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Shia arc
There are a number Islam sects and groups. Sunnis make up the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Shia are the second largest group. They are divided by the Hanafi, Shafe’i, Maleki and Hanbali schools. Wahhabis are a conservative Sunni sect most active in Saudi Arabia. Sufis practice a mystical form of Sunni Islam. Ismaelis are a Shia sect led by Aga Khan. The views of some groups are radically different from those others. Members of some groups regard members of rival groups as heretics.

Early leadership controversies within the Muslim community led to divisions that still have an impact on the body of believers. When Muhammad died, leadership fell to his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph (khalifa , or successor), a position that combined spiritual and secular power. A separate group advocated the leadership of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who had married his daughter Fatima. Leadership could have fallen to Ali's son Husayn, but, in the power struggle that followed, in 680 Husayn and seventy-two followers were murdered at Karbala (now in modern Iraq). [Source: Library of Congress *]

This leadership dispute formed the most crucial dividing point in Islamic history: the victorious party went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), which had its headquarters at Damascus, leading the majority of Muslims in the Sunni path. The disaffected Shiat Ali (or Party of Ali) viewed only his line as legitimate and continued to follow descendants of Husayn as their leader. Among the followers of this Shia path, there is a party of "Seveners" who trace the lineage of imams down to Ismail (d. 762), the Seventh Imam and eldest son of the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis are the largest Shia group in India, and are concentrated in Maharashtra and Gujarat. A second group, the "Twelvers" (the most numerous Shia group worldwide), traces the lineage of imams through twelve generations, believing that the last or Twelfth Imam became "hidden" and will reappear in the world as a savior, or Mahdi, at some time in the future.*

Shia (Shiite) Muslims in Iran

The division between Sunni and Shia dates back to purely political struggles in the seventh century, but over time between the two major communities many divisive differences in ritual and legal interpretations have evolved. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, and in contemporary India 90 percent of Muslims follow this path. Sunnis have recognized no legitimate caliph after the position was abolished in Turkey in 1924, placing the direction of the community clearly with the ulama.*

In addition to the orthodox Twelve Imam Shia, several sects that revered the twelve imams but otherwise subscribed to heterodox beliefs and practices emerged between the ninth and twelfth centuries. One of these heterodox sects, the Nusayri, originated in the mid-ninth century among the followers of the religious teacher Muhammad ibn Nusayr an Namiri. The Nusayri became established in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey during the tenth century when a Shia dynasty based in Aleppo ruled the region. Because of the special devotion of the Nusayri to Ali, Sunni Muslims historically and pejoratively referred to them as Alevi.*

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths ; Afterhours Sufism Stories ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry


Sunnis make up 84.6 percent of the global Muslim population of 1.57 billion (2009). Shia make up 15.4 percent. Sunnis make up 62.5 percent of the Muslim population of 253 million (2006) in the Middle East; Shia make up 37.5 percent. Sunnis are so named because they obey the Sunna of the Prophet. “Sunna” means "tradition,” and is sometimes used to refer to the “customs of Muhammad.” When people talk about Islam in a general way they are usually talking about Sunni Islam.

Sunnis in Arabia in the 1910s

Sunnis believed the heirs of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father in law, were best suited to carry on Islam after the prophet’s death while Shia believe that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was anointed for the task. See Differences Between Sunnis and Shia and Religious Differences Between Sunnis and Shia Below

Although originally political in nature, the differences between Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological overtones. In principle, a Sunni approaches God directly: there is no clerical hierarchy. Some duly appointed religious figures, such as imams, however, exert considerable social and political power. Imams usually are men of importance in their communities, but they need not have any formal training. Committees of socially prominent worshipers usually are responsible for managing major mosque-owned lands. In most Arab countries, the administration of waqfs (religious endowments) has come under the influence of the state. Qadis (judges) and imams are appointed by the government. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The Muslim year has two religious festivals: Id al Adha, a sacrificial festival held on the tenth day of Dhu al Hijjah, the twelfth, or pilgrimage, month; and Id al Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, which celebrates the end of Ramadan on the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month. To Sunnis these are the most important festivals of the year. Each lasts three or four days, during which time people put on their best clothes and visit, congratulate, and bestow gifts on each other. In addition, cemeteries are visited. Id al Fitr is celebrated more festively because it marks the end of Ramadan. Celebrations also take place, although less extensively, on the Prophet's birthday, which falls on the twelfth day of Rabi al Awwal, the third month, and on the first of Muharram, the beginning of the new year. *

