Divisions of Islam
Sunni and Shi'a
The words Sunni and Shi'a appear regularly in stories about the Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shi'a beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world.
The division between Sunnis and Shi'as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. They both agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book (The Qur'an), but there are differences mostly derived from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition.
These differences originate from the question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the emerging Muslim community after his death. To understand them, we need to know a bit about the Prophet's life and political and spiritual legacy.
Succession to Muhammad
When the Prophet died in the early 7th century he left not only the religion of Islam but also a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organized as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide.
The larger group of Muslims chose Abu Bakr, a close Companion of the Prophet, as the Caliph (politico-social leader) and he was accepted as such by much of the community which saw the succession in political and not spiritual terms. However another smaller group, which also included some of the senior Companions, believed that the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be Caliph. They understood that the Prophet had appointed him as the sole interpreter of his legacy, in both political and spiritual terms. In the end Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph.
Both Shi'as and Sunnis have good evidence to support their understanding of the succession. Sunnis argue that the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, thus suggesting that the Prophet was naming Abu Bakr as the next leader. The Shi'as' evidence is that Muhammad stood up in front of his Companions on the way back from his last Hajj, and proclaimed Ali the spiritual guide and master of all believers. Shi'a reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali.
Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should have been the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni Muslims. Those who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shi'a Muslims. It was only later that these terms came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunnah' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shi'a is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning 'partisans of Ali'.
The use of the word "successor" should not be confused to mean that those leaders that came after the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shi'a and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet.
Seeds of division
Ali did not initially pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr. A few months later, and according to both Sunni and Shi'a belief, Ali changed his mind and accepted Abu Bakr, in order to safeguard the cohesion of the new Islamic State.
The Second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was appointed by Abu Bakr on his death, followed by the third Caliph, Uthman ibn 'Affan, who was chosen from six candidates nominated by Umar.
Ali was eventually chosen as the fourth Caliph following the murder of Uthman. He moved the capital of the Islamic state from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. However, his Caliphate was opposed by Aisha, the favoured wife of the Prophet and daughter of Abu Bakr, who accused Ali of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. In 656 CE this dispute led to the Battle of the Camel in Basra in Southern Iraq, where Aisha was defeated. Aisha later apologized to Ali but the clash had already created a divide in the community.
Widening of the divide
Islam's dominion had already spread to Syria by the time of Ali's
caliphate. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, angry with Ali for not
bringing the killers of his kinsman Uthman to justice, challenged Ali
for the caliphate. The famous Battle of Siffin in 657 demonstrates the
religious fervor of the time when Mu'awiya's soldiers flagged the ends
of their spears with verses from the Qur'an.
Ali and his supporters felt morally unable to fight their Muslim brothers and the Battle of Siffin proved indecisive. Ali and Mu'awiya agreed to settle the dispute with outside arbitrators. However this solution of human arbitration was unacceptable to a group of Ali's followers who used the slogan "Rule belongs only to Allah".
This group, known as the Kharijites, formed their own sect that opposed all contenders for the caliphate. In 661 the Kharijites killed Ali while he was praying in the mosque of Kufa, Iraq. In the years that followed, the Kharijites were defeated in a series of uprisings. Around 500,000 descendants of the Kharijites survive to this day in North Africa, Oman and Zanzibar as a sub-sect of Islam known as the Ibadiyah.
Shortly after the death of Ali, Mu'awiya, assumed the Caliphate of the Islamic state, moving the capital from Kufa to Damascus. Unlike his predecessors who maintained a high level of egalitarianism in the Islamic state, Mu'awiya's Caliphate was monarchical. This set the tone for the fledgling Ummayad dynasty (c.670-750 CE) and in 680 on the death of Mu'awiya, the Caliphate succeeded to his son Yazid.
About the same time, Hussein, Ali's youngest son from his marriage to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and the third Shi'a Imam, was invited by the people of Kufa in Iraq to become their leader. Hussein set off for Kufa from his home in Medina with his followers and family, but was met by Yazid's forces in Karbala before reaching his destination.
Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, Hussein and his small number of companions refused to pay allegiance to Yazid and were killed in the ensuing battle. Hussein is said to have fought heroically and to have sacrificed his life for the survival of Shi'a Islam.
The Battle of Karbala is one of the most significant events in Shi'a history, from which Shi'a Islam draws its strong theme of martyrdom. It is central to Shi'a identity even today and is commemorated every year on the Day of Ashura. Millions of pilgrims visit the Imam Hussein mosque and shrine in Karbala and many Shi'a communities participate in symbolic acts of self- flagellation.
As Islam expanded from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula into the complex and urban societies of the once Roman and Persian empires, Muslims encountered new ethical dilemmas that demanded the authority of religious answers.
Sunni expansion and leadership
Sunni Islam responded with the emergence of four popular schools of thought on religious jurisprudence (fiqh). These were set down in the 7th and 8th centuries CE by the scholars of the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii schools. Their teachings were formulated to find Islamic solutions to all sorts of moral and religious questions in any society, regardless of time or place and are still used to this day.
The Ummayad dynasty was followed by the Abbasid dynasty (c. 758-1258 CE). In these times the Caliphs, in contrast to the first four, were temporal leaders only, deferring to religious scholars (or uleama) for religious issues.
Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties to the powerful Mughal and Ottoman empires of the 15th to 20th centuries. It spread east through central Asia and the Indian sub-continent as far as the Indonesian archipelago, and west towards Africa and the periphery of Europe. The Sunnis emerged as the most populous group and today they make up around 85% of the one billion Muslims worldwide.