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BBC religion and Ethics Introduction The words Sunni and Shia appear regularly in stories about the

Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shia beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world. The Beginnings The division between the Sunnis and the Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. To understand it, it is good to know a little bit about the political legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). When the Prophet (pbuh) died in the early 7th Century he not only left the religion of Islam but also an Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula with around one hundred thousand Muslim inhabitants. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet (pbuh) and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide. One group of Muslims (the larger group) elected Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet (pbuh) as the next caliph (leader) of the Muslims and he was duly appointed. However a smaller group believed that the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, should become the caliph. This reflected the belief that leadership of the Muslims is a divine right of the family of the Prophet (pbuh). Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should be the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni. Muslims who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shia. The use of the word successor should not be confused to mean that that those that followed the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were also prophets - both Shia and Sunni agree that Muhammad (pbuh) was the final prophet.

What is the basis for leadership claims? Both Sunni and Shia legitimise their views using Islam's sacred scriptures. Both groups say that the Qur'an (which Muslims believe to be the revealed word of Allah) and the Hadith (the narrations of the Prophet) show their choice of leader to be the right one. What happened next? Ali delayed pledging his oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr. A few months later he changed his mind. He sought reconciliation with Abu Bakr and pledged allegiance to him. Over the next two decades Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn 'Affan succeeded as the second and third caliphs before Ali was elected as the fourth caliph. Ali became caliph following the murder of Uthman but he was opposed by Aisha, wife of the Prophet (pbuh), who accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. The dispute led to the Battle of the Camel in 656 where Aisha was defeated. Later Aisha apologised to Ali but the clash had already strengthened any opposition to Ali's rule. Considering the religious climate, the appointment of a caliph with a heretical theology seems inconceivable and demonstrates the political, and not theological, nature of the dispute at the time. In fact it was only later that the terms Sunni and Shia came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunna' (what the Prophet (pbuh) said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shia is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning the 'partisans of Ali'. Both groups, who embrace the Prophet (pbuh) and Ali, naturally dispute whether each others' group can be correct in claiming to be either 'Sunni' or 'Shia'. Islam's dominion had already spread to Syria by the time of Ali's caliphate. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, fought Ali to claim the caliphate for himself. In the famous Battle of Siffin in 657 that demonstrated the religious fervour of the time, Mu'awiya's soldiers flagged the ends of their spears with verses from the Qur'an. Ali's supporters felt morally unable to fight their Muslim brothers. The Battle of Siffin proved indecisive. Ali and Mu'awiya agreed to settle the dispute with outside arbitrators. However this solution of human arbitration was unacceptable to a group of Ali's followers who pointed to the Qur'anic verse:"The decision is for Allah only. He telleth the truth and He is the Best of Deciders." (Qur'an 6:57) This group, the Kharijites, formed their own sect and opposed all contenders to the caliphate. In 661 the Kharijites killed Ali while he was praying in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq. In the years that followed, the Kharijites were defeated in a series of uprisings. Around 500,000 descendents of the Kharijites survive to this day in North Africa, Oman and Zanzibar in a sub sect known as the Ibadiyah. The community of early Muslims lost its unity. Unlike their predecessors their leadership was unelected and their claim to leadership was hereditary. Remarkably, this turn of events was in keeping with the prophecy of Muhammad (pbuh) in which he said: "the caliphate will remain in my nation after me for thirty years. Then, it will be a monarchy after that".

Sunnis and Shia Expansion What happened next gave Shia Islam its strong theme of martyrdom. Ali's youngest son, Hussein, ruled Kufa in Iraq. When Yazid, Mu'awiya's son, seized the caliphate in 680 Hussein led a rebellion but was met by Yazid's forces in Karbala, Iraq. Despite Shia Muslims in London commemorate Ashura knowing he was hopelessly outnumbered, Hussein fought heroically and was killed on the battlefield. It is one of the most significant events in Shia history, where Hussein is considered to have sacrificed his life for the survival of Shia Islam. It is still commemorated today as Ashura where millions of pilgrims still visit the Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala. The leadership continued with imams, in lieu of caliphs, believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's family until the late 9th Century. According to the Twelvers, the largest Shia sect, Muhammad al-Muntazar alMahdi was the twelfth imam in the Prophet's family in the line of Ali and Hussein. The Shia believe that as a young boy Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was hidden in a cave below a mosque in Samarra. He disappeared, and not accepting that he had died, the Shia await his return. This is a sacred place for the Shia and they still pray here for the return of the twelfth Imam. This event marks the end of leadership of the Shia in the family of the prophet. After several centuries a council or Ulema was appointed to elect an Ayatollah, the supreme spiritual leader. Ayatollah translates literally from Arabic as 'Sign of Allah' and as the name suggests is bestowed with great religious authority. As Sunni Islam expanded into the complex and urban societies of the once Roman and Persian empires, new ethical questions were encountered that demanded the authority of religious answers. In the first two centuries Sunni Islam responded with the emergence of four popular schools of thought the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii which to this day continue to seek to find Islamic solutions in any society, regardless of time or place. Shia Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's (pbuh) family were the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. Click the image for a larger version Although the Shia never ruled the majority of Muslims they of the Shia Imams according to the Twelvers did have their successes. The empire of the Safavid dynasties in the 16th Century was a great political triumph for Shia Islam, encompassing parts of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq. Today, Iran is the political face of Shia Islam. Politically, Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyads (started by Mu'awiya) and other dynasties that led to the powerful Ottoman and Mughal empires of the 15th to 20th Centuries. In the wake of these empires the Sunnis emerge as an over-arching identity grouping close to 90% of the now one billion Muslims. Sunnis have a large populations stretching geographically from the Indonesian archipelago through the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, the Arab world and Africa to the periphery of Europe.

Practical Differences Sunni Muslims pray five times a day, whereas Shia Muslims can combine prayers to pray three times a day. Shia prayers can often be identified by a small tablet of clay, from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating in prayer. The practice of Muttah marriage, a temporary marriage, is also permitted in Shia Islam but Sunnis considered it forbidden as they believe the Prophet (pbuh) abolished it. The relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims through the ages has shaped their contemporary political landscape. The persecution of the family of the Prophet (pbuh) particularly and the early Shia followers has been a paradigm of martyrdom throughout Shia Islam's history. How do Sunni and Shia view each other? The majority of Sunni and Shia do not let their differences allow them to cast each other out of Islam. At the institutional level Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of Al-Azhar, Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning considers Shia Islam to be an equally valid school of thought, along with the four Sunni schools. References and Bibliography The Largest Shiite Communities - The World Factbook - CIA A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani, Albert, pub. 1991, Faber and Faber Ltd

How do Sunni and Shia differ theologically? Initially the difference between Sunni and Shia was merely a difference concerning who should lead the Muslim community. The Shia however not only preferred the family of the Prophet in their choice of leadership but also with regard to the Hadith Literature. What does this mean? The interpretation of Hadith is an Islamic science for Shia and Sunnis. The Shia give preference to the Hadith as narrated by Ali and Fatima and their close associates. The Sunnis consider the Hadith narrated by any of twelve thousand companions equally. This ultimately led to a different understanding of Islam. Sunni Muslims tend to follow the opinion of the 1st and 2nd Century (7th and 8th century Gregorian calendar) scholars Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii. The Shia believe only a living scholar must be followed.