The divide between the Sunnis and Shia is the oldest and longest in the history of Islam.
The Sunni and Shia (or Shiite) are two religious sects of Islam that split to pursue their separate beliefs of Islam. The sects originally divided over a power struggle for leadership after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632. The larger of the two, the Sunnis, reside in the Arab world and do no recognize Ali as the true successor. The Sunnis-Shia divide in Islam is not an extremely significant detriment to the religion itself and does not do a disservice to Islam in any considerable way, but is more of political issue regarding the power of the leadership of Islam and Islamic states.
There was a time when the Shiites and Sunnis lived harmoniously with each other. The violent split between the two sects originated from a disagreement over who should take power after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 (Boeree). Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed’s close friends, assumed power after his death. Those who supported Abu’s inheritance of power believed that “leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community” (Shuster) and saw Abu as exactly that. Some questioned the legitimacy of Abu’s rule and insisted that the power remain in the family and were convinced that Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son in law, was the true successor. Thus became the two sects known as the Sunnis and Shias, both believing that Mohammed hand-picked their man to be the true successor. The Sunnis took lead in this disagreement and picked the first few caliphs with Ali being the fourth one. He, along with the first few caliphs, was murdered which unleashed a surge of bloodshed. The Sunnis belief in Abu as the true successor and the Shiites belief of just the opposite laid the framework for ever-growing separate beliefs of the sects leaving their people and beliefs unable to coexist again.
Despite the drama surrounding the constant fighting between the two sects, their religious beliefs remain relatively similar with the main religious difference of the Sunnis “emphasis on God’s power in the material world and Shiites value in martyrdom and sacrifice” (Tasch). Both are in agreement that Muhammad is God's messenger and follow the five ritualistic pillars of Islam: declaration of faith, obligatory prayer, compulsory giving, fasting during Ramadan, and the Hajj, which is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca. They also both share the holy book of the Quran and have a wide variety of worshipers that range from secular to fundamentalist. “The primary difference in practice comes in that Sunni Muslims mainly rely on the Sunnah, a record of the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to guide their actions while the Shiites more heavily on their ayatollahs, whom they see as a sign of God on earth” (Tasch). “Shiites believe in a line of 12 imams, the last of whom, a boy, is believed to have vanished in the ninth century in Iraq after his father was murdered” (Harney). They believe that the boy will return as the Messiah or “the chosen one”. The Sunni and Shiite sects agree on many fundamental features of Islam, but there are notable disparities in each.
The Sunnis are the larger group, with more than 85 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world being Sunnis leaving the remaining 15 percent Shias. The Sunnis inhabit the majority of the Arab world: Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. The two most iconic shrines of the Islam religion, the Mecca and Medina are owned by a strand of Sunnis composed of the Saudi Royal Family. Because of this the Shiites, who live in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, are left at a huge disadvantage (Harney). The two countries that are strongholds for each sect are often on the opposite ends of political issues. Some of the victories of the terrorist groups in the Middle East are reliant of the conflict dividing the two sects and take advantage of their vulnerabilities (Abdo). The conditions of both are both horrid. The Syrian War destroyed the homes of many Sunnis and Shias; Muslims made up 85% of the Syrian population and when terror attacks and disaster stuck, many civilians from the two sects lost their lives. Ever since the start of the war, an increasing amount of Shias are joining and making terror groups. One on these groups includes Al-Qaeda, one of the violent and well-known terror groups in the Middle East (Harney). “Violence between Islam’s sects has been rare historically, with most of the deadly sectarian attacks directed by clerics or political leaders rather than erupting spontaneously. Extremist groups, many of which are fostered by states, are the chief actors in sectarian killings today” (Abdo). In the past few decades, tensions have risen between the sects especially after the revolution in Iran in 1979. One of the most memorable acts of violence is when Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruled over a Shia majority in Iraq, invaded Iran the following year in a regional and sectarian power struggle” (Abdo). The war dragged on for close to eight years and resulted in over a million casualties. With all the activity happening in the Middle East, tensions are at an all-time high. An example would be the Sunni Regimes being pursued by Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring uprisings. The fact that Shias has experienced the utmost discrimination and live their lives among the poorest in Sunni-governed nations, raises a question as to why there isn’t even more violence present among the two groups. The divide between the Sunnis and Shia will probably remain oldest and longest in the history of all religions.The Sunnis belief in Abu as the true successor and the Shiites belief of in Ali is what divided the sects to begin with. The rising tensions in the East raise concern for many as some nations can not afford any more bloodshed. Despite this, the Sunnis-Shia divide in Islam proves not to be significantly detrimental to the religion and does not bring shame to Islam, but is rather a political issue regarding the power of the leadership of Islam and Islamic states.
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