Sunni Schools

The four main Sunni schools devolved in the first 200 years of Islam. They include the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafai and Hanbali — all of which are still active. Saudi Wahhabis belong to the Hanbali school, while the rest of Arabian, Egyptian, and Iranian Sunnis belong Shafai school. Hanafi school is more liberal than other schools. It is active in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. The Maliki school is active in Egypt and other North African countries.

With regard to legal matters, Sunni Islam has four orthodox schools that give different weight in legal opinions to prescriptions in the Quran, to the hadith, to the consensus of legal scholars, to analogy (to similar situations at the time of the Prophet), and to reason or opinion. Named for their founders, the earliest Muslim legal schools were those of Abd Allah Malik ibn Anas (ca. 715-95) and An Numan ibn Thabit Abu Hanifa (ca. 700-67). The Maliki school was centered in Medina, and the lawbook of Malik ibn Anas is the earliest surviving Muslim legal text, containing a systematic consensus of Medina legal opinions. The Hanafi school in Iraq stressed individual opinion in making legal decisions. Muhammad ibn Idris ash Shafii (767-820), a member of the tribe of Quraysh and a distant relative of the Prophet, studied under Malik ibn Anas in Medina. He followed a somewhat eclectic legal path, laying down the rules for analogy that were later adopted by other legal schools. The last of the four major Sunni legal schools, that of Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal (780-855), was centered in Baghdad. The Hanbali school, which became prominent in Arabia as a result of Wahhabi influence, gave great emphasis to the hadith as a source of Muslim law but rejected innovations and rationalistic explanations of the Quran and the traditions.*

Named for their founders, the Hanafi school of Imam Abu Hanifa, born in Kufa, Iraq about A.D.700, is the major school of Iraqi Sunni Arabs. It makes considerable use of reason or opinion in legal decisions. The dominant school for Iraqi Sunni Kurds is that of Imam Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Shafii of the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet, born in A.D.767 and brought up in Mecca. He later taught in both Baghdad and Cairo and followed a somewhat eclectic legal path, laying down the rules for analogy that were later adopted by other legal schools. The other two legal schools in Islam, the Maliki and the Hanbali, lack a significant number of adherents in Iraq. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988]

Islam by country: Sunni (Green); Shia (Shiite, Purple), Ibadi (blackish green)


Shia Islam is the second largest Islamic sect after the Sunni Islam. Shia (also known as Shiites and Shi’ites make up 15.4 percent of the global Muslim population of 1.57 billion (2009). They make up 37.5 percent of the Muslim population of 253 million (2006) in the Middle East Most Shia reside in Iran and Iraq. They form the majority in Azerbaijan and Bahrain. A large number also live in Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, some of the Persian Gulf states, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Shia rule only in Iran. In other countries, even where Shia are a majority, they are ruled by Sunnis. That was the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein but now Shia are politically strong there.

