What is Shi'ite Islam, the faith that Anwar Sadat (a Sunni Muslim) discounts as fanatic and false and that Iran's leader, the Ayatallah Khomeini, claims to be the only true religion? From Harvard anthropologist Fischer's personal encounter with Shi'ite religious leaders, traditional texts, lectures in the theological seminaries of Qum, and discussions with students, comes a ground-breaking analysis that ties the historical development of Shi'ism to Iran's current crisis. From the beginning, the accent was on the political. Transmitted to the people via the madrasa--the all-pervasive Islamic religious seminary and educational system--the ""Karbala paradigm"" is the keystone of Shi'ite Islam and has become part of the Iranian psyche. This ""passion,"" as it is usually called, depicts the active political opposition of the party of 'Ali (shi'at 'Ali), cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, to the Umayyad succession to the Prophet (accepted by Sunni Muslims); 'Ali's eventual brief tenure as caliph; his death; and the ensuing martyrdom of 'Ali's son, Husayn--killed by Yazid, the Umayyad caliph. Thus, 'Ali is viewed as the paragon of virtue and heroism and his rule considered the perfect example of true Islam. His life and deeds are recounted more frequently than those of Muhammad, Fischer explains; the martyrdom of his family has developed into the major religious ritual event of Shi'ite Islam; and his progeny are regarded as the true imams or religious leaders. No wonder, then, that in reaction to the Pahlavi reforms--which posed an economic and political threat to the clergy (whose control of education and religious endowments was replaced by the state) and disrupted Iranians of all classes--the general protest of 1978 became ""Karbala in the active mood."" The Shah was substituted for Yazid in the chanting, and Khomeini was the Imam. This time, however, the usurper would be defeated and a true Islamic government instituted, uncontaminated by over 1200 years of political oppression and false interpretation. Still left to be worked out, Fischer notes, are the problems of the modern world--such as economics and the role of women, to name only two. An excellent introduction to an aspect of Islam hitherto neglected by Western scholars--replete with illustrative material direct from the sources, a detailed glossary, and numerous explanatory appendixes.