologies. The Shia communities have often established some form of religious organisation, ranging from well-established mosques, to informal and private assemblies. In the late 2000s, we can also observe the emergence of many youth organisations. Certain features in the development of the Shia Muslim community in Norway emerge as typical for a religious minority group in the making. Collective religious practices are essential for the development and survival of religious communities.15 Primarily, the wish to celebrate important religious festival days and the need for religious knowledge tend to motivate people to seek out one another. Accordingly, the Shiites have established mosques, cultural and religious centres, and in a few cases they have founded Husayniya, in addition to youth organisations.16 From a total of 749 religious organisations registered in public records in 2015, about 163 of these were Muslim, of which approximately 17 were Shiite. At an early stage, when the numbers were few and organisation was informal, it was typical to meet in someone’s home or rent a cafe. However, as the community grew and people settled on a permanent basis, organisation became more formalised, and the need to find durable solutions arose.17 This development is reflected in that many associations officially registered with the Norwegian authorities only several years after they were established, when their members sought financial support to secure a permanent location for ritual performance and educational activities. This pattern resembles processes of institutionalisation observed among the Sunni population.18 Moreover, as with the Sunni experience, mosques and centres have typically been located in office buildings or in closed industrial buildings. For example, the first Shia mosque, Anjuman-e Husayn Association, was founded in Oslo in 1979, but secured a permanent location only in 1984. The first and, so far, only purpose-built Shia mosque, Tauheed mosque (founded in 1979), was inaugurated in 2013. The funding is partly provided by members of other Shia mosques and religious associations in Norway. By comparison, the first Sunni mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre (icc) was founded in 1974 and established as a purpose-built mosque in 2009. In 2015, the icc had 4,079 members.

From Unity, to Division and Collaboration

Another significant feature for the development of the Shia Muslim community in Norway has been a gradual development from unity to division and collaboration. Typically, when a Shia community is small, believers of various nationalities, cultural backgrounds and theological leanings meet in the same place. However, as the community grows, there tend to be divisions according to language, culture, and sometimes theological persuasions—that is, allegiance to particular religious advisors, marjaʿ al-taqlid (source of emulation), as well as differences over the relationship between religion and politics.19 This pattern is exemplified in the development of Shia mosques and associations in Oslo. The first Shia mosque founded in Oslo was the Anjuman-e Husayn Association, established in 1979 and dominated by Urdu-speaking Pakistanis (676 members in 2015).20 In 1994, the Tauheed Islamic Centre followed, and was registered the subsequent year. In 2015, it had 890 members drawn from different nationalities, and the languages in use are mainly Arabic, Urdu and Norwegian. In 1997, the Al-Huda Cultural Centre was established, and registered in 2005 (295 members). The language is Arabic and most members are of Iraqi or Iranian origin.21 Since the early 2000s, there has been a significant increase in the number of Shia mosques and centres in Oslo, and today there are between eight and ten.22 These include the Muhiban-e-ahlil Bait Centre, established and registered in 2001, with mainly Afghani members (291 members); the Al-Redha Islamic Centre, established in 2002 and registered in 2004, with mainly Iraqi members (873 members); the Norwegian Imam Ali Centre, established in 2004, with mainly Iranian and Afghani members (447 members); the Imam Mehdi Centre, established in 2002 and registered in 2005, with mainly Afghani members (327 members); the Kawthar al-Nabi (512 members); and the Oslo Saied Alshohada Hosseinie, with mainly Afghani members (881 members).

Outside Oslo, congregations still tend to be multinational or multiethnic, although immigration flows sometimes influence the demographic make-up of the communities. For example, the Abu al-Fadel Islamic Cultural Centre was established in Bergen in 1997 with mainly Iraqi members (566 members); in Trondheim, the Ahle Bait Centre was registered in 2002 with members from Iraq and Afghanistan (337 members); in Skien, there is the Al-Ghadir Islamic Cultural Association (291 members); in Fredrikstad, the Al-Ghadir Islamic Cen-tre was established in 2002 with mainly Iraqi members (783 members); and in Sandnes the Iraqi Religious Community (its) was recently founded, with mainly Iraqi members (211 members). Informal, multinational and multicultural networks exist in smaller towns, such as Tromsø above the Arctic Circle.23