Shia Muslims hold the fundamental beliefs of other Muslims. In addition to these tenets, however, Shia believe in the imamate, which is the distinctive institution of Shia Islam. Whereas Sunni Muslims view the caliph as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader, Shia Muslims hold a hereditary view of Muslim leadership. They believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam (when uppercase, Imam refers to the Shia descendant of the House of Ali), exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat (spiritual guidance) are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor — through twelve Imams — each holding the same powers. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Most Shia are in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. There are sizable populations in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and small pockets in India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There are virtually no Shia in North Africa and Southeast Asia. Shia (numbers): 1) Iran (61.4 million); 2) Pakistan (30.8 million); 3) Iraq (16.5 million); 4) Turkey (6 million); 5) Afghanistan (5.1 million); 6) Azerbaijan (5.1 million); 7) Yemen (3.1 million); 8) Saudi Arabia (2.4 million); 9) Syria (1.3 million); 10) Oman (0.9 million); 11) Lebanon (0.8 million); 12) Kuwait (0.6 million); 13) Bahrain (0.5 million); 14) United Arab Emirates (0.4 million). Shia (percentage of the population): 1) Iran (89 percent); 2) Oman (75 percent); 3) Bahrain (70 percent); 4) Iraq (65 percent); 5) Azerbaijan (61 percent); 6) Lebanon (55 percent); 7) Yemen (36 percent); 8) Kuwait (30 percent); 9) Pakistan (20 percent); 10) Afghanistan (18 percent); 11) Syria (17 percent); 12) United Arab Emirates (16 percent); 13) Turkey (15 percent); 14) Saudi Arabia (15 percent). Book: “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future” by Vali Nasr.

History of Sunni-Shia Divisions

Muhammad's letter to Muqawqi
Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the Muslim community failed to reach consensus on who should succeed him as the caliph. A majority of Muhammad's close followers supported the idea of an elected caliph, but a minority believed that leadership, or the imamate, should remain within the Prophet's family, passing first to Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and principal deputy, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and subsequently to Ali's sons and their male descendants. The majority, who believed they were following the sunna of the Prophet, became known as Sunni Muslims. To them, the caliph was the symbolic religious head of the community; however, caliphs would also rule as the secular leaders of a major empire for six centuries. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The first four caliphs — Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali — were chosen by a consensus of Muslim leaders. Subsequently, however, the caliphate was converted by its holders into a hereditary office, the first two dynasties being the Umayyad, which ruled from Damascus, and the second being the Abbasid, which ruled from Baghdad. After the Mongols captured Baghdad and executed the Abbasid caliph in 1258, a period of more than 250 years followed when no one was recognized as caliph by all Sunni Muslims. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Dynasty resurrected the title, and gradually even Muslims outside the Ottoman Empire came to accept the Ottoman sultan as the symbolic leader — caliph — of Sunni Islam.*

The partisans of Ali — the Shiat Ali — evolved into a separate Islamic denomination that became known as the Shia. By the ninth century, however, the Shia Muslims split into numerous sects as a result of disagreements over which of several brothers was the legitimate leader, or imam , of the community. The major divisions occurred over the question of succession to the fourth, sixth, and twelfth imams. Consequently, the origins of almost all Shia sects can be traced to the followers of the fifth, seventh, or twelfth imam. By the fifteenth century, the sect known as the Twelve Imam Shia — a group that recognized Ali and eleven of his direct descendants as the legitimate successors to the Prophet — had emerged as the predominant Shia sect.*

In addition to the orthodox Twelve Imam Shia, several sects that revered the twelve imams but otherwise subscribed to heterodox beliefs and practices emerged between the ninth and twelfth centuries. One of these heterodox sects, the Nusayri, originated in the mid-ninth century among the followers of the religious teacher Muhammad ibn Nusayr an Namiri. The Nusayri became established in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey during the tenth century when a Shia dynasty based in Aleppo ruled the region. Because of the special devotion of the Nusayri to Ali, Sunni Muslims historically and pejoratively referred to them as Alevi.*

Differences Between Sunnis and Shia

Abu Bakr
According to the Washington Post: “Battles fought 13 centuries ago over the leadership of the Muslims are at the core of Shia beliefs, which, like the Catholic faith, is rife with saints, blood and martyrdom and boasts a rigorous intellectual tradition. The Shia are in essence a people on pilgrimage, living over and over — as some Christians do the passion of Christ — the wrongs that were done them. Often, pilgrims will weep as they describe the final battle of Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, near Karbala as if it had happened yesterday and they had known him personally.” [Source: Washington Post]

Shia (derived from Shi, which in turn is derived from “shi’at “Ali” , “the party of Ali,”) believe that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was anointed to carry on Islam after the prophet’s death while Sunnis believed the heirs of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father in law, was best suited for the task. Shia believe that Ali is Muhammad’s true successor because he was a blood relative of the prophet and was thus the only one capable of explaining Islam’s doctrines. Some sects argue that Ali was an even more important prophet than Muhammad. Ali's successor were known as "divine imams."

