Schism and division: Sunni and Shia Islam

As with Christianity and other religions, Islam is divided into different. The main two groups are Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Even these groups are sub-divided and there are other smaller groups such as Sufi Muslims and Ahmadiyya Muslims.  Sunni Muslims make up about 85% of the world’s Muslims. Shia Muslims are mostly found in Iran and southern Iraq.

The distribution of Sunni and Shia Muslims in Africa, Asia and Europe
The distribution of Sunni and Shia Muslims in Africa, Asia and Europe

The division of Sunni and Shia goes back almost to the start of Islam in the seventh century. It is all about the successor to Muhammad.  Muhammad did not nominate a successor, other than appointing Abu Bak’r to lead prayers.  After the death of the Prophet in 632, discussion turned to who would follow on from Muhammad and be the Caliph or leader.  Some Muslims wanted Ali to be the first caliph as he was Muhammad’s son-in-law, cousin, first convert and constant companion.  However, some people were worried because of Ali’s tribe. Instead Abu Bak’r was chosen at a meeting to which Ali was not invited.  After Abu Bak’r’s death in 634, Umar was chosen as the second Caliph (634-644). He was then followed by Uthman (644-656).  It was under Abu Bak’r that the Qur’an was written down. Although alternative versions emerged in the next few years, Uthman ensured that there was an official version. All subsequent Qur’ans are copies of this.  Uthman was assassinated by a group of Muslims called the Qurra, the original soldiers of Islam. They thought he was betraying Islam as it rapidly expanded.  Following his death, Ali finally became Caliph. However, he had many enemies, including Muhammad’s widow, A’isha.  Ali’s opponents, led by Mu’awiya, thought that Ali was slow in trying to find Uthman’s murderers. Battles between the two groups soon took place.  Ali agreed to a compromise with Mu’awiya, but was murdered by one of his own men in 661.  Mu’awiya declared himself Caliph.  When he died, his son Yazid claimed the title of Caliph, but the Qurra invited Husayn, the younger son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad to be Caliph.  War quickly followed and Husayn was killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680.

Husayn’s infant son, Ali, survived and the Qurra rallied round him as a descendent of Muhammad. They became Shia Ali, the party of Ali.  The other side in this battle became known as Sunnis, meaning ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’.

In Shia Islam, these descendants of Muhammad are known as Imams rather than Caliphs. They are seen as an intermediary between man and God.  Most Shia Muslims believe there were 12 Imams, (though some say seven while others say five), with the final Imam mysteriously disappearing without dying.  This Hidden Imam is present in the world, appearing to the faithful at times of need. He will eventually reappear to bring about righteous rule at the end of the world.  The Hidden Imam is also known as the Mahdi.  Sunni Muslims also believe in the idea of the Mahdi. They believe he will return at the end of time to restore the true Islam.  For some Sunni Muslims, this figure is believed to be Jesus (Isa).

Note: The words Shia and Shiite are often used interchangeably and come from the same Arabic word.  However, in English, Shia is a noun, while Shiite can be used as a noun or an adjective.

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