Explaining the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims

We hear the terms Sunni and Shia in the news all the time, but do we really know what that means? Here is an explanation. Photo: Clash at Karbala (Image: AP)

CHARLOTTEJune 10, 2013 ― Throughout the Muslim world there are frequently conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, Islam’s two largest sects. We hear and read those terms in the news on a daily basis, but do we really know where they originated and what they represent?

Leion Uris made an important observation in his novel The Haj when he wrote, “before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world. And all of us against the infidels.”

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In other words, clashes between Sunni and Shiite are less important in the Arab world when there are more important battles with non-Muslims ― the infidels.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center issued a study stating that 40 percent of Sunnis do not regard Shiite as proper Muslims.

The origins of the schism between Sunni and Shiite are relatively easy to grasp, even if layers of complexity have evolved over the past 1,400 years.

The Prophet Muhammad died in 632, ten years after the Hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medina established what is accepted as the founding date of Islam. One of Muhammad’s great accomplishments was his ability to unite largely impoverished Arabic tribes into a belief system that was both political and religious in scope. Those basic tenets remain inseparable in Islam today.

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Upon Muhammad’s death, a disagreement arose over who should inherit the leadership role once held by Muhammad. Most Muslims followed Abu Bakr, an extremely close friend of the Prophet, and also the father of his favorite wife, Aisha. The group supporting Bakr as the next leader, or “caliph,” became known as Sunnis.

The smaller sect believed the rightful successor should be related to the Prophet and claimed Muhammad’s cousin and son-in law, Ali, should take control. That group was known as “Shiiteat Ali” which was shortened to become “Shiite.”

In the end, Abu Bakr and the Sunnis were victorious, though Ali did eventually rule as the fourth caliph for a short period of time.

The modest beginnings of the schism are no more complicated than that, yet they remain a source of dispute among Muslims some 14 centuries later.

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In 680, Ali’s son Hussein was killed by Sunni troops in Karbala. Not only did the Sunnis rule during that time, but they also wielded great political power. Meanwhile, the Shiite minority looked for guidance from their imams, of whom the first twelve were direct descendants of Ali.

From that point forward, the religious beliefs between the two Islamic groups began to widen.

In its simplest form, the Sunnis of today heavily lean on the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiite, on the other hand, give preeminence to their ayatollahs, who they regard as reflections of God on earth.

For the Sunnis, such beliefs are a major departure from Muhammad’s teachings because they are tantamount to heresy. Though Muslims recognize the prophecy of Jesus Christ, they do not accept the concept of His divinity. By the same reasoning, Muhammad was merely a mortal conduit for the teachings of Allah. To accept an earthly presence of God in any form is anathema to Sunnis.

The Shiite counter with the argument that the puritanical extremes of Wahhabi Islam are what has led to the rampant violence and terrorism throughout the world today. In 1744, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab made an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of Diriyah in Arabia, to unify the tribes of the peninsula.

Wahhab was allowed to determine the official creed of the region by unifying Bedouin tribes through jihad. Meanwhile, that unification legitimized Saud’s rule, and he established the first Saudi state. Today it is known as Saudi Arabia

In so doing, the covenant between Saud and Wahhab duplicated the Muslim conquests of the seventh century during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The extreme elements of Wahhabi Islam that are the primary foundations of Islamic radicalism today.

With no separation of church and state in the Islamic religion, the divisions between sects are created as much by politics as they are by religion. Therein lies a major barrier that must be understood and overcome by the West.

Though the two major sects live together within the same region and share basic beliefs, such as the five pillars of Islam and that Allah is the one and only God, there is still tremendous distrust between them.

The Shiite are keenly aware of their minority status and they, like other infidel societies, feel threatened by the growing assertiveness of the Sunnis.

Despite that division among Islamic believers, as Leon Uris wrote, it remains “all of us against the infidels.”

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Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NCTaylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) which offers tours and travel information for people who share his wanderlust spirit.  

Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@magellantravelclub.com Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others.

As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 71 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries. He also played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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