History Files


Arabic Middle East

The Great Sunni / Shia Divide

by Joseph Mackertitch, The First Post, 24 April 2007

The Sunni-Shia split within Islam originates from controversy surrounding Ali, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

All Muslims respect Ali as the second historical follower of Islam, but whilst Sunnis believe he was just one of several possible leaders, Shia believe he and his line were divinely appointed.

Shia Islam recognises Ali as the first of the Twelve Imams, a divinely-ordained dynasty of supreme religious rulers, related by blood to the Prophet. Although the line ended in 873, Shia Muslims do not believe the final Imam is dead, but instead is 'hidden' - and liable to return.

Sectarian violence began when Ali was installed, and civil war broke out over the instillation of a 'rightful' caliph in the wake of Ali's reign. The intensity of fighting gradually decreased until the twentieth century, when the break up of the Ottoman Empire, two gulf wars and a Shia revolution helped reignite tension.

No clergy

Sunni Islam does not have a formal clergy, unlike Shia which is structured according to a religious hierarchy, culminating in a religious ruler, such as The Grand Ayatollah in Iran.

Many Sunnis believe that to instil a human, like the Supreme Imam in Iran, with divine influence is wrong.

Approximately ninety per cent of the Muslim world is Sunni.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are typically identified as strongholds of Sunni government and scholarship, and throughout history Shia Muslims have been subject to the rule of Sunni authorities.

The 1979 revolution in Iran provided an exception, as has the new government in Iraq.

The Hadith, which sets out guidelines for everyday religious practice, is interpreted slightly differently between the two sects, and as a result customs for prayer can vary between Shia and Sunnis.

Islamic fundamentalism, of the kind which produced the Taleban and part of the insurgency in Iraq, is related to Wahhabism, an offshoot of the Sunni sect that advocates a return to pre-modern Islamic values.

In Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhabi ideology is strong, Shia Muslims have often been subject to persecution and been branded kaffir, or infidels.



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