History Files


Arabic Near East

The Great Sunni/Shia Divide

by Joseph Mackertitch, 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 that he was just one of several possible leaders, Shia believe that he and his line were divinely appointed.

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.

No clergy

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 Islamic values.

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

Mecca and the Great Mosque
A detailed print which shows Mecca and the Great Mosque which is central to Islam as a faith, and illustrating the long queues of pilgrims entering



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