Shia and Sunnis differ little in their core beliefs. The doctrinal roots of their difference lie in a disagreement over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Time magazine reported: “In addition to belief in the same god...Sunnis and Shia have a great deal in common: ethnicity, language, cuisines and apparel, They ways in which they differ are subtle and vary from region to region. There are some unwritten rules that govern how each sect practices its faith, names its children and decorates its homes. But differentiation is not an exact science and mistaken identity is commonplace.” [Source: Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Sunnis: 1) recognize all four caliphs after Muhammad, including Ali, as legitimate successors and do not require blood ties to the prophet as a qualification to be leader; 2) Reject the Shia line of imams and hold that Muhammad and the Qur’an are the only two authorities of religion; 3) Leaders have historically been more heads of state than religious authorities; 4) Lack an elaborate clergy and allow lay people to lead prayers; and 5) Seen by Westerners as more staid, moderate and open to the world. [Sources: Washington Post, Congressional Research Service, Center for History and New Media,, Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook]

Shia: 1) Reject the first three successors (caliphs) after Muhammad as usurpers; 2) Regard Ali, the fourth caliph, and Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the first caliph or imam, the term they use for the head of the community; 3) Hold that imams are sinless and must be obeyed on all matters; each imam appoints his successor, who must be of Muhammad's bloodline; 4) Believe imams are both religious and political heads; and 5) Seen by Westerners as more orthodox, zealous and less open to outside influence.

Politics, Sectarianism and Differences Between Sunnis and Shia

Friction between Sunnis and Shia is more about politics, history, tribalism and inequality than its about religious differences and the reason for the friction is complex and has a long history. Ghanim Hashem Kudhir, who teaches modern Islamic history at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, told Time magazine, “Their sect is nothing more than a uniform, a convenient way to tell friend from enemy. What binds them in not religion but common historical experience.”

The vast majority of Islamic names, even Ali, are common among both Sunnis and Shia but some are viewed as clear sectarian markers. Abdel-Hussein and Abdel-Zahra are usually Shia. Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman — early caliphs perceived by Shia as being hostile to Ali — are generally only found among Sunnis. In Iraq, tribal or family names such Dulaimi, Sumarrai and Bkri tend to be Sunni while Sa’aedi, Moussawi and Rubaie tend to be Shia. Large tribes in Iraq tend to have members of both sects. Among the common names of members of these tribes are Jaburi, Shammari and Khafaji.

Language can also be a sectarian marker. In Iraq since the southern part of the country is overwhelmingly Shia, anybody speaking with a pronounced southern accent is assumed to be a Shia . The Anbar region is predominately Sunni and the people there speak a distinct dialect.

Religious Differences Between Sunnis and Shia

declaration of Shiism as the state religion of Iran by Shah Ismail, of the Iranian-Persian Safavids dynasty

There is little difference between Sunnis and Shia on basic beliefs about God, prophecy, revelations and the Last Judgment. The differences that exist are comparable to those between Catholic and Orthodox Christians or Catholics and Protestants. Vali Nasr, author of the “The Shia Revival”, compares Shia to Catholics because of their emphasis on religious hierarchy, mysticism, worship of a holy family (in the case of Shia the Prophet’s descendants) and clerical intercession while the Sunnis lack a unified clerical establishment and rely more on Qur’an and the Sunnah, the way of the Prophet, as the sole authority on religious questions.

Shia Muslims arguably takes a more emotional and gloomy view of religion than Sunni Muslims. Shia affirm man's free will, tend toward the ecstatic and are obsessed with martyrdom while Sunnis are more deterministic, staid and simple They don't question the Qur’an they simply do what it says.. Shia take a more rational and philosophical approach to the Qur’an, often questioning what the sacred book really means. Many Shia beliefs — in reincarnations, messiahs and Gnosticism — are perceived as wacky by Sunnis.