Transnationalism and Localisation

The mosques and religious associations provide arenas for the weekly collective readings on Thursday afternoons of the supplication duʿa Kumail.24 They are also essential for practices related to religious holidays, such as the fast in Ramadan, rituals commemorating the battle at Karbala in the months of Muharram and Safar, and the death of the Twelver Shia Imams and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as celebrations of their birthdays (mowludi). Such collective rituals are central for Shia communities’ identity constructions.25 These locations also host commemorative rituals, as when a member dies, and weddings. Some mosques have permanent religious scholars (ulama), but scholars more commonly visit for a few months during important religious seasons such as Ramadan and Muharram. Most invited scholars are resident in the Middle East, although they increasingly tend to live in Europe. Otherwise, the congregations rely on their own members to lead prayers, rituals and recitations. As in most religions, the need for religious knowledge and spiritual guidance makes it necessary for a congregation to engage religious scholars. Increasingly, however, many Shia as well as Sunni congregations acknowledge the necessity for religious scholars to be knowledgeable about Norwegian society and language too.

Although we can discern a pattern in which country of origin is important in deciding which mosque people attend, the fact that many Shiites in Norway are refugees who spent years in transit in Middle Eastern countries before being integrated into a un resettlement programme and transferred to Norway, often makes people break with this pattern. Thus, many Shiites of Afghani and Iraqi origin spent years in Iran and became influenced by religious practices there. Accordingly, they regularly visit the mosque dominated by Iranians. However, political refugees from Iran, who oppose the doctrine of velayat-e faqih (governance of the jurisprudent), developed by Ayatollah Khomeini with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979,26 often select their preferred mosque for its rejection of that doctrine. Shiite clerics are educated at seminaries, hawza ilmiyya, which teach theology and law. The most important seminaries are located in Qum, Mashhad and Isfahan in Iran; Najaf and Karbala in Iraq; Lahore in Pakistan; Lucknow in India; Beirut in Lebanon; and, until recently, Sayyida Zaynab in Syria. The seminaries attract students from all over the Shiite world, who subsequently take up positions as clerics and imams to guide the Shiite laity in religious matters. The Shiite clerical elite thus forms a transnational body of religious scholars.27 In Norway, not many Shiite mosques have an imam “in residence”, relying instead on imams visiting from abroad. Some notable changes in recent years, as Shiite institutions have become more established on the European continent, are that many mosques prefer to invite imams resident in European countries such as England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden rather than imams residing outside of Europe. The explanation is mainly socio-cultural; there is a need for imams who can interpret Islam in relation to the Western context. But it is also political: religious scholars living in the Middle East sometimes find it hard to obtain a visa permit. Norwegian Shiites do not, however, benefit from engaging only with already established transnational networks. Some, including the Council of Ulama Imamia,28 also contribute to initiating such networks. Local Shiite mosques and associations in Norway thus currently seem to combine transnational links to old clerical institutions in the country of origin with links to European institutions and individuals who share their migratory and localising experiences. This option is facilitated by the establishment of Shiite religious institutions in several European countries.29

At the same time, Norwegian Shiites are engaged in what we may call a “politics of localisation”. The Islamic Council Norway (Islamsk Råd Norge; irn) is an umbrella association for Muslim religious communities founded in 1993. According to the irn website, in 2017 they represented 42 member organisations and about 82,000 Muslims across the country.30 Although Shiites were involved in the process of founding the irn, it was only in 1997 that the Council allowed Shiite mosques and associations to become members, after a long debate.31 Both Tauheed Islamic Centre and Anjuman-e Husayni, the two largest Shia mosques in the Oslo area, are listed as members of irn, and young Shiites are engaged in the Council’s committee work. While membership in irn has the potential for intrareligious collaboration between various Muslim denominations in Norway, it also has the potential for engaging in interreligious dialogue, in addition to meeting with politicians and government-sponsored bodies managing the politics of religious plurality in Norway.

