The Power of the Past: Sunni vs. Shia

I am the type of person that has always wanted to travel, ever since I was old enough to understand how amazing the world truly is. Coming to college was the perfect opportunity for me to jump on all these ambitions of mine. From the time I have spent in college I have realized that I do not know as much as I thought I did about the world. When I first started learning about the Middle East I had no idea what to wrap my mind around considering there was so much information I needed to take in. I never knew much about the religion or people who live there and I knew that I needed to educate myself to be able to let my mind submerse into these cultures. After weeks of reading about the whole Middle East region I can say I have a more-clear understanding of what I am talking about, hence the word more. I still walk into class and think to myself, “I should have read more into that”, or “this person really knows what they are talking about”, leading my curiosity to jump sky high.
I am now going to take the time to clear up an aspect of the Middle East culture that I have either misinterpreted or simply could not distinguish because I am sure that other people can relate.
What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims?


The first thing I asked myself was, “How did Sunni and Shia Muslims originate?” After being referenced multiple times, I found it difficult to distinguish the difference between the two Islamic groups simply because I did not know the history between them. After further research I read enough to clear up the distinction. Sunni’s and Shiites originated with a split that goes back to the 7th Century in Islam. The split occurred when the leader of the Islamic State, the Caliph, was believed to be in the hands of two different leaders. We all know that power and who has power was a huge reason for conflict and still is to this day. At the time, one of the leaders believed to have had power was Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, who was very close to Mohammed but in no blood relation. The second was Ali ibn Abi Talib who was supported by the fact that he was Mohammed’s cousin and adopted brother (Boeree).

The first thing to know is that the Sunni’s are the majority group over the Shiites and they perceive themselves to be the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam (BBC). The word “Sunni” refers to the word “Sunna’s” which is the oral traditions and interpretations of the Koran. They believed that the Islamic state should be ran by someone who was elected by the religious leaders of the Islamic Community and that it did not matter if the role was direct from Mohammed (Boeree). When Mohammed died in 632, the Sunni’s believed that the leader of the Islamic Community should have been Abu Bakr as-Siddiq who was a close companion of Mohammed.
The word, “Shiites” directly references the word “Shia” which means the party of Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib) which was who the Shiites supported in having the title of the Caliph (Boeree). They also considered Ali to be the first Imam, which are direct descendants of Ali. Ali’s sons were both Imams and were both killed in conflict. Their succession ended with the 12th Imam who went into hiding, yet is still believed to return as the Mahdi or Messiah to continue leadership (Boeree). Although there are Shiites located in many other areas, most of them are found in Iraq and Iran, among Palestinians.

According to the BBC article, “Sunni’s and Shia’s: Islam’s Ancient Schism”, members of both sects have co-existed for centuries and share many of the same beliefs and practices. Now if they co-exist, where do the differences really exist? The fields of doctrine, law, theology, religious organization and ritual are where the true differences remain and where the leaders have formerly been in competition (BBC). In some areas such as Urban Iraq, intermarriage used to be permitted.
Where are the Sunni’s and Shiites today?
Although Shia Muslims are considered to be a minority, they are the majority in Iran, Iraw, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. They also have large communities in Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey (BBC). Neighboring Iran, many Sunni’s reside in Saudi Arabi and 85 percent of the world’s Muslim population are Sunni Muslims (Relgion News Service).

Back in high school, I can recall learning about the Middle East in a broad context but after being in the Global Leadership program at Ohio University I have gained a wide range of knowledge about the area. I don’t know if I will ever be at the point of full understanding but my curiosity will only motivate my research. It takes time, a lot of time. However, with time a better sense of comprehension can be made about how current issues are intertwined by the power of the past.


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