By his death in AD632 Muhammad had started a religion which had grown rapidly and spread over a large area. Whilst Muhammad was alive, his followers could look to him for leadership and guidance. Once he died however, the situation was not so certain. It is to this point that the split between Sunni and Shia Islam can be traced.
Although sharing many similarities, significant differences can be found particularly with the issue of leadership of the very young Muslim community. After his death a close friend of Muhammad put forward Abu Bakr to be leader. He was elected as the first Caliph. Many of the early Muslims supported this. However, others believed that Muhammad’s cousin and son in law had been chosen by Muhammad himself to take on leadership of the community. Sunni Muslims accept that Abu Bakr was the rightful leader and Shia Muslims believe it to be Ali. For more on the history of the Sunni and Shia, see this blog)
Within the UK it is thought that only 5% of approximately 2.8 million Muslims are Shia. Similarly, around the world Shia Muslims are in the minority. The difference between Sunni and Shia are often found in the realm of religious practice such as the festivals celebrated. In a number of countries Shia minorities have at times been treated badly. An example of this is in Iraq under Saddam Hussain’s rule.
For the main Shia sect in Islam often referred to as ‘Twelvers’ there have been 12 Imams or leaders. Such leaders are not just political but also spiritual. Many were murdered leading to the idea of martyrdom (dying for your faith) playing a significant role in Shia Islam. It is believed that the twelfth and final Imam known as the Mahdi is still alive but hidden until he will return with Jesus to bring about fairness and justice.