3 A New Generation: Building a Shia Muslim Identity in Norway

As a minority religion in a predominantly non-Muslim society, an obvious challenge is to pass on Shiite beliefs and practices to the younger generation. A common strategy adopted is to organise training in Arabic, Qur’an recitation, religious etiquette (ahkam, for example with regard to prayer), and religious law (fiqh). Depending on the size of the community, some associations organise weekly meetings whereas other invite the children for a two-day camp once or twice a year. Such activities are most commonly found in the more established Shia communities in the Oslo area, but similar initiatives are increasingly found elsewhere, as in Bergen, for example. Some mosques and associations organise reading groups and courses in Qur’an recitation for men and women, separately. Teachers are typically recruited from among the members. It is not uncommon for members of the laity to have studied for a few years at religious colleges in their country of origin, such as in Iraq and Iran. Among the younger generation, some also travel to the uk to study at Shia colleges. In the minority context, ritual events are used as methods for “naturalising” children into, or familiarising them with, Shia rituals, central beliefs and practices.32 Rituals are often modified to accommodate the children, to include and entertain them, for example through religious theatre (taʿziyeh/tashabih) and ritualised dance (sineh/latum). While such ritual practices are common in the parents’ countries of origin, our observations suggest that in Norway rituals tend to be more family-oriented than is often the case in the country of origin. In addition, religious associations are important social meetings places.

Despite the tendency to split and found new religious associations, religious holidays are occasions for interaction between Shia institutions. In Oslo, the laity visit each other’s ritual events, religious scholars (mullah/shaykh) pay courtesy visits, and young male liturgical eulogists offer their competence to several associations, often during the same day. There is thus reason to argue that, despite some disagreements and splits, there is also collaboration between Shia institutions and their members across the country.

Although the younger generation is rooted in established institutions, such as mosques or religious organisations, the following review suggests that there has been a remarkable increase in the number of independent youth associations based in Oslo over the last years, run by first and second generation young Shia Muslims. The independent youth organisations supplement mosque-affiliated organisations, but are freer to set their own agenda.33 Common features are that the members come from a variety of national backgrounds and mosques, while some do not attend mosques, and the language of communication is Norwegian. A main objective is education, that is, to learn and know more about Islam. In addition, they discuss how to live as a Muslim in Norway, an example of the localising process. Although each group has its own approach and methods, one individual is often a member of several groups. The groups are run by elected boards, which most typically, have adapted to gender equality policies in Norway and practise gender equality.34 The youth base their activities on digital platforms and social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), which facilitate the formation of new groups, convey messages, and recruit and mobilise members. Their activities include seminars, lectures and social activities, such as cabin outings, football and film evenings. There is also a tendency to move beyond the confines of local Shia Muslim networks to engage locally with Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims, to inform them about Islam and Muslims in Norway and to engage in interreligious dialogue with Christians and Jews, and with Sunnis. On several occasions, Shia youths have organised political demonstrations in Oslo, and some have established collaboration with ngos.35

The first independent Shia youth association, din, was established in Oslo in 2007.36 din hosts lectures with external speakers from Norway and abroad on topics such as how to reflect Islam in a non-Muslim society (2008), the message of the Qur’an, Western misconceptions about Islam (2011), and peace in the world’s religions with a focus on Islam and political radicalisation (2015). din has also sent delegations to Shia conferences in Copenhagen and Stockholm to promote collaboration between Shia organisations in Scandinavia. Another association, isut (‘Islamske samlinger under treet’; Islamic gatherings under the tree), was founded in 2010 as a study circle. The members interpreted and translated authoritative texts such as Nahj al-balagha and Mafatih al-jennan into Norwegian.37 Interpretations combined input from philosophical wisdom (erfan), and the members’ knowledge and reflections based on their life in Norway. The group has not been active since 2013 because of the members’ obligations elsewhere, such as education and professional life. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of Shia youth associations expanded to eight. ‘Stand4Hussain’ (established in January 2012) emerged as a platform for organising public events in the streets of Oslo. On days of religious celebration and commemoration, they arrange stands and hand out drinks and cakes. The intentions are to inform about Islamic traditions and values, and offer peaceful responses to ongoing debates on the radicalisation of Islam in Norway and worldwide, and to recent acts of violence by or towards Muslims in Europe.38 Since 2012, Dialogtreff for unge voksne (Dialog meetings for young adults) has been a meeting place for young Muslims (mainly Shiite), Christians and Jews, to exchange views on subjects such as faith and how to create social justice. An important aspect of interfaith dialogue is to visit each other’s places of worship—a Shia mosque, a church and a synagogue. Ung Hussaini (Young Hussaini) was founded in Oslo in 2012. Its purpose is to learn and share knowledge about Islam. They host seminars on topics such as, Ziyarat Ashura and life after death, and run a Facebook group for sharing information. ilm (Islams lære og metode; Islam’s teaching and method), founded in 2012, is intended to be a collaboration between Shiites and Sunnis.39 The group organises seminars where members speak on topics such as “the relationship between faith and action”, “Imam Husayn, history and message”, and men’s and women’s rights and duties. In 2014, Norsk Sjia litteratur (Norwegian Shiite literature) was founded with the aim of translating and publishing Shiite literature in Norwegian.40 The Khadidja Centre was established in the same year as another joint Shia and Sunni effort to organise seminars on Islam.

