History of Muslim Sectarian Differences||
split between Shias and Sunnis is one of the oldest and longest divisions in the
Muslim community. It began as a dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad
as leader of the Muslim people when he died in 632 A.D.
Abu Bakr was elected as caliph (or leader), some Muslims felt only the direct
descendants of Muhammad should lead the community. They would have preferred that
Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law (husband to Muhammad's daughter Fatima), inherit the
Eventually, Ali did become caliph, although his rule was fairly
short -- only five years.
Ali was killed, as were his sons Hassan and Hussein,
and their followers began to diverge from the rest of the Muslim community.
Shiat Ali, or party of Ali, maintained that Ali was divinely appointed as an imam
by Allah. They began to disregard the elected caliphs and glorify Ali as the true
first caliph and imam, and his sons Hassan and Hussein as the second and third
Leadership by the bloodline of Muhammad continued until 873 when
the 12th Imam, Muhammad al Mahdi -- the 4-year-old son of the 11th Imam Hassan
al-Askari, disappeared from a cave below a mosque in Samarra just days after he
inherited the title.
Since al Mahdi had no brothers, his disappearance
meant the end of the line of Muhammad.
his Shiite followers refused to accept that he was dead, preferring to believe
he was merely "hidden" and would one day return.
a thousand years later, Shias are still awaiting his return, which they feel will
bring good fortune and a time of divine justice for their people.
passed and the 12th imam did not return, the Shia began the practice of convening
an ulema, a council of 12 scholars, to elect a supreme imam to lead the people.
The supreme imam is similar to the pope in that he heads the religious
hierarchy and is believed to be the infallible interpreter of law and tradition
for the faithful. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran is one of Shiaism's better known
Sunnis, on the other hand, take their name from their belief in the Sunnah --
which means the "way of the prophet." They reject the belief in imams
as divinely appointed leaders. Instead, Sunnis believe Muslims should be guided
by the actions, words and beliefs expressed by the Prophet Muhammad.
do not have a formal religious hierarchy. Sunni scholars and jurists offer religious
opinions, but they are non-binding.
The vast majority of the world's Muslims
(80 percent) are Sunni. Even though a majority of Iraqis are Shiites, Sunnis have
traditionally been the political and economic power leaders of the country.
addition to Iraq, Shiites represent the majority of the populations of Iran, Yemen
and Azerbaijan. There are also large Shia communities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia
and in Lebanon.
and Sunnis recognize each other as Muslim and they agree on some of the basic
principles -- such as the Five Pillars (core fundamentals) of Islam. However,
there are several differences.
Sunnis say Shiites do not place enough emphasis
on the fundamentals of Islam and focus too much on the martyrdom of Ali and Hussein.
Shiites have unique holidays such as Ashura, a 10-day religious observance
during which Shiites re-enact the Battle of Karbala in which Ali's son Hussein
was killed in a failed attempt to reclaim the caliphate.
prayer, Shiites place their forehead on a hardened piece of clay from Karbala,
instead of their prayer mat like Sunnis.
Shiites also pray less frequently
than Sunnis, three times a day as opposed to five, and hold their hands differently
during prayer. And the Shia call to prayer includes references to Ali, Hassan
Anne Bell, Online NewsHour