Key Takeaway: The rift in Islam began with the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the year 632 AD. There was a difference of opinion on who should assume the role of Caliph; one group believed the title should pass to Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali (they became known as the ‘Shiat Ali’ or ‘followers of Ali), and the other group believed the title should pass to one of Mohammad’s companions (they became known as the ‘Ahl al-Sunna’ or ‘people/family of tradition’). This difference of opinion ultimately led to the death of Ali and then to several of Ali’s sons (and Mohammad’s grandsons), most notably Hussein. The violence between the two groups has been occurring ever since, with no legitimate chance for reconciliation between them.
Discussion: The right to rule in Islam has been the primary debate between Sunnis and Shiites since the death of Mohammad. The Sunni tradition is that the Caliph is elected. Within the Sunni philosophy, the Caliph is the political and military leader, but ultimately he is just a man. The religious practice and implementation is based on four primary schools of interpretation of Islamic laws – all of which were codified hundreds of years ago and consider the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet and his Companions, and the Hadith (spoken words of Mohammad) in their decisions.
The Shiites believe in the Imamate, or the rule of the Imam. They believe that the line of leadership is directly tied to the descendants of Mohammad through his son-in-law and cousin Ali. The majority Shiites are “Twelver” Shiites and believe that there were a total of twelve rightly guided Imams, the last being Mohammad Al-Mahdi who has hidden himself away and will return at the appointed (but unknown) time to guide Islam to world dominion. Most Shiites believe that Mohammad selected by Allah, as were his successors, and that all were without sin.
The Ahl al-Sunna, or Sunnis, reportedly comprise 80-90% of the Muslim population worldwide (actual numbers depend upon the source). The Shiat Ali, or Shiites, comprise between 10-20% and make up the majorities in countries like Iran and Iraq, where they control the governments. Shiites are the majority in Bahrain, but are under Sunni rule. The Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam, are the ruling class in Syria, a majority Sunni nation. Getting an accurate number of Shiites is often difficult in a Sunni dominated country due to a lack of recognition of their group.
When Mohammad died in 632 AD, his favorite wife Aisha wanted her father (Abu Bakr) to become the new leader of Islam. There are several stories about what occurred, including how Ali and others were not present for the selection of a successor, but ultimately Abu Bakr was elected as the Caliph. The 3rd Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, was killed by supporters of Ali in 656 AD and Ali was elected as the 4th Caliph. Ali was assassinated in 661 AD and his son Hassan was elected Caliph. Within months of becoming Caliph, Hassan surrendered to Muawiyah who became the 5th Caliph and first of the Umayyad Dynasty which maintained the Caliphate until 750 AD. Ali’s son Hussein was killed in battle in 680 AD by Caliph Muawiyah’s army in Karbala, which is why Karbala is a pilgrimage site for Shiites. The Shiite Ashura celebration is a commemoration on the anniversary of Hussein’s death in Karbala. During the Ashura, the Shiites cut themselves as a commemoration of Hussein’s sacrifice.
Outlook: The Sunni – Shia schism has been an unresolvable issue since the death of the Prophet Mohammad. While there have been lulls in the violence between the two groups, there have also been major conflicts between the two (the Iran-Iraq war for example). While neither group will change their belief system, the Shiites seem more amenable to living with Sunnis than the Sunnis are to living with the Shiites. Most of the Sunni groups will target Shiites before targeting non-Muslims as they believe Shiites are an abomination. The Sunni-Shiite violence will end with the return of the Mahdi, and he’ll have to pick a side between the two.
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