While the first generation Shia residents in Norway have been preoccupied with building a religious community through the establishment of institutions for the collective performance of rituals and for teaching, the young generation, raised in Norway, is concerned with debating and defining religion in the context of the lives they live in Norway. As mentioned previously, several Shia Muslim youth organisations have been established in recent years for the purpose of learning and sharing knowledge about Shia religious practice and texts. In addition, various public events have been organised in the streets in Oslo to convey Shia Muslim values and to counter the negative image that many have of Islam and Muslims. In this regard, the activities of the Shiite youth bear a striking resemblance to Christine Jacobsen’s findings in her study of Sunni Muslim youths in Oslo, and their preoccupation with producing and defining their identity as Muslims within a Norwegian context.41 Among both Sunni and Shiite youth, the establishment of organisations that are run by youth and have a youth focus has been central in this endeavour.

For Norwegian youth who identify as Shiites, the need to build a Shia Muslim identity in the Norwegian context and young people’s need for education and knowledge about Islam is connected to perceived challenges in building a Muslim identity in a society in which Islam has only recently been introduced. In this context, internal authorities, whether parents or formal institutions such as mosques and cultural centres, are perceived to offer only limited guidance on how to go about this. The question of identity, what it means to be Muslim, is discussed by investigating faith-related issues, ritual practice and social ethics, and the relationship between them. These topics are also addressed in response to the public discourse on Islam, which is preoccupied with integration and security, as well as to radicalised Muslims in Norway, who the youth feel misrepresent Muslims and Islam. Although responding to local issues, the youth organisations’ activities are also part of a global trend. For example, members of Stand4Hussain were inspired by a group in Canada handing out water on the day of commemoration of the 40th day of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom (Arbaʿin).42 Similar events have been organised in the uk and elsewhere, an example of which may be seen in the activities of the ‘Who is Husayn?’ campaign.43

4 Visibility: Karbala as Ritual Practice and Public Voice

In the last decade, Shiites have gradually become more visible in the public urban space, oganising ritual performances in relation to the Karbala event with processions in the streets of Oslo and Bergen, as well as stands in Oslo, Tromsø and elsewhere. The rituals are staged in major public sites; in Oslo, in the main street and in front of the parliament building, and in Bergen in and around the city’s main square. In Oslo, the turnout for the Ashura processions is usually up to 800 people, and they are always escorted by the police. In Bergen, the turnout tends to be about 200 people, but the procession is nevertheless quite visible and audible. The events perform a dual function as ritualised mourning and as public expressions of a Norwegian Shia identity, which is presented as inherently non-violent. The new Shia voice in the public urban space thus use well-established ritual practices as platforms for communication with fellow citizens.

Since 2006, Shiites in Oslo have organised processions on the day of Ashura, when the martyrdom of Imam Husayn is commemorated in Shia communities around the world. However, unlike practices in the Middle East, children walk first, then women, and the men at the end.44 In contrast also to the way Shia mosques and associations tend to be organised in Oslo, the procession is a cross-mosque, cross-national, cross-ethnic, cross-generational and cross-gender event, and young Shiite men and women raised in Norway play a central role. Flags and posters are imported from Iraq with text in Arabic, combined with locally made banners with texts in Norwegian and English. The texts combine slogans commemorating, honouring and supporting Husayn, but they also carry slogans such as “No to terror”, which are also shouted by the participants. In fact, although the procession represents a transfer of a well-established ritual performance from the Shiites’ original countries of origin, in the Norwegian context it is transformed into what the local Shiites call a “peace procession”. In Bergen, Ashura processions have been organised since 2013. The Abu al-Fadl Islamic Cultural Centre has been in charge of the procession, which is organised with children first, then men, and then the women at the end. Although the centre’s activities normally gather participants of Iraqi background, the processions also include participants of Afghan and Iranian origin. As in the processions organised in Oslo, the participants carry banners and posters imported from Iraq with Arabic slogans commemorating Husayn, in addition to homemade posters with texts in Norwegian. Also here, peace and humanity is highlighted in texts such as: “Imam Hussain = Peace”, and “To die with dignity is better than to live with humiliation”. The posters also address current political events through slogans such as “We are Muslims and against is”. The need to commemorate a central religious event is combined with the need to speak to the unheated public debate on migration and Islamic terror, nourished by the Cartoon crisis, the emergence of is, and attacks in major European cities.

