Although ancient history, the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims continues to be a factor in modern-day conflict. In order to understand the conflict it is important to know the difference between these two divisions of Islam, a difference I did not know until recently.
Difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims:
Both Sunni and Shiite are branches of Islam. The adherents of both divisions are bound to the Quran and follow the same five pillars. They are both considered Muslims. While the two agree on the main basic tenets of Islam, the main difference relates to authority.
The split occurred with the succession of Mohammed. While some Muslims believed leadership should be awarded to qualified individuals, others insisted the only legitimate ruler could come through Mohammed’s bloodline.
Those who believed Mohammed and his descendants are part of a divine order became known as Shia Muslims. Shia is a term that stems from Shi’atu Ali, Arabic for “partisans of Ali”. Those who were opposed to political succession based on Mohammed’s bloodline became known as Sunnis, meaning followers of the Sunna, or “way” in Arabic.
At the time of Mohammed’s death those now considered Sunni Muslims elected Abu Bakr, a companion of Mohammed, to be the first caliph, leader of the Islamic community. Those now considered Shia Muslims favored Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.
When Mohammed passed away Ali did become caliph in 656 and ruled only five years before he was assassinated. The caliphate, which was based in the Arabian Peninsula, passed to the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus and later the Abbasides in Baghdad. Shias rejected the authority of these rulers.
In 680 soldiers of the second Umayyad caliph killed Ali’s son, Husayn, and many of his companions in Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq. The events in Karbala became a moral story for the Shias, and Sunni caliphs worried that the Shia Imams
(Descendants of Husayn who were seen as the legitimate leaders of Muslims) would use this massacre to capture public attention and topple the monarchs. This fear resulted in the further persecution and marginalization of Shias.
This is only the beginning in tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The Affects on Today’s World:
Today there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world: Sunnis make up the majority at 85% and Shia the minority with 15%. Although there is an enormous gap between the majority and minority, I think it’s extremely important to understand this difference is not the cause of extremist groups in Islam. It is important to recognize there are extreme groups in both divisions.
While I once thought that religious violence in the Middle East solely occurred between these two divisions, I was surprised to learn otherwise. According to the Council on Foreign Relations Sunnis are not singularly focused on oppressing Shias. They have fought against coreligionists throughout history proving that sharing a common Sunni identity did not eliminate power struggles among Sunni Muslims.
According to Al Arabiya News Sunni extremism often hurts Sunni Muslims rather than Shia Muslims. Shiite extremist organizations rarely attack their own institutions, communities, and people. Shiite extremist groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq are linked to governments and abide their policies of extremism management. This is something that cannot be done in Sunni communities because terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are against governments and seek to overthrow.
I was amazed to learn that more than 90% of terrorist operations by Sunni groups are directed against Sunni communities. I question why it would be beneficial for Sunni terrorist organizations to target the people who share the same beliefs.
Why is this important?
Today the news is filled with names of terrorist organizations from The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to Hezbollah. While I know both of these groups are founded on Islam, until recently I would not be able to say if they were affiliated with Sunni Muslims or Shia Muslims.
Many people may be wondering, “What does that matter?” because a terrorist organization is a terrorist organization no matter what it is founded on. I believe it is important to know these differences. It is important to know an organization, what it is based on, its principles.