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Understanding Sunni-Shia


Wednesday, January 9, 2008


O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority from amongst you...  Quran, 4:59

The ongoing war in Iraq has increased awareness about the two main groups within Islam; Sunni and Shia*. Politicians frequently talk about the need for reconciliation between the 3 groups in Iraq: the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. Firstly, this grouping is inaccurate. The Kurds are an ethnic group who are mostly Sunni whereas the Sunni and Shia are the two main religious groups within Islam. Invariably, the first question that arises concerns the difference between the two groups. But understanding their similarities is just as important.

Sunnis and Shias unite in the most fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith; belief in (the One) God, the belief in the Prophethood of Muhammad and belief in the Day of Reckoning where all will be held to account. The two groups observe the practices of Islam almost identically with minor differences; they both hold 5 prayers a day, fast in Ramadan, give charity and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. With all these similarities, where do the two groups differ? Simply put, the dispute revolves around the issue of leadership after the death of the Prophet.

Sunnis maintain that the leader after the Prophet must be chosen by the people at large, and must be a pious person and a member of an Arab tribe by name of Quraysh. But Shias contend that the Prophet’s successor must be divinely chosen and within the Prophet’s purified family. Historically speaking, the Sunni view won out and Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet, ascended to the caliphate. This difference led the proto-sunni and proto-shia groups to evolve doctrines that helped explain their position on leadership. The Sunnis used the selection of Abu Bakr and subsequent caliphs to develop the concepts of selection by consultation (shura) and consensus (ijma). The Shias developed a concept of leadership (imamah) based on designation (nass) by an infallible personality (ma’soom) starting with the Prophet. One must understand that these doctrinal differences on the issue of leadership after the Prophet arose many years after the Prophet passed away. Over time, both sides developed arguments using the Quran and hadith (traditions of the Prophet) in order to back up their views.

So where do these differences leave Sunnis and Shias today? Firstly, many Sunnis recognize that the reestablishment of the caliphate is the most vital component of an Islamic renaissance. Not since, 1924 and the Ottoman empire, has a caliph been recognized among Sunni muslims. Fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda have made the reestablishment of the Caliphate a central goal in their self-professed struggle (jihad). Most regimes throughout the Middle East have suppressed these groups because there goals necessitate the overthrowing of the ruling classes. One must remember that these groups first attempted to implement their reforms in a peaceful manner but turned to violence after they were brutally oppressed by the ruling regimes. The situation differs dramatically with the Shia.

Shias believe that Ali was the first of 12 Imams divinely selected to lead. Shias contend that the 12th Imam went into occultation/hiding (ghayba) in 824, and will reappear at the end of time along with Prophet Jesus to establish a just Islamic state. Therefore, Shia muslims also feel a leadership vacuum but recognize that the return of the 12th Imam is not in their hands. And so the Shia learned scholars (ulema) have taken a greater role in deriving new laws for the modern era (ijtihad). This authority led to Khomeini deriving a new leadership concept – authority of the jurists (vilayat-e-faqih) which laid the foundations for the scholars to take political power in Iran.

*More historically inclined readers should note that I have used the term Shia as a generalization for the Shia Twelver group which makes up of 90-95% of all ‘Shia’. These other Shia groups include: Zaydis, Ismailis, Alawis etc. They are all characterized by the importance they give to Ali – their rightful successor to the Prophet.

And that's jus' the tip.

References/Further Reading

No god but God by Reza Aslan

Muslim Brotherhood, Wikipedia

Succession to Muhammad by Wilfred Madelung

Posted by Ali-Asad

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