Despite large turnouts for the Ashura procession in Oslo, some refrain from participating as they find such ritual expressions out of place in the Western context. In 2014 and 2015, the Khadidja Centre organised alternative Ashura processions in Oslo. Instead of colourful banners and music, they found a silent procession with banners in Norwegian expressing support for human rights to be more appropriate in a Norwegian context. In Bergen too, there is some disagreement over aesthetics. While the crowd engages in chanting slogans related to Imam Husayn and his role in the battle of Karbala, there are participants who would prefer the procession to be silent in order to commemorate the events of Karbala in what they consider a more dignified manner.45

Although the traditional Shia Ashura procession has become increasingly visible to the Norwegian public, the transfer of the ritual does not include the conventional but controversial rite of bloody self-flagellation. Instead, in line with trends in the Middle East, South Asia and the West, blood donation campaigns have become increasingly popular.46 The idea is to support Imam Husayn’s struggle for justice by sharing one’s blood for a humanitarian cause. While in Great Britain campaigns have been coordinated since 1987, the blood donation campaign in Norway has been picking up in the last ten years. Potential donors may find information on the Internet, and attend public health offices on an individual basis. The individual donor’s experience is sometimes shared with fellow believers on the Internet, on some occasions documented with “selfies”, thus making individual actions publicly known and part of a collective effort performed in Muharram. Moreover, since 2012, Stand4Hussain has organised stands on Arbaʿin, handing out hot chocolate to passers-by at public places in central Oslo, in addition to short flyers informing about Shiism. Consciously avoiding proselytising, they make themselves available as Muslims debaters on issues such as integration and the identity of Islam.

Despite such remarkable Muslim manifestations, the media attention has been marginal. Only in Bergen has the local newspaper shown some interest in publishing coverage of Ashura processions organised in 2013 and 2014. The lack of media coverage of these events corresponds to wider patterns of media coverage related to Islam and Muslims in Norway. In 2014, the Norwegian media coverage of Islam was mainly related to issues of extremism, radicalisation and jihadism, or to topics such as forced marriage and the wearing of the niqab in public.47 The lack of media attention to the various ritual activities performed by Muslims communities thus contributes to underrating both the religious and cultural diversity that exists among Muslims in Norwegian society.

5 A Shia Community in the Making: Transnational and Localising Dynamics

In our discussion in this article, we have addressed the efforts towards shaping a Shia Muslim community in Norway. We have mapped and given a record of the historical development and current situation of Twelver Shiism in Norway and two interrelated dynamics have come to the fore. Transnational links and localising dynamics are significant for the institutionalisation, knowledge production and visibility of Twelver Shiism in Norway. Through transnational links Shiites forge and sustain social relations, partly with their societies of origin and partly with Shiite societies elsewhere in Europe. Links are also maintained with theological centres and environments in the Middle East, by inviting religious scholars to visit mosque environments in Norway and some students also travel to Iran or Iraq, for example, to acquire formal religious education. Transnational links are also established and maintained through pilgrimage, particularly visitation (ziyarat) to shrines in Iran, Iraq and, until recently, Syria.48 In addition, Shiites in Norway are influenced by trends in the rest of Europe, North America and the Middle East, such as the public performance of Ashura processions and the blood donation campaigns mentioned above.49 This pattern corresponds to the currents of transnationalism observed in Shiite communities in the Netherlands and in Britain.50 At the same time, Shia communities are becoming more adapted to a Norwegian context through a number of localising dynamics partly initiated by the Shiites themselves through institutional and civic participation and increased visibility,51 and partly facilitated by governmental support, such as funding and institutional platforms.

Neither transnationalism nor localism should, however, be expected to produce linear or neat patterns. Currently, we observe that connections are maintained with Shiite communities in countries of origin and European countries alike, in ways that sustain transnational links as well as facilitate localising developments in Norway. Localising dynamics also develop along a continuum. While the first generation of Shia residents in Norway were mainly preoccupied with the institutionalising of the religious community, there is currently a new interest in collaboration with non-governmental and governmental institutions. At the same time, the Shia youth raised in Norway are concerned with educating themselves in Islam and defining Islam in the Norwegian context. These parallel trends bear witness to the kinds of local particularities and transnational links that have been foundational for the development of Norwegian Shia Muslim communities so far, and also indicate the path that the new generation of Shiites raised in Norway is likely to follow in the years to come.


