Muslims across the world fall into different sects including Sunni and Shia (also known as Shiite). Then in America the Black Nation of Islam movement and other sects of Islam contribute to America’s religious soup. Most (85%) Muslims across the world, however, identify most closely with Sunni.
This division has plagued Muslim believers for centuries while unity glistens in the far distance. For outsiders, it is somewhat difficult to understand the origins of the split or even the differences among the sects. Though in this short excerpt it will be difficult to confine all of the elements, here is a snapshot of the Islamic divide.
The great Islamic divide is a historic, 1,400 year long split that began with a drawn out fight about who should be the next caliph (Muslim leader). After the death of the faithful prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslims did not come to an agreement on whom the next leader would be. So confusion ensued.
Muhammad left no clear directions on how to select a successor for the nation, so elders of the community debated, eventually electing Abu Bakr as the first caliph. As a result, tempers were loosed across tribes in Arabia. Disagreeing Muslims continued to recognize Muhammad as prophet and refused to send taxes to the City of the Prophet, Mendia. Separatists (as some would call them) or pious Muslims did not recognize Abu as the properly appointed leader.
Abu died shortly after and chose the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab on his deathbed. After leading the Islamic nation in an expansion campaign across the Middle East, Umar was stabbed and killed in 644.
Uthman ibn Affan was then selected as the third caliph. He reigned for twelve years and was assassinated while praying. The Islamic nation became highly discontented with his unconventional methods, so rebels took it upon themselves to restore order. But a tumultuous reign would follow. Finally, the fourth caliph was appointed.
Ali ibn Abi Talib’s tenure began rocky. The public was outraged with Ali’s failure to apprehend Uthman’s killers, thus civil war broke out across the region.
Forces led by Uthman’s cousin and governor of Damascus, Mu’awiya Ummayad, challenged Ali and forced him to compromise. As a result, Ali’s faithful followers felt betrayed and struck the leader down in 661. Mu’awiya declared himself caliph.
Yazid, Mu’awiya son, assumed the caliphate, but Ali’s younger son Hussein led an army against Yazid. His military front failed and Hussein was killed in battle, however Ali, his youngest child survived, continued the lineage. The division between Shia and Sunni thus commenced.
Now that we’ve covered a bit of the long history of Islam, let’s take a look at the difference. At the core of Muslim beliefs, no matter the sect, are the five pillars of faith (faith, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage) and the belief that there is one god, Allah. They also have similar beliefs of death, salvation and resurrection. However, there are significant differences in practices and theology between the groups.
Shiites were known as the Shiat-Ali, partisans of Ali. The group believes Ali is the true caliph divinely appointed. Shiites are among the minority of Islam and are labeled the more radical and militant followers. Only one-tenth of the world’s Muslim population belongs to the Shiite sect. They are known for their strong tradition in suffering and sacrifice. The group is refined to separate philosophical beliefs, movements, and political authority. Shiites believe it was on Muhammad’s deathbed that Ali was appointed successor of the caliphate.
Sunni on the other hand are often called the moderate division of Islam and are known for their tolerance. Sunni is derived from the Arab word for followers of the prophet. They believe any worthy man is able to lead the nation, thus they recognize the first four caliphs as legitimate leaders. They espouse the writings and words of the caliphs.
Sufis are the mystical, lesser-known division of Islam. Typically traditional Muslims care not to identify Sufis as Muslim. Generally they oppose austere interpretation of the Qur’an. In reaction to the “worldliness” of the reigning caliphate from 661 to 750, this movement of Sufis Muslims branched off and embraced unorthodox doctrine and practices. Instead of seeking God though a prophet or priest, Sufis emphasize the personal relationship with God.
All in all, Muslims embrace one another as Muslims. Division persists among the community of Islamic people, but leaders continue to attempt unification through private talks, organizations, and prayer.