The Islamic Divide
from the September 22, 2009 eNews issue
The terms Shiite and Sunni are heard often in news stories from the
Middle East, but few people in the West really know what they mean.
Religion permeates every aspect of life in the Muslim world and
understanding the differences between Shiites and Sunnis is
important in understanding the complex geopolitics of the Middle
The division between Shiites (or Shia,
there are a number of variations on the spelling) and Sunnis began
in the years immediately following the death of the Prophet
Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith. When Muhammad died in
632 AD there was a disagreement over who should succeed him as the
political and religious leader of the Muslim world. One group of
Muslims elected Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad to be the
caliph, or leader. However a smaller group believed that Muhammad's
cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was the rightful leader.
The Muslims who believed that Abu Bakr should be Muhammad's
successor have come to be known as Sunni. Whereas the Muslims who
felt Ali should have been the successor are now known as Shiite.
Abu Bakr ultimately became the first
caliph, although Shiites considered him to be a usurper. He was
succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan, the second
and third caliphs. In the year 656 AD, 24 years after the death of
Muhammad, Uthman was murdered. After Uthman's death, Ali (whom
Shiites had always considered the rightful leader) was finally
elected to rule. Ali was opposed by Muhammad's wife Aisha, the
daughter of Abu Bakr. Aisha challenged his authority and criticized
Ali for his lack of interest in bringing Uthman's killers to
justice. Aisha raised an army against Ali, which lead to the first
Fitna, or Islamic civil war. Ali defeated Aisha at the Battle of
Bassorah, also known as the Battle of the Camel. Ali's reign was
turbulent and he was assassinated in 661 AD.
Under the leadership of the first four
caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), the political, social,
and religious institutions of Islam were solidified. Islam spread
far beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula, east into the
Persian empire, north into Byzantine territory, and west across
northern Africa. After Ali's death, however, Islamic unity
splintered. Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyads and other
dynasties that led to the powerful Ottoman and Mughal empires of the
15th to 20th Centuries. For Shiites, leadership was passed down
through the Imams, who were believed to be divinely appointed from
Muhammad's family. The 12th and final Shiite Imam died in the late
9th Century. After several centuries a council was appointed to
elect an Ayatollah, the supreme Shiite spiritual leader.
The divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims
began as a political one, but this ultimately led to some religious
and theological differences. The divide between the two sects has
grown over time. Shiites and Sunnis disagree on the identity of the
Mahdi, the coming Islamic messiah. They also disagree on the
interpretation of various key passages of the Quran and the hadith.
The Quran (or Koran) is the Islamic holy scriptures - the word of
Allah. While the hadith are teachings and traditions passed down
from Muhammad - not considered divinely inspired nevertheless very
significant. Yet while there are differences in beliefs, both
Shiites and Sunnis share the main articles of faith - the five
pillars of Islam - which are the testimony of faith, prayer, giving
to charity, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Shiites and Sunnis are the two largest
Islamic sub-groups. However there are other sects, as well as
divisions within the two groups. Sunni Muslims make up the majority,
approximately eighty-five percent, of Muslims all over the world.
They are spread from North Africa to Asia. While the largest
populations of Shiite Muslims can be found in Iran, Iraq, Saudi
Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Islam is the world's fastest growing
religion (depending on how you measure it), and is second in size
only to Christianity, but the god of Islam and the God of the Bible
are not one and the same. Allah is presented as unknowable and
capricious, and is derived from the ancient pagan moon god. The God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob delights in making and keeping His
promises. Jesus summarized the entire Law of Moses in two
commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and
mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Nowhere does the Koran
make such a commandment. Although there are many peace-loving
Muslims, study of the Islamic religion will reveal that true Islam
is anything but a peaceful religion. Islam demands the utter
destruction of all Jews, Christians, and anyone who refuses to
convert to the Islamic faith. It is a warrior code that demands
Muslims live and die by the sword.