Shia Islam places greater importance on the individual in the religious hierarchy. Sunnis believed hat clerics are guides or advisors and that the relationship with God is direct, a belief that mirrors the Protestant view. Shia on the other hand believe that clerics are empowered to interpret God’s will for the faithful and is somewhat comparable to the Catholic view of a powerful hierarchy.

Sunni “pays attention to the sincerity of belief by enjoining interior states of pious intents called “niat” .” Some Shia sects make a distinctions between big sins, which exclude an individual from salvation, and little sins which are forgivable.

Shia are required to pay two kinds of tithes — “khums”, or fifth of their income, and “zakat”, a smaller payment. Sunnis only pay the zakat. Shia are expected to give one fifth of their income to the household of the their cleric mentor and he in turn uses the money for good works, establishing madrassahs and providing stipends for theological students. The Zakat is 10 percent for Shia (compared to 2.5 percent for Sunnis).

History of the Relation Between Sunnis and Shia

combat between Ali and Amr Ben Wad near Medina

Sunni Islam has always been he dominant sect and often has managed have control even in places where Sunnis were outnumbered by Shia, which today includes many of the major oil-producing areas of the Middle East (even in Saudi Arabia. Shia make up the majority population in key oil-producing regions). A key to the Sunni strategy of domination has been excluding Shia for the military and bureaucracy. Historically Shia have been the underclass, often forced to do manual labor and denied their far share of state resources.

Despite being repressed Shia Islam never went away and a sense of victimhood and being the underdog seems to drive Shia forward. A popular Shia saying goes: “Every day is Ashura and every city is Karbala.”The Shia way has traditionally appealed to those who were oppressed, whether they be individuals or small or medium size group that felt disenfranchised or had different beliefs than Sunnis or kingdoms or states that chafed under Sunni rule.

To justify their political dominance Sunnis have characterized Shia at best as incomplete Muslims and at worst as heretics. Shia rituals have been characterized as pagan and their fondness of images of Ali has been condemned as idol worshiping. Shia festivals such as Ashura have been periodically banned out of fear might turn into political gatherings used to ignite an uprising.

Despite all this Sunnis and Shia have managed to coexist for 1,300 years. The Sunni Caliphs of Baghdad tolerated the Shia and even contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala. Sectarian tensions rose when the seat of Sunni power fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks in Istanbul. The Turks fought a number of battles with the Shia Safavids of Persia and Shia caught in predominately Sunni Arab territories suffered. Things didn’t improve that much for the Shia when colonial Britain and France moved into the Middle East.

In secular state Sunnis and Shia formed close bonds. Saddam Hussein was for the most part was a nasty ruler but his secular government did go a long way towards bridging the gap between Sunnis and Shia. Before the American invasion of Iraq, marriages between Shia and Sunnis were quite common in Iraq. Sociologist have estimated that nearly a third of all Iraqi unions were between members of different sects. Sunnis and Shia also shared neighborhoods, socialized and formed businesses together.

Frictions Between Sunnis and Shia

Ayatollah Khomeini

Tensions between Sunnis and Shia were notched up a level when Ayatollah Khomeini launched the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and began calling transnational Islamic revolution, with Shia leading the charge. Arab monarchs felt threatened by this as did Saddam Hussein in predominately Shia Iraq. Saddam cracked down on Shia and ordered the murder of a popular ayatollah. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousand, of Shia were killed by Saddam after an unsuccessful Shia uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

After the American invasion of Iraq, friction between Shia and Sunnis communities that had gotten along under Saddam became quite intense and it was not uncommon for people to get killed because they belonged to the wrong sect. There were some concerns that he sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq would spill to other places with large Shia populations such as Lebanon and even Kuwait and Saudi Arabia The Shia group Hezbollah has maintained a powerful presence in Lebanon for some time.

In the eyes of many Wahhabis and other Islamists, Shia are heretics, even apostates further removed from the Muslim faith than Christians and Jews. Under Islamic law, apostasy carries the death penalty. Shia have been the targets of attacks by Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other Muslim extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.

