Many observers of the contemporary Shia community wonder about the differences between the mullahs who wear black turbans and those who use white turbans. This article addresses some of these important differences.
Until the Imamat (universal guardianship and leadership) of Ali ibn Moussa ar-Ridha (also Rida or Reda), the Eighth Infallible Imam, there was no distinction in the outfits of Sayyeds and non-Sayyeds. “Sayyed” is the honorific title used to address the descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Lady Fatimah and her husband, Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the First Infallible Imam and Fourth Caliph.
Allegedly, the Eighth Imam ordered Sayyeds to distinguish themselves from non-Sayyeds by wearing black turbans, to express sadness over the murder of the Third Imam, al-Husayn ibn Ali.
It is also alleged that until time of the Eighth Imam, Sayyeds had light emanating from their faces (similar to the two luminous men who met with Abdul Karim Nasrallah and foretold him about the birth, gender and names of his progeny, including Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general and co-founder of the Lebanon-based international terrorist organization Hezbollah), but during the eighth Imamat, God allegedly took away this visual distinction to protect the Sayyeds from persecution and murder at the hands of the Abbasid and other rulers of the Islamic world.
It must be noted that since the time of the Seventh Imam, Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kazhim, the Shiites had little or no direct access to the Imams as they were imprisoned by the Abbasid Caliphs.
In our current times, the usage of turbans fell out of favor throughout most of the Islamic world. This, of course, was to the greatest advantage to the mullahs as their turbans distinguished their clerical class.
Shiite mullahs who are not Sayyeds are known and addressed as Sheikhs; they wear the less appealing white turbans.
Needless to mention, there is a financial motive as well behind the discrimination between Sayyeds and non-Sayyeds; the former make claim to the Khums religious tax. The Khums is 20% of the yearly savings of Shiites, both Sayyed and non-Sayyed. Half of this amount is the Infallible Imam's share. The other half is distributed to the needy Sayyeds.
Nowadays, the Khums is collected by mullahs or even devout non-mullahs Shiites who have an Ijaza (authorization) from a Grand Ayatollah (source of religious emulation).
The white-turbaned Shia mullahs get a share of the Infallible Imam's portion of the Khums, as long as they are on good terms with their authorizing Grand Ayatollahs.
The Infallible Imam's Khums share can be used by the Grand Ayatollahs and their authorized delegates to help the poor in general, or for various projects, such as funding religious seminaries and hospitals, and in our bad times, finance Khomeinist terrorism attacks throughout the world.