The divide between the Shia and the Sunni community is the oldest, and also the largest, in Islam’s history. The two Muslim denominations, however, have co-existed for a number of centuries and even share many practices and beliefs. They predominantly differ in their religious organization, theology, law, ritual, and doctrine. Even their leaders are sometimes seen to be in competition with each other. Tensions have been flaring up between the two denominations for long. There are even incidents of violence in a number of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, pushing the two communities further apart. The roots of the divide can be traced back to over 1400 years ago, when Prophet Muhammad died.
Death of Prophet Muhammad
Both Shias and Sunnis draw their faith from the religious text of Quran, and customs and traditions from the Prophet Muhammad’s life. They also mostly agree on all the fundamentals of Islam. The historical causes of differences can be attributed more to leadership issues, ideological heritage, and certain events.
The first and foremost differences arose in 632 AD, that is, after Prophet Muhammad’s death. The Prophet died before appointing a successor to his leadership, which ultimately caused deep divisions among his followers in the world over the course of time. After his death, uncertainty arose in the Muslim population whether the next leader should be chosen by consensus or the title should go to Muhammad’s blood relations.
Prophet’s Legacy and Succession
A serious question came up as to who would become the caliph (‘deputy of God’), now that the Prophet was gone. A majority opted for one of the closest companions of Prophet, Abu Bakr. A minority though sided with Ali, Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. The small group was of the view that the Prophet had appointed Ali to be the spiritual and political leader of the Muslims.
Eventually, those who believed in Abu Bakr were called Sunni. Sunni means the followers of Sunnah, i.e, the traditions, deeds, and social practices of Prophet Muhammad. Those who reposed their faith in Ali came to be called Shia. Shia is a contracted form of Shiat Ali, which means ‘partisans of Ali’.
Ultimately, both became the caliph. However, Abu Bakr took the leadership first, becoming the first caliph. The second and third caliphs were assassinated, and after that Ali rose to power, becoming the fourth caliph. Subsequently, Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, challenged the leadership of Ali. In 656 AD, they went to battle in Iraq. It was called the Battle of the Camel. Ali emerged victorious, defeating Aisha. This further deepened the division between the two Muslim communities.
In the following years, Mu’awiya became the caliph. He also founded the Ummayad Dynasty. In turn, Hussein, the son of Ali and the prophet’s daughter Fatima, led a partisans group in Iraq against Yazid, the son of Mu’awiya. This battle came to be called the Battle of Karbala for the Shias. It holds a deep religious and historical significance for Muslims.
In the battle, Hussein was killed and his forces were defeated. Shia community considers Hussein as a martyr. Now every year, the day of the battle is observed as the Day of Ashura. As per the Islamic lunar calendar, on the tenth day of Muharram, a large number of pilgrims visit the shrine of Hussein in Karbala. Some Shia communities also take part in acts of suffering and flagellation to commemorate Hussein’s sacrifice.
Differences in Leadership
In due course of time, Islam spread to Asia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. This expansion brought to attention the need for better codified forms of political and religious leadership for its leaders. Shias and Sunnis took entirely different approach to this problem.
Sunni Muslims relied on the caliphs’ leadership during the Ummayad (from 660-750 AD in Damascus) and Abbasid (from 750-1258 AD in Iraq and from 1261-1517 AD in Cairo) periods. Over the 7th and 8th centuries, four religious schools of Islamic jurisprudence emerged, and Sunnis derived their theological foundations from there.
Even today, these schools guide the Sunnis on the matters of criminal law, worship, environmental and bio-ethical concerns, banking and finance, and gender and family. Sunnis constitute the majority of the Muslim population in the world today – almost 80-90%.
Shias, on the other hand, trusted on Imams, considering them as their spiritual leaders. They considered them the leaders from the family of the Prophet, who were appointed divinely. Even today, Shias continue to believe in the fact that only the Prophet’s family are the true leaders. There is also a multitude of sects within the Shia community. The community is in minority on the global level. However, they have a stronghold in Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Albania, Pakistan, and Iraq.
The Current Scenario
The greatest difference today, however, lies in politics. Though the majority of Shias and Sunnis are living peacefully, there exists sectarianism and polarization in many regions – legacy of the historical landscape of global politics. A prominent example is the conflict between Shia-majority Iran and the rest of the Arab world that has Sunni majority. Shia-Sunni conflicts are also getting aggressive in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Syria – driving a wedge deeper between the two Muslim worlds. This schism still heavily permeates the daily lives of Muslims across the globe.