Sometimes Arab newspapers run articles with conspiracy theories on how Shia aim to take over the Muslim world and form a Shia crescent from Lebanon to India. There are also stories of vile, lecherous Shia that are similar to those circulated about Jews. A number of books with similar themes are widely available.

Sunni and Shia Prayers and Prayer Positions

Shia and Sunnis hold their hands in different positions when they pray. Shia tend to hold their arms straight down and with their hands in front them with their palms touching the body or facing downwards. Sunnis cross their arms just over the rib cage. A Shi'a at prayer can often be identified by a small tablet of clay from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating. [Source: BBC, Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Sunni prayer positions

During prayers members of both sects kneel, bend and touch their foreheads to the ground. Devout Shia touch their heads to a small clay disc, known as a “turba”, made in to the holy city of Najaf. Over time the “turba” can make a small callus on the forehead. Some Sunnis develop calluses from rubbing their forehead against their prayer mats.

All Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Sunnis have five separate prayer times. Shia have the option of doubling up their prayers and praying at three prayer times (before sunrise and twice in the afternoon at one's discretion). On the call to prayer Shia add “Come to the best deed” after “Come to security” and add Ali’s name to those of God and the Prophet Muhammad. Shia also have a special ritual ablution and their call to prayer is typically a couple minutes behind those of Sunnis.

During Ramadan, Sunnis and Shia often break the fast at different times and observe their celebrations a day or two apart. In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government angered Sunnis when it decided to hang Saddam Hussein on the first day of Sunni Eid in 2006. The festival started the next day for Shia.

Differing Sunni and Shia Views on Shrines, Mosques, Saints and Images

Sunni mosques tend to have domes and minarets. Shia often worship at Huseiniyas, which combine the functions of a mosque and community center and don’t necessarily have domes. In Iraq, Shia places of worships are often draped with traditional green and black flags and are decorated with portraits of Ali and sometimes Hussein. Sunni mosques tend to be more austere; portraits of any kind are regarded as forms of idolatry. [Source: Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Twelver Shia reverence for the Imams has encouraged distinctive rituals. The most important is Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Husayn. Other practices include pilgrimages to shrines of Ali and his relatives. According to strict Wahhabi Sunni interpretations of Islam, these practices resemble the pagan rituals that the Prophet attacked. Therefore, observance of Ashura and pilgrimages to shrines have constituted flash points for sectarian problems between the Saudi Wahhabis and the Shia minority in the Eastern Province. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

According to the BBC: “The Wahabi movement within Sunni Islam views the Shi'a practice of visiting and venerating shrines to the Imams of the Prophet's Family and other saints and scholars as heretical. Most mainstream Sunni Muslims have no objections. Some Sufi movements, which often provide a bridge between Shi'a and Sunni theologies, help to unite Muslims of both traditions and encourage visiting and venerating these shrines. |[Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

Shia fondness of portraits often extends to their homes. An image of Ali is often hung on the walls of their living rooms. Sunnis tend to favor calligraphy with quotations from the Qur’an. During important religious occasions Shia may unfurl colorful flags on their roof. Sometimes Sunnis display a white flag when they have returned from the Hajj.

Shia fondness of portraits also extends to their vehicles. Shia often have pictures or stickers of Ali in their cars, especially in their rear windows. The also like to hang religious amulets (like a strip of green called am “Alek”) from the rear view mirrors. In Iraq, such markers can be dangerous. In the mid 2000s, it was not uncommon for Sunni militias to pull over cars with Ali stickers and murder the passengers,

Sunni Predetermination Versus Shia Free Will

Shia's praying

Predetermination is primarily a Sunni belief. Shia affirm man's free will. Some Muslims believe “God determines all things, but humans are responsible for acquiring the possibilities God creates for them." There are a number of Qur’anic verses that proclaim human responsibility and declare that men will be rewarded or punished on the Judgment Day depending on the deeds they perform in their life.

