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 that he was just one of
several possible leaders, Shia believe that he and his line were
Shia Islam recognises Ali as the first of the Twelve
Imams, a divinely-ordained dynasty of early Islamic supreme religious
rulers who were related by blood to the Prophet. Although the line
ended in AD 873, Shia Muslims do not believe the final imam is dead,
but instead is 'hidden' - and is 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 to reignite tension.
Sunni Islam does not have a formal clergy, unlike
Shia which is structured according to a religious hierarchy. This
culminates in a religious ruler, such as the grand ayatollah in Iran.
Many Sunnis believe that it is wrong to instil a human with divine
influence, like the supreme imam in Iran. Approximately ninety per
cent of the Muslim world is Sunni, so the opposition is quote strong.
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 recent government establishment in Iraq.
The Hadith, which sets out guidelines for everyday
religious practice, is interpreted slightly differently between the
two sects. As a result, customs for prayer can vary between Shia and
Sunnis. Islamic fundamentalism, of the kind which produced the Taliban
and part of the insurgency in Iraq, is related to Wahhabism, an
offshoot of the Sunni sect which advocates a return to pre-modern
In Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhabi ideology is strong,
Shia Muslims have often been subject to persecution and have been branded
kaffir, or infidels.