In his address in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, May 21, while calling on Muslim leaders to lead the fight against terrorism, President Donald Trump identified Iran as a despotic state giving safe harbor and financing terror in the Middle East. As Iran is a Shia state and Saudi Arabia a Sunni-led country, some media outlets criticized Trump for taking sides in the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide.
As a scholar of Islam and a public educator, I often field questions about Sunnis, Shias and the sects of Islam. What exactly is the Shia-Sunni divide? And what is its history?
History of divide
Both Sunnis and Shias – drawing their faith and practice from the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad – agree on most of the fundamentals of Islam. The differences are related more to historical events, ideological heritage and issues of leadership.
The first and central difference emerged after the death of Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632. The issue was who would be the caliph – the “deputy of God” – in the absence of the prophet. While the majority sided with Abu Bakr, one of the prophet’s closest companions, a minority opted for his son-in-law and cousin – Ali. This group held that Ali was appointed by the prophet to be the political and spiritual leader of the fledgling Muslim community.
Subsequently, those Muslims who put their faith in Abu Bakr came to be called Sunni (“those who follow the Sunna,” the sayings, deeds and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and those who trusted in Ali came to be known as Shia (a contraction of “Shiat Ali,” meaning “partisans of Ali”).
Abu Bakr became the first caliph and Ali became the fourth caliph. However, Ali’s leadership was challenged by Aisha, the prophet’s wife and daughter of Abu Bakr. Aisha and Ali went to battle against each other near Basra, Iraq in the Battle of the Camel in A.D. 656. Aisha was defeated, but the roots of division were deepened. Subsequently, Mu’awiya, the Muslim governor of Damascus, also went to battle against Ali, further exacerbating the divisions in the community.
In the years that followed, Mu’awiya assumed the caliphate and founded the Ummayad Dynasty (A.D 670-750). Ali’s youngest son, Hussein – born of Fatima, the prophet’s daughter – led a group of partisans in Kufa, Iraq against Mu’awiya’s son Yazid. For the Shias, this battle, known as the Battle of Karbala, holds enormous historical and religious significance.
Hussein was killed and his forces defeated. For the Shia community, Hussein became a martyr. The day of the battle is commemorated every year on the Day of Ashura. Held on the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar, scores of pilgrims visit Hussein’s shrine in Karbala and many Shia communities participate in symbolic acts of flagellation and suffering.
Over time, Islam continued to expand and develop into evermore complex and overlapping societies that spanned from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa to Asia. This development demanded more codified forms of religious and political leadership.
Sunnis and Shias adopted different approaches to these issues.
Sunni Muslims trusted the secular leadership of the caliphs during the Ummayad (based in Damascus from A.D. 660-750) and Abbasid (based in Iraq from 750-1258 and in Cairo from 1261-1517) periods. Their theological foundations came from the four religious schools of Islamic jurisprudence that emerged over the seventh and eighth centuries.
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SOURCE: Real Clear Religion