The Shia belief is essentially as follows: “Human reason is competent to determine good and evil, except in such matters as religious obligation. Men do not themselves possess the power to create actions which belongs to God alone, but they are invested by God with volition whereby they can chose to do good or evil actions, and thus everyone is liable to reward or punishment in future life." [Source: Encyclopedia of the World's Religion, H.A.R. Gibb]

The beliefs that free will and reasoning have a place in Islam were advocated by scholars influenced by Greek philosophy. Some of their ideas — such as reasoning contradicts revelation — undermined the very foundation of Islam. Conservative Muslims argue against free will, stating that to do so is second guessing Allah and reckoning that someone other than God is involved in the act of Creation. Some go even farther and say that anything that comes into existence as a “consequence” of human action is an allusion and the consequence exists only because God allows it. In doing this God creates beliefs and non-beliefs, piety and impiety as well as concrete things like people and animals. These beliefs remain at the heart of Sunni beliefs today. Tied in to these argument is a suspicion of applying reasoning to the Qur’an and matters of faith.

Sunni-Shia Differences on Hadith, Sunnah and Mahdi

According to the BBC: “Initially the difference between Sunni and Shi'a was merely a question of who should lead the Muslim community. As time went on, however, the Shi'a began to show a preference for particular Hadith and Sunnah literature. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah is an Islamic academic science. The Shi'a gave preference to those credited to the Prophet's family and close associates. The Sunnis consider all Hadith and Sunnah narrated by any of twelve thousand companions to be equally valid. Shi'as recognise these as useful texts relating to Islamic jurisprudence, but subject them to close scrutiny. Ultimately this difference of emphasis led to different understandings of the laws and practices of Islam. |::|

“The concept of the Mahdi is a central tenet of Shi'a theology, but many Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of a Mahdi, or rightly guided one, at the end of time to spread justice and peace. He will also be called Muhammad and be a descendant of the Prophet in the line of his daughter Fatima (Ali's wife). The idea has been popular with grassroots Muslims due to the preaching of several Sufi or mystical trends in Islam.

“Over the centuries a number of individuals have declared themselves the Mahdi come to regenerate the Muslim world, but none has been accepted by the majority of the Sunni community. However, some more Orthodox Sunni Muslims dispute the concept of the Mahdi because there is no mention of it in the Qur'an or Sunnah. |::|

Sunni and Shia Leadership Differences

According to the BBC: “Today there are significant differences in the structures and organisation of religious leadership in the Sunni and the Shi'a communities. There is a hierarchy to the Shi'a clergy and political and religious authority is vested in the most learned who emerge as spiritual leaders. These leaders are transnational and religious institutions are funded by religious taxes called Khums (20% of annual excess income) and Zakat (2.5%). Shi'a institutions abroad are also funded this way.

“There is no such hierarchy of the clergy in Sunni Islam. Most religious and social institutions in Sunni Muslim states are funded by the state. Only Zakat is applicable. In the West most Sunni Muslim institutions are funded by charitable donations from the community at home and abroad. |::|

How Sunnis and Shia View Each Other

Differing understandings of the role of the clergy are a key distinction between Sunni and Shia. Emphasizing predestination and predetermination by Allah, Sunni clerics interpret the sunna within limits imposed by centuries of learning and scholarship. Shia clerics emphasize free will and the infallibility of divinely inspired imams to interpret ancient texts.

Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq
According to the BBC: “The persecution of the Prophet's family and the early Shi'as provide a paradigm of martyrdom which is repeated throughout Shi'a history. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims through the ages has been shaped by the political landscape of that period. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“As the Sunni Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and central Asia and the Shi'a Safavid dynasty spread through the Persian Empire from the 16th century CE, tensions arose in Sunni-Shi'a relations. |::|

“The majority of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims do not allow their theological differences to divide them or cause hostility between them. For example, Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning in the world, considers Shi'a Islam to be of equal status to the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. |::|

“However, current global political conditions mean there has been a degree of polarisation and hostility in many Muslim societies. The term Rafidi (meaning "Rejecter") has been applied by radical Sunnis to disparage Shi'as. In turn the Shi'as will often use the label Wahabi, which refers to a particular sectarian movement within Sunni Islam, as a term of abuse for all those who disagree with Shi'a beliefs and practices. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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