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Making Sense of the Sunni-Shia Divide

In the news, we often hear of Sunnis and Shias as two sects of Islam that have been pitted against each other for centuries. There is some truth to this, but it does not offer a complete picture of the complex relationship between Islam’s two orthodoxies.

In the Beginning…

Arguably, the beginnings of the split began with the passing of the Prophet Muhammad and the question of who would succeed the Prophet both religiously and politically. There was no doubt among the early Muslims that no other prophet or messenger would come after Muhammad. But, the critical leadership and authority that the Prophet offered had to continue in some form for this new faith community to survive and thrive. This question would become even more contentious as Muslims expanded out of Mecca and Medina and the Arabian Peninsula to quickly become an empire and civilization.

While the Prophet’s closest family members, including Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law Ali, were still carrying out the burial rites, the rest of the community debated whether successorship should remain in the Prophet’s family or be open to anyone in the ummah (larger Muslim community). The argument for the former was and continues to be that succeeding the Prophet is too monumental of a role to be trusted to the ummah; it must be trusted to the Prophet’s family who would naturally preserve his legacy with more authenticity and zeal. There are hadith, accepted as authentic by both Sunnis and Shias but interpreted very differently, in which the Prophet seemed to indicate a preference for his family and for the sagacious Ali, the Prophet’s beloved first cousin and son-in-law, in particular to succeed him. The argument of the later was and continues to be that the Prophet did not definitively name a successor and entrusted the ummah with making the decision. They would further argue that some of the Prophet’s closest companions who he entrusted time and again with religious and political tasks in his absence were not from his family.

Initially this difference of opinion did not seem to be a major schism even if there were passionate positions on both sides and some bruised feelings. Abu Bakr, a senior and elite companion of Muhammad’s who was with the Prophet from the very beginning, was elected as the first caliph with individuals and tribes pledging their allegiance to him. The first caliph’s reign lasted two years before he died of natural causes.

Again, the issue arose, but again it was quickly “resolved” with the election, by a committee of senior companions, of Umar, another great companion who was not from the Prophet’s family.

After second caliph’s reign ended with an assassination 13 years later, Ali was now no longer so young – his candidacy had even more merit. But, the committee of senior companions chose Utthman as the third caliph – also a companion and son-in-law of the Prophet. During Utthman’s rule, the Islamic empire had grown vast and was becoming more difficult to manage. Utthman chose mostly members of his family to govern the new Muslim cities because he thought he could trust them and hold them more accountable. But, the strategy backfired as accusations of corruption and nepotism grew. Eventually, a group of rebels lay siege to Utthman’s home and eventually entered it to kill him with a collective blow after he refused their demands. Upon the death of the third Caliph, it seemed that Ali’s time had finally come.

Deepening of the Schisms, the Tragedy of Karbala

Ali rose to become the fourth caliph. But, this time not without a serious contender. Mawiyah, who was the powerful governor of Syria and relative of the third caliph, demanded along with others that Ali go after the killers of Utthman. Ali’s contention was that enough blood had been shed and now was a time for reconciliation. The two locked heads on this issue leading, eventually, to Islam’s first civil war that saw prominent companions of the Prophet divided and fighting against each other. When Ali, ever the peacemaker, decided that he would negotiate with Mawiyah to end the fighting, some of his most zealous supporters turned against him claiming that he had abandoned God’s rule and cause. Ali too was assassinated by his own former supporters.

It was a big blow to those who believed all along that Ali’s reign would usher in a special era in Muslim history and the Prophet’s family’s authority would become self-evident.

For Sunni Muslims, the first four caliphs – beginning with Abu Bakr and ending with Ali – represent the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” whose actions and precedence would become sacrosanct. Collectively they would represent the golden era in which religious and political authority came together. In Sunni Islam, after this golden period religious and political authority, for the most part, would separate and, at times, even clash.

For the early Shia (meaning “partisans of [Ali]) Muslims, the death of Ali and the rise of Mawiyah was egregious. Ali’s older son, Hassan, was encouraged to rebel, but chose a peace treaty instead. But, what was unacceptable to the early Shias was Mawiyah’s appointment on his death bed of his son Yazid to the caliphate – the first transference of power from father-to-son in Muslim history.

Yazid, historians will recall, was politically shrewd but impious and ruled with an iron fist. Yazid is often referred to as the first tyrant in Muslim history. This appointment spurred calls among the partisans of Ali to rebel. The younger son, Hussayn, was always more willing to stand tall against injustice no matter the cost. He gathered his whole family (the Prophet’s family) and some of his supporters, about 100 in all, to head toward Damascus to confront Yazid. It is not clear that Hussayn wanted a war, perhaps he was looking to build a movement along the way. In any case, when Yazid caught wind of this, he sent an army of thousands to lay siege to Hussayn and his followers in a place etched in memory forever as Karbala in Iraq. Then, one-by-one Yazid’s army massacred most of the men, including Hussayn himself, and took most of the women as slaves, including Husayn’s sister by the name of Zaynab who goes on to tell truth of what happened and carry on the legacy.