Basch, Linda, Schiller, Nina Glick & Blanc, Christina Szanton, Nations Unbound (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1994), p. 7.


Smith, Michael Peter & Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo (eds), Transnationalism from Below (New Brunswick, nj: Transaction, 2006).


See, for example, Rocha, Christina & Barker, Michelle (eds), Buddhism in Australia (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 2.


Naguib, Saphinaz-Amal, “The northern way: Muslim communities in Norway.” In Muslim Minorities in the West: Visible and Invisible, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad & Jane I. Smith (eds) (Lanham, md: AltaMira Press, 2002), pp. 161-174.


See, for example, Vertovec, Steven & Peach, Ceri (eds), Islam in Europe (London: MacMillan, 1997).


Valuable information on the institutional development of Shiism in Norway until the 1990s, organisational structure, delegation of power, and political and theological aspects of institutional life can be found in two studies by Vogt: Vogt, Kari, Islam på norsk: Moskeer og islamske organisasjoner i Norge (Oslo: Cappelen Damm, 2000); Vogt, Kari, “‘Ikke prester, men lærde’: Sjia-muslimske ledere i Norge”, in Religiøse ledere: Makt og avmakt i norske trossamfunn, Cora Alexa Døving & Berit Thorbjørnsrud (eds) (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2012), pp. 47-67. In an in-depth case study, Flaskerud offers information on ritual practice; she discusses the transfer of ritual practices in the migrant experience, and how rituals become shaped by new local sociocultural circumstances: Flaskerud, Ingvild, “Women transferring Shia rituals in Western migrancy”, in Women’s Rituals and Ceremonies in Shiite Iran and Muslim Communities: Methodological and Theoretical Challenges, Pedram Khosronejad (ed.) (Berlin: lit Verlag, 2015), pp. 115-134. Religious identity and self-understandings among Shia Muslims is discussed in a Master’s thesis by Strandhagen: Strandhagen, Inger Johanne, “Unge sjiamuslimer i Oslo: Om religiøs identitet, individualisering og forholdet til transnasjonal autoritet”, Master’s thesis in Religion and Society, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, 2008. In a scholarly article, Bøe examines changes and continuations of nikah mutʿa (temporary marriage) in Shia minority and majority contexts, which is a kind of marriage permitted in Twelver Shia jurisprudence but not in Sunni jurisprudence: Bøe, Marianne, “Fornying og videreføring av midlertidig ekteskap i sjia-muslimske minoritets- og majoritetsposisjoner”, din: Religionsvitenskapelig tidsskrift, 1 (2012) pp. 91-117. Occasionally, Shia Muslims are also briefly mentioned in accounts of the development of Muslim communities in various parts of the country: Ådna, Gerd Marie, “Troende, trøstende og kanskje tvilende: Transnasjonal muslimsk hverdag”, in Levende Religion: Globalt perspektiv - lokal praksis, Anne Kalvig & Anna R. Solevåg (eds) (Stavanger: Hertervig Akademisk, 2015) pp. 132-153; Bratsvedal, Ine Rolseth, “Islam i Tromsø: En begynnelse på en historie”, Master’s thesis, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Educational Science, University of Tromsø, 2013.


Pew Forum, “Mapping the global Muslim population”. October 2009. Available at: (accessed 21.08.2017).


Larsson, Göran, “The fear of small numbers: Eurabia literature and censuses on religious belonging”, Journal of Muslims in Europe, 1 (2012), pp. 142-165.


This estimate is based on information from Statistics Norway, “Innvandrere og norskfødte med innvandrerforeldre”, 2015. Available at: (accessed 06.01.2015) and Statistics Norway, “Folkemengde 1. januar 2015”, 2015. Available at: (accessed 30.12.2015); (accessed 21.09.2017). A similar estimate has been made of the Shia Muslim community in Sweden; see Larsson, Göran & Thurfjell, David, Shia muslimer i Sverige: En kortfattad översikt, Nämnden för Statligt stöd till Trossamfunds (sst) skriftserie, 3 (Stockholm: sst, 2013), p. 23.


