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 (TheQur'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.
The Prophet 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 organised 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 apologised 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 fervour 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", justified by the Qur'anic verse:
The decision is for Allah only. He telleth the truth and He is the Best of DecidersQur'an
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 descendents 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.
Sunni and Shi'a expansion
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.
Shi'a expansion and leadership
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Shi'a community continued with 'Imams' believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's Family. Unlike the Sunni Caliphs, the Shi'a Imams generally lived in the shadow of the state and were independent of it. The largest sect of Shi'a Islam is known as The Twelvers, because of their belief that twelve divinely appointed Imams descended from the Prophet in the line of Ali and Hussein, led the community until the 9th century CE.
Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was the Twelfth Imam. The Shi'a believe that as a young boy, he was hidden in a cave under his father's house in Samarra to avoid persecution. He disappeared from view, and according to Shi'a belief, has been hidden by God until he returns at the end of time. This is what Shi'as call the Major Occultation. The Shi'a believe this Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi or Messiah, is not dead and will return to revive the true message of Islam. His disappearance marked the end of the leadership of the direct descendants of the Prophet.
(Note: While the information provided is the position of the largest Shi'a subdivision, that of The Twelvers, other Shi'a groups, such as the Ismailis, hold differing views.)
In the absence of the Mahdi, the rightful successor to the Prophet, the Shi'a community was led, as it is today, by living scholars usually known by the honourable title Ayatollah, who act as the representatives of the Hidden Imam on earth. Shi'a Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's family are the rightful leaders of the Islamic world.
There are significant differences between scholars of Shi'a Islam on the role and power of these representatives. A minority believe the role of the representative is absolute, generally known as Wilayat Faqih. The majority of Shi'a scholars, however, believe their power is relative and confined to religious and spiritual matters.
Although the Shi'a have never ruled the majority of Muslims, they have had their moments of glory. The 9th century Fatimid Ismaili dynasty in Egypt and North Africa, when Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University was founded and the 16th century CE Safavid Dynasty which engulfed the former Persian Empire and made Shi'a Islam the official religion.
Significant numbers of Shi'as are now found in many countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Albania and Yemen. They make up 90% of the population of Iran which is the political face of Shi'a Islam today.
How do Sunnis and Shi'as differ theologically?
Hadith and Sunnah
Initially the difference between Sunni and Shi'a was merely a question of who should lead the Muslim community. As time went on, however, the Shi'a began to show a preference for particular Hadith and Sunnah literature.
Interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah is an Islamic academic science. The Shi'a gave preference to those credited to the Prophet's family and close associates. The Sunnis consider all Hadith and Sunnah narrated by any of twelve thousand companions to be equally valid. Shi'as recognise these as useful texts relating to Islamic jurisprudence, but subject them to close scrutiny. Ultimately this difference of emphasis led to different understandings of the laws and practices of Islam.
The concept of the Mahdi is a central tenet of Shi'a theology, but many Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of a Mahdi, or rightly guided one, at the end of time to spread justice and peace. He will also be called Muhammad and be a descendant of the Prophet in the line of his daughter Fatima (Ali's wife). The idea has been popular with grassroots Muslims due to the preaching of several Sufi or mystical trends in Islam.
Over the centuries a number of individuals have declared themselves the Mahdi come to regenerate the Muslim world, but none has been accepted by the majority of the Sunni community. However, some more Orthodox Sunni Muslims dispute the concept of the Mahdi because there is no mention of it in the Qur'an or Sunnah.
The Wahabi movement within Sunni Islam views the Shi'a practice of visiting and venerating shrines to the Imams of the Prophet's Family and other saints and scholars as heretical. Most mainstream Sunni Muslims have no objections. Some Sufi movements, which often provide a bridge between Shi'a and Sunni theologies, help to unite Muslims of both traditions and encourage visiting and venerating these shrines.
All Muslims are required to pray five times a day. However, Shi'a practice permits combining some prayers into three daily prayer times. A Shi'a at prayer can often be identified by a small tablet of clay from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating.
Today there are significant differences in the structures and organisation of religious leadership in the Sunni and the Shi'a communities. There is a hierarchy to the Shi'a clergy and political and religious authority is vested in the most learned who emerge as spiritual leaders. These leaders are transnational and religious institutions are funded by religious taxes called Khums (20% of annual excess income) and Zakat (2.5%). Shi'a institutions abroad are also funded this way.
There is no such hierarchy of the clergy in Sunni Islam. Most religious and social institutions in Sunni Muslim states are funded by the state. Only Zakat is applicable. In the West most Sunni Muslim institutions are funded by charitable donations from the community at home and abroad.
How do Sunni and Shi'a view each other?
The persecution of the Prophet's family and the early Shi'as provide a paradigm of martyrdom which is repeated throughout Shi'a history. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims through the ages has been shaped by the political landscape of that period.
As the Sunni Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and central Asia and the Shi'a Safavid dynasty spread through the Persian Empire from the 16th century CE, tensions arose in Sunni-Shi'a relations.
The majority of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims do not allow their theological differences to divide them or cause hostility between them. For example, Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning in the world, considers Shi'a Islam to be of equal status to the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence.
However, current global political conditions mean there has been a degree of polarisation and hostility in many Muslim societies. The term Rafidi (meaning "Rejecter") has been applied by radical Sunnis to disparage Shi'as. In turn the Shi'as will often use the label Wahabi, which refers to a particular sectarian movement within Sunni Islam, as a term of abuse for all those who disagree with Shi'a beliefs and practices.