The massacre and tragedy of Karbala opened a wound that has yet to heal.

After Karbala – the Formation of the Sects

Sunni historians, at least now, look back to the Karbala massacre with sadness and siding with Hussayn. But, beyond seeing it as a tragedy there isn’t a lot of reflection on what it means for the ummah or how it changed the course of Muslim history. The attitude of Sunnis has largely been to say let’s move on.

Once it became clear to the masses that the piety of the caliph could no longer be trusted, there was a quick pivot by the emerging class of Muslim scholars (ulema) to try and become independent of the rulers. Some of the most famous Sunni Muslim scholars were imprisoned and tortured by the rulers of their time because they refused to rule in accordance with the caliph or resisted their teachings being usurped by the rulers.

Arguably, in Sunni Islam – after the four Rightly Guided Caliphs era ended – religious authority became debated and diffused to this day. Of course, Muslim scholars lay claim to the greatest authority, but that has been and continues to be challenged by charismatic lay preachers, academics, artists, socio-political activists, and political heads – all who often speak in the name of Islam. Even among Sunni scholars the question of who is a scholar is a contentious one.

For Shias, on the other hand, the Karbala massacre is a defining moment in history that has repercussions to this day. Every year, Shias worldwide lament the massacre with physical expressions of mourning, like beating the chest, and consider what lessons that event has for Muslims today.

After the massacre, the formative Shia community largely went underground for its own survival more convinced than ever before that religious and political authority could not be entrusted to the ummah. Those vocally or outwardly sympathetic to Hussayn’s cause were not tolerated under Yazid’s rule and for much of the almost 90 years of the Ummayad dynasty.

During this time, the Shia theology of “Imamates” was formalized. Imam Ali, Imam Hassan and Imam Hussayn were the first three Imams – the rightful, infallible heirs of the Prophet’s legacy. Majority of Shias, known as the Twelvers, believe that nine more Imams came, one after another from father-to-son from the lineage of the Prophet’s daughter Lady Fatima, to continue to lead and guide the faithful. The collective actions and precedence of the Imams became sacrosanct.

Naturally, Sunni political authorities would find these Imams to be a threat and all of them were assassinated or died under mysterious circumstances. The Shias believe that the last and final Imam is protected by God and is in occultation or hiding to return toward the end of times to guide humanity back to the prophetic way.

In the meantime, Shia religious scholars have a hierarchy of authority to guide the community with the Grand Ayatollah (lit. “Major Sign of God”) holding the most authoritative rank followed by Ayatollahs. In contrast to the Sunnis, Shias have a very clear notion of who a religious scholar and authority is and is not.

Can Sunnis and Shias Get Along?

All this summary of rather contentious history is to say that the core difference between Sunnis and Shias is on the question of religious authority – who should and should not be followed in religious matters and, at least to some degree, political matters when the two intertwine.

This difference led Sunnis and Shias to accept different hadith of the Prophet Muhammad as authoritative depending on who they trusted from the early Muslims and who they did not. For example, the Prophet’s youngest wife Lady Ayesha narrated thousands of hadith that Sunni Muslims found reliable and based many religious rulings on. But, the Shia reject any hadith in which Ayesha would be a narrator partly because she opposed Ali’s refusal to go after the assassins of Utthman and even briefly led some soldiers in battle against Ali’s army during the civil war.

Likewise, Sunni Muslims would not, except for some of the earlier Imams, take the later Imams as religious authorities and would reject their precedence as having weight in religious rulings. As such, Sunnis and Shias will disagree on some major points of theology and law, and inevitably, politics.

Politically, both Sunnis and Shias learned some harsh lessons early on that remain with us. The Sunni political establishment have been weary of Shia political establishment’s intentions and desires to overthrow the heretical regimes and to unify Muslims under the rightful religious authority of the Prophet’s family. As such, Shias as a whole have often been suppressed by Sunnis especially when there is threat of political revolution. Shia political establishment are convinced that the Sunni political establishment will always, in the end, turn to Yazid-like tactics and have often made the case for their own independence.

Despite the differences in religious authority and political rivalry, it is in fact quite remarkable how similar the Sunni and Shia traditions are. After all, both orthodoxies still read and interpret the same Qur’an and both look to the Prophet’s sunnah, albeit arriving at what that means from two different directions.

If one were to judge by the news Sunnis and Shias are always at each other’s throat. The bloodshed cannot be ignored. But, it would be a mistake to say that Sunnis and Shias have never gotten along and never will. In many Muslim societies Sunnis and Shias coexist in the same neighborhoods, commemorate each other’s sacred days, and even intermarry.

As a response to the latest sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places, a group of senior and respected scholars came together in Amman, Jordan to write and sign a historic document called the Amman Message which calls for Muslim unity without uniformity and an end to violent sectarianism.


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