CLASHES between Islam's two big sects, the Sunni and the Shia, take place across the Muslim world. In the Middle East a potent mix of religion and politics has sharpened the divide between Iran’s Shia government and the Gulf states, which have Sunni governments. Last year a report by the Pew Research Centre, a think tank, found 40% of Sunnis do not consider Shia to be proper Muslims. So what exactly divides Sunni and Shia Islam and how deep does the rift go?
The argument dates back to the death in 632 of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Tribal Arabs who followed him were split over who should inherit what was both a political and a religious office. The majority, who would go on to become known as the Sunnis, and today make up 80% of Muslims, backed Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet and father of his wife Aisha. Others thought Muhammad’s kin the rightful successors. They claimed the Prophet had anointed Ali, his cousin and son-in-law—they became known as the Shia, a contraction of "shiaat Ali", the partisans of Ali. Abu Bakr’s backers won out, though Ali did briefly rule as the fourth caliph, the title given to Muhammad’s successors. Islam's split was cemented when Ali’s son Hussein was killed in 680 in Karbala (modern Iraq) by the ruling Sunni caliph’s troops. Sunni rulers continued to monopolise political power, while the Shia lived in the shadow of the state, looking instead to their imams, the first twelve of whom were descended directly from Ali, for guidance. As time went on the religious beliefs of the two groups started to diverge.
Today the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims all agree that Allah is the only God and Muhammad his messenger. They follow five ritualistic pillars of Islam, including Ramadan, the month of fasting, and share a holy book, the Koran. But while Sunnis rely heavily on the practice of the Prophet and his teachings (the “sunna”), the Shia see their ayatollahs as reflections of God on earth. This has led Sunnis to accuse Shia of heresy, while Shia point out that Sunni dogmatism has led to extremist sects such as the puritanical Wahhabis. Most Shia sects place importance on the belief that the twelfth and final imam is hidden (called "in occultation") and will reappear one day to fulfill divine will. Meanwhile, their sense of marginalisation and oppression has led to mourning ceremonies such as ashura, when followers flagellate themselves to commemorate Hussein’s death at Karbala.
There has never been a clash between the Shia and Sunni on the scale of the Thirty Years War, which saw Christian sects fight each other in 17th-century Europe with great loss of life. This is partly because the Shias, ever mindful of their minority status, retreated. The lines that divide Muslims in the Middle East today are being drawn by politics as much as by religion. The "Shia Crescent" that runs from Iran, through Mr Assad’s regime in Damascus to Hizbullah in Lebanon was once praised by Sunni figures. But the revolutions in the region have pitted Shia governments against Sunni Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have supported their co-religionists with cash. This is strengthening Sunni assertiveness and making the Shia feel more threatened than usual. In most cases, though, members of the two sects still live harmoniously together.
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The Islam religion was founded by Mohammed in the seventh century. In 622 he founded the first Islamic state, a theocracy in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia located north of Mecca. There are two branches of the religion he founded.
The Sunni branch believes that the first four caliphs--Mohammed's successors--rightfully took his place as the leaders of Muslims. They recognize the heirs of the four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.
Shiites, in contrast, believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. In 931 the Twelfth Imam disappeared. This was a seminal event in the history of Shiite Muslims. According to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame,"Shiite Muslims, who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, [believe they] had suffered the loss of divinely guided political leadership" at the time of the Imam's disappearance. Not"until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978" did they believe that they had once again begun to live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.
Another difference between Sunnis and Shiites has to do with the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” whose role is to bring a just global caliphate into being. As historian Timothy Furnish has written,"The major difference is that for Shi`is he has already been here, and will return from hiding; for Sunnis he has yet to emerge into history: a comeback v. a coming out, if you will."
