The difference between a Shia and a Sunni Muslim
How do these Muslims differ?If you tune in to the news about Iraq, you may be confused about the sectarian violence: Shia Muslims killing Sunni Muslims and vice versa. What is the difference between a Shia and a Sunni Muslim that causes such animosity?
Almost all Muslims belong to either the Shia or Sunni religious sect. The break occurred sometime in the late seventh century when disagreements developed over who was the rightful heir to Mohammed and who would provide the religious and political leadership to the Muslim community.
Mohammed and His Followers
The Islamic religion was founded by Mohammed in the seventh century. Two cities play a large role in Islam. In 622 C.E. he founded the first Islamic state in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia. The other city that plays a prominent role is Mecca – the political capital of the region which Mohammed successfully conquered, establishing his political authority.
After his death in 632, there were four caliphs, or successors. The first was Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634. He was followed by Umar, who ruled from 634 to 644, and then by Uthman, who ruled from 644 to 656. The source of the controversy occurred when the fourth successor, Caliph Ali, took over.
Imam Ali was Mohammed's cousin and the husband of his daughter, Fatima. Ali is said to be the second person to embrace Islam. The term Shia or Shiite (a Muslim of the Shia branch) is derived from Shiat Ali, or partisans of Ali. He was also the father of Hassan and Hussein. Both men were to make a mark in the Islam claim of succession.
The Cause of the Split
Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the rightly guided caliphs – the leaders of the Muslims. But Shiites feel that Ali should have been the first caliph because of his family ties and that the caliphate – the office or dominion of the caliph – should pass down only to direct descendants of Mohammed via Ali and Fatima.
The line of Mohammed through Ali and Hussein ended in 873 when the last Shiite, Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, inherited the title at the age of four. But he had no brothers, and within days of inheriting the title, the young caliph disappeared. The Shiites refused to accept that he had died; instead, they chose to believe that he was hidden and would return.
Effects of the Split
The Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the legitimate line of religious leaders. They had a long history supporting this belief. These rulers had a long line that was continuous in the Arab world until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following the end of World War I.
But the Shiites believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed, because these were direct descendants. Then, in 931, a significant event occurred in the history of the Shia: the twelfth Imam disappeared. Shiites began to believe that their divinely guided political leadership was gone and they had no one to turn to. It was not until the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 that the Shiites were once again able to believe that they now would live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.
Today nearly 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunni; 15 percent are Shiites. Roughly 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries. And while Islam is the predominant religion throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa and Asia, large communities exist in China, Russia, Western Europe and the Balkans.
So, What is the Difference Between a Shia and a Sunni Muslim?
Shia Muslims believe that the rightful heir to lead Muslims came from Ali, the fourth caliph; Sunni Muslims believe that the line of the caliphs as practiced was the true religious and political line of authority.