During the prophet Muhammad's lifetime, Islam was a largely unified faith. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., he left no sons and thus there was some question over who would succeed him. A council was held and the Muslim community elected Abu Bakr as caliph or leader. Those who believe that Abu Bakr's election as caliph was legitimate are known as Sunnis.
Muslims who maintain that Muhammad named his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor are known as Shia (literally "party of Ali"). The Shia believe that Ali, not Abu Bakr, deserved to be the first caliph. Eventually Ali became the fourth caliph, almost 25 years following the death of Muhammad.
|Muhammad's supposed appointment of Ali as his successor.|
Thus, the debate over the succession of Muhammad can be seen as the impetus for the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia. Since that time, differences in religious practice have further distinguished the two sects. Below are two key differences between Sunni and Shia:
- Sunni: community and spiritual leaders
- Shia: infallible and divine
- Hiding one's religion (taqiyya) under threat of persecution
- Sunni: permissible under limited circumstances
- Shia: emphasized
While many Muslims identify themselves as either Sunni or Shia (or sub-sects of each), a sizable number of the Islamic faith identify themselves first and foremost as "Muslim." One might argue that the fundamental beliefs shared by the two sects are more significant than the differences.
So the next time you are watching CNN and Anderson Cooper says "Sunni and Shia" and your Uncle Butch blurts out, "What the hell's the difference anyway?" you can drop some knowledge on him; or just smile coyly and shrug.
After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (Lesley Hazleton)