The Norwegian state provides funding for faith and life stance communities according to the number of registered members; see Leirvik, Oddbjørn, “Aktivt støttande religionspolitikk—på kva vilkår, til fordel for kven?”, Norsk Teologisk Tidsskrift, 110, no. 2 (2009), pp. 66-88.


For earlier estimates, see Jacobsen, Christine M. & Leirvik, Oddbjørn, “Norway”, in Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, vol. 5, Jørgen S. Nielsen (ed.) (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

12, “Antall tilskuddstellende medlemmer i tros- og livssynsamfunn”, 2015. Available at: (accessed 23.02.2016).


For a study of religion and secularism as identity markers among the Iranian diaspora in the uk see, for example, Gholami, Reza, Secularism and Identity: Non-Islamiosity in the Iranian Diaspora (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).


Sultan, Shoaib, “Medlemskap i norske moskéer”, in Religionsstatistikk og medlemsforståelse, Breistein, Ingunn Folkestad & Høeg, Ida Marie (eds) (Trondheim: Akademika Forlag, 2012), pp. 165-180, p. 175.


Rao, Ursula, “Ritual in society”, in Theorizing Rituals, Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek & Michael Stausberg (eds) (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 143-160.


A Husayniya is a public ritual location dedicated to Imam Husayn. In the Middle East, such locations are typically owned and run by families as religious endowments or by religious associations. In Norway, they are run by religious associations.


Conversation with members of mosque boards in Norway 2010-2014.


Vogt, Islam på Norsk, 15-56.


Every Shiite is expected to choose a religious scholar to act as their source of emulation (marjaʿ al- taqlid) who should excel in ʿilm (knowledge), ʿadl (justice in the practice of law), and piety (varaʿ) or godliness (taqva) (Amanat, Abbas, “In between the madrasa and the marketplace: The designation of clerical leadership in modern Shi’ism”, in: Authority and Political Culture in Shi’ism, Said Amir Arjomand (ed.) (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988) pp. 98-99. Community division according to adherence to religious advisors is a delicate issue, since everyone is entitled to a personal opinion. Therefore, most religious associations do not promote a specific marjaʿ. Most such advisors are resident in countries in the Middle East, with representatives stationed in Europe. They are typically consulted through the printed or online media, in matters of correct religious etiquette, such as how to pray and dress. The question of the involvement of the marja´ in political issues has always been controversial. Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei (although the latter’s role as marjaʿ is disputed) in Iran, and Ayatollah Shirazi in Iraq are examples of politically engaged marjaʿs, whereas Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq takes a quietist approach (see Nakash, Yitzhak, Reaching for Power: The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World, Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 2006). For discussion of how the issue of the marjaʿ is approached in other European countries, see Scharbrodt, Olivier & Sakaranaho, Tuula, Islam and Muslims in the Republic of Ireland, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 31 (special issue), 2011; Shanneik, Yafa, “Gendering religious authority in the diaspora: Shii women in Ireland”, in Religion, Gender and the Public Sphere, Niamh Reilly & Stacey Scriver Furlong (eds) (New York: Routledge, 2013) pp. 58-67.


All subsequent references to numbers of members refer to 2015.


For a short review of the establishment of Shiite mosques in the 1990s, see Vogt, Islam på norsk, pp. 51-52.


The number varies from year to year. Husayniya Ahl al-Bayt, established in Oslo in 2009, had to close the following year for lack of funding.


Flaskerud, “Women transferring Shia rituals”, pp. 115-134.


Du’a Kumail is a supplication typically read in Shia communities on Thursday evenings. According to tradition, the supplication was memorised after Imam Ali (d. 661) dictated it to a man called Kumail, and it has been known by his name ever since (see Qummi, Hajj Shaykh al-Abbas (ed.), Mafatih al-jennan (Qum, 2001), p. 101).


See Spellman, Kathryn, Religion and Nation: Iranian Local and Transnational Networks in Britain (New York: Berghahn, 2004); Flynn, Kieran, Islam in the West: Iraqi Shi’i Communities in Transition and Dialogue (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013); Holm Pedersen, Marianne, Iraqi Women in Denmark: Ritual Pperformance and Belonging in Everyday Life (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014); Shanneik, Yafa, “Remembering Karbala in the diaspora: Religious rituals among Iraqi Shii women in Ireland”, Religion, 45, no. 1, 2015, pp. 89-102.


