Skip to site content

Muslims Divided Between Shia, Sunni

The first words a baby hears after birth is the word of witness. The last words a person is supposed to hear before death is the word of witness. It is supposed to be a unifying statement among the world’s one billion Muslims. But the word of witness is also a divisive phrase in Islam.

A devout Muslim will repeat the word of witness upon rising, at bedtime and at numerous times during the day. The first words a baby hears after birth is the word of witness. The last words a person is supposed to hear before death is the word of witness. It is supposed to be a unifying statement among the world’s one billion Muslims.            <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
But the word of witness is also a divisive phrase in Islam. Sunni Muslims make up 85 percent of all Muslims. Sunni means “path” or “way” and refers to Muslims who follow the traditional words and teachings of Muhammad. They repeat the familiar word of witness. 
Shia (or Shi’ite) Muslims make up most of the remaining 15 percent of all Muslims. They add a sentence to the word of witness: “Ali is a Friend of Allah, the successor of the Messenger of Allah and his first Caliph.” This statement has divided the Muslim world for nearly 1,400 years.           
Shia (the name means “party of Ali”) Muslims are the majority division of Islam in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Iran, with large numbers of Shia Muslims found in Iraq, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Yemen and Bahrain. In other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, Sunni Muslims are a majority.           
The Shia-Sunni split took place immediately after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632. Sunni Muslims hold that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima, was the last of the caliphs, or successors to Muhammad (Muslims place the letters pbuh, meaning “praise be upon him,” after his name.). Shia Muslims insist Ali was the first of 12 caliphs, all of whom were direct descendents of Muhammad through Ali and Fatima.  
Assassinations of leaders and wars between Shia and Sunni Muslims continued for a number of years after Muhammad’s death. Shia Muslims still celebrate the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husain, who was killed in a battle with an opposing Muslim army. The ideal of suffering and martyrdom is an important theme in Shia Islam.  
Today, many Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries where they are a minority claim they are discriminated against by the majority Sunnis. In 2002, a Shia professor teaching in Saudi Arabia complained many Sunni Muslims describe Shia Islam as unlawful and its followers as siding with Jewish conspirators against Islam.  
Most Shia Muslims believe there were 12 caliphs or Imams, although some Shia Muslims accept only five or seven caliphs. The 12th caliph, chosen at the age of four after his father died, is said to have suddenly and mysteriously disappeared in A.D. 939. Shia Muslims believe he is “hidden” and will return at the end of the age.  
This belief contributed to the emergence of the Baha’i Faith in Iran in the mid-1800s and to the belief promoted by Benjamin Creme in recent years of the arrival of a “World Teacher,” who has been known in the past as Christ, Imam Madhi and Maitreya, among other names.   
Although the 12th caliph disappeared, Shia Islam continued the tradition of Imams. For Shia Muslims, Imams are believed to be infallible in their interpretation of Islam; their interpretations are binding.  
The best-known Imam in recent years was the late Ayatollah (a word meaning “sign of God”) Khomeni. Shia Imams are known for issuing fatwas, religious rulings, against perceived enemies of Islam and people who speak against the Quran (the holy book of Islam) or Muhammad.  
A representative of Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against Jerry Falwell in 2002 after the Southern Baptist minister called Muhammad a “terrorist.” Sunni Muslims also speak of imams, but the word is not capitalized; they are prayer leaders in mosques. For Sunnis, imams are scholars, but their interpretations are non-binding opinions.  
While Shia and Sunni Muslims agree on the core fundamentals of Islam, such as the Five Pillars, they differ in some practices. Shia Muslims sometimes combine the five times of prayer to three times per day. Shia Islam permits fixed-term temporary marriages, which are banned (at least officially) by Sunnis. On the other hand, Shia Islam claims its practices concerning divorce and inheritance are more favorable to women. 
Shia and Sunni Muslim scholars have attempted dialogue, but that dialogue seldom impacts Muslims in the streets. 
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.