In a special 9-11 edition of the Journal of American History, Appleby explained that the Shiite outlook is far different from the Sunni's, a difference that is highly significant:
... for Sunni Muslims, approximately 90 percent of the Muslim world, the loss of the caliphate after World War I was devastating in light of the hitherto continuous historic presence of the caliph, the guardian of Islamic law and the Islamic state. Sunni fundamentalist leaders thereafter emerged in nations such as Egypt and India, where contact with Western political structures provided them with a model awkwardly to imitate ... as they struggled after 1924 to provide a viable alternative to the caliphate.
In 1928, four years after the abolishment of the caliphate, the Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna founded the first Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Sunni world, the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Al-Banna was appalled by"the wave of atheism and lewdness [that] engulfed Egypt" following World War I. The victorious Europeans had"imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices." Suddenly the very heart of the Islamic world was penetrated by European"schools and scientific and cultural institutes" that" cast doubt and heresy into the souls of its sons and taught them how to demean themselves, disparage their religion and their fatherland, divest themselves of their traditions and beliefs, and to regard as sacred anything Western."14 Most distressing to al-Banna and his followers was what they saw as the rapid moral decline of the religious establishment, including the leading sheikhs, or religious scholars, at Al-Azhar, the grand mosque and center of Islamic learning in Cairo. The clerical leaders had become compromised and corrupted by their alliance with the indigenous ruling elites who had succeeded the European colonial masters.
Osama bin Laden was a Sunni Muslim. To him the end of the reign of the caliphs in the 1920s was catastrophic, as he made clear in a videotape made after 9-11. On the tape, broadcast by Al-Jazeera on October 7, 2001, he proclaimed:"What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. ... Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more [than] eighty years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated."
Juan Cole, a well-known historian of the Middle East, has pointed out on his blog, Informed Comment, that the split between Sunni and Shiites in Iraq is of relatively recent origin:
I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 year s. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don't see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we're seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.
In 2014 Professor Cole summed up the differences between Sunni and Shiite this way:
Shiites are more like traditional Catholics in venerating members of the holy family and attending at their shrines. Contemporary Salafi Sunni Islam is more like the militant brand of Protestantism of the late 1500s that denounced intermediaries between God and the individual and actually attacked and destroyed shrines to saints and other holy figures, where pleas for intercession were made
In December 2006 the New York Times reported that it is not just ordinary Americans who find it difficult to remember the difference between Sunnis and Shiites:
SURPRISE quiz: Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite? Which sect dominates Hezbollah?
Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.
“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”
Not that he’s alone. Other members of Congress from both parties have also flunked on-the-spot inquiries. Indeed, some of the smartest Western statesmen of the last century have found themselves flummoxed by Islam. Winston Churchill — in 1921, while busy drawing razor-straight borders across a mercurial Middle East — asked an aide for a three-line note explaining the “religious character” of the Hashemite leader he planned to install in Baghdad.
“Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih with Sunni sympathies?” Mr. Churchill wrote, using an antiquated spelling. (“I always get mixed up between these two,” he added.)
And maybe religious memorization should not be required for policymaking. Gen. William Odom, who directed the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, said that Mr. Reyes mainly needs to know “how the intelligence community works.”
Yet, improving American intelligence, according to General Odom and others with close ties to the Middle East and the American intelligence community, requires more than just a organization chart.
A cheat sheet is in order.
The Review asked nearly a dozen experts, from William R. Polk, author of “Understanding Iraq,” to Paul R. Pillar, the C.I.A. official who coordinated intelligence on the Middle East until he retired last year, to explain the region. Here, a quick distillation.
What caused the original divide?
The groups first diverged after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and his followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.
The group now known as Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shiites favored Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. After the 11th imam died in 874, and his young son was said to have disappeared from the funeral, Shiites in particular came to see the child as a Messiah who had been hidden from the public by God.
The largest sect of Shiites, known as “twelvers,” have been preparing for his return ever since.
How did the violence start?
In 656, Ali’s supporters killed the third caliph. Soon after, the Sunnis killed Ali’s son Husain.
Fighting continued but Sunnis emerged victorious over the Shiites and came to revere the caliphate for its strength and piety.
Shiites focused on developing their religious beliefs, through their imams.