The doctrine of velayat-e faqih represents a recent innovation in Shiism in which the marjaʿiyyat al-taqlid institution is merged with the governance of a modern state.


Arjomand, Saïd Amir, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Organization and Societal Change in Shi’ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Corbos, Elvire, Guardians of Shi´ism: Sacred Authority and Transnational Family Networks (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).


The Council of Ulama Imamia was founded in 2005 by an imam resident in Norway. The council gathers Urdu-speaking Shiites from the Scandinavian countries, as well as from Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and Belgium. See, Vogt, “‘Ikke prester, men lærde’”, p. 56.


Corbos, Elvire, “The al-Khoei Foundation and the transnational institutionalisation of Ayatollah al-Khuʾi’s marjaʿiyyah”, in Shi´i Islam and Identity: Religion, Politics and Change in the Global Muslim Community, Lloyd Ridgeon (ed.) (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012) pp. 93-112.


irn website: (accessed 22.08.2017).


See Vogt, Islam på norsk, p. 216; Vogt, “‘Ikke prester, men lærde’”, p. 59.


Interview with board members in Shia mosques in Oslo, 2010-2014.


Ung Tauheed is a section of Tauheed Islamic Centre. Mohiban-e Alhal Bait cultural centre has an association for children and youth called Ebnae Ahl al-Bait (Strandhagen, “Unge sjiamuslimer i Oslo”, p. 43).


Following the Norwegian law on gender equality, both genders should have at least a 40% representation on the boards of public delegations, committees, councils etc. (, “Rundskriv om representasjon om begge kjønn i offentlige oppnevnte utvalg, styrer, råd, delegasjoner, mv.—regler om håndheving”, 2005. Available at: (accessed 21.01.2016).


For example, the Dialogue group has collaborated with Norwegian Church Aid,


Din is an Arabic noun, meaning “religion”.


Mafatih al-jennan (Keys to heaven) is a compilation of selected chapters from the Qur’an, acts of worship, and supplications. Nahj al-balagha (The peak of eloquence) is a collection of sermons, letters, ‘commentary and narrations attributed to Imam Ali. Nahj al-balagha has been translated into Norwegian; see Eggen, Nora, Den åndfulle vei (The Spritual Path) (Verdens Hellige skrifter, Oslo: Bokklubben, 2013).


ilm, an acronym for Islams lære og metode (Islamic teaching and method), is also an Arabic term, ʿilm, meaning “knowledge”.


Jacobsen, Christine, Islamic Traditions and Muslim Youth in Norway (Leiden: Brill, 2011).


Interview with a founding member, August 2012.


Spellman-Poots, Kathryn, “Who is Husayn?”, The Middle East in London, 9, no. 4 (2013), p. 7.


The literature on Ashura processions is vast; see, for example: Chelkowski, Peter, “Dasta”, Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. 7 (1996), pp. 97-100; Pinault, David, Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (New York: Palgrave, 2001); Flaskerud, Ingvild, Standard-bearers of Hussain, dvd, 2003; Luizard, Pierre-Jean, “The revival of Shia rituals in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime”, in Saints and their Pilgrims, Pedram Khosronejad (ed.) (Wantage: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2012), pp. 143-164.


Interviews with participants in Ashura processions in Bergen conducted in October 2015.


Flaskerud, Ingvild. “Ritual creativity and plurality: Denying Twelver Shia blood-let practices”, in The Ambivalence of Denial: Danger and Appeal of Rituals, Ute Hüsken and Udo Simon (eds) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2016), pp. 117-143.


IMDi. “Innvandring og integrering i norske medier”, 2014. Available at: (accessed 17.03.2016).


Flaskerud, Ingvild. “Mediating pilgrimage: Pilgrimage remembered and desired in a Norwegian home-community”, in Muslim Pilgrimage in Europe, Ingvild Flaskerud and Richard J. Natvig (eds) (London: Routledge 2017), pp. 43-57.


Flaskerud, “Ritual creativity”.


Van den Bos, Matthijs, “European Shiism? Counterpoints from Shiites’ organization in Britain and the Netherlands”, Ethnicities, 12, no. 5 (2012), pp. 556-580.


This development is not only found in the Norwegian context, but is parallel to the way Iraqi women in Danish society, for instance, make use of ritual performances to express a sense of belonging to Danish society (Holm Pedersen, Iraqi Women in Denmark).

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 313 0 0
Full Text Views 527 206 22
PDF Views & Downloads 228 166 27