Quite occasionally news reports mention a Sunni-Shia rift in the Islamic world. Reports from Iraq, for example, may mention Sunnis blowing up a Shiite shrine, or killing Shiite pilgrims visiting such a shrine. What is this Sunni-Shiite division all about?
It goes back to the very beginning of Islam. When Muhammad died in 632 (according to our Western calendar) his followers immediately bestirred themselves to appoint a successor as head of the Islamic community. Muslims on all sides assumed there should be a successor, and “caliph” is simply the Arabic term for successor.
Some thought the caliph should be from Muhammad’s family — his son-in-law Ali, since Muhammad himself had no surviving male heir. Others thought the successor should be picked from among the most qualified leaders. Picking a most qualified leader was actually the traditional practice among Arab Bedouins, and it was that policy that won out. They named Abu Bakr as the first caliph, a man who had been one of Muhammad’s Companions and supporters from early on.
It’s been a long-standing debate in both the world of religion and the world of politics — whether leadership succession should be by dynasty or by merit. Dynasty offers the advantage of name recognition, and the opportunity of grooming a successor. Choosing a leader according to merit offers the advantage of quality, talent, reputation and character.
Muslims did get around to appointing Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali as their fourth Caliph. But because the previous caliph had been assassinated (although Ali had nothing to do with it), Ali faced an armed opposition. When he was about to vanquish this opposition Ali consented to a truce, for which a disaffected member of his own party then assassinated Ali.
Interestingly, the word assassin comes to us from the Arabic hashish, the drug that would-be assassins used to fortify themselves for their dastardly deeds. Assassination seems to have become a common method in the Islamic world to try to resolve problems, although in America too, sad to say.
After Ali’s assassination his son Hussein accepted the challenge to defeat his enemy and was on his way to Kufa (in today’s Iraq) to raise an army when he was intercepted at a place called Karbala (also in Iraq) and killed there. For that reason Shiites consider Hussein a martyr, and have made Karbala their holiest shrine.
Persistent followers of Ali and Hussein continued to pin their hopes on successive generations of his followers, 12 altogether, but one after another seems to have been poisoned or otherwise eliminated by the paranoid Sunni caliphs. When the 12th one mysteriously disappeared, Shiites claimed he had gone into hiding, and will reappear in some coming age to assume leadership of the Islamic world and set things right.
Meanwhile, Iranian Shiites (and Iran is officially Shiite) believe Ayatollah Khomeini received guidance from the hidden imam.
Shiite means simply “partisan” — that is, a partisan or supporter of Ali and his descendants.
There is no question otherwise about the Shiites’ Islamic identity. They make up about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world. Like Sunnis they consider Muhammad a prophet of God, they accept the Qur’an, and they pray toward Mecca, though only three times a day while Sunnis pray five times a day.
The Sunni Grand Mufti (supreme jurist) of Egypt has declared the Shiite version of sharia (Islamic law) valid. But for some reason there remains an abiding hostility between Sunnis and Shiites, at least in some parts of the world such as Iraq, the sort of lethal hostility that once obtained between Catholics and Protestants in post-Reformation England.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. He taught at the college for 33 years. In 1968-69, he received a fellowship in Asian Religions to study Islam and Buddhism, spending five months at the Center for the Study of Religions and Harvard Divinity School and then five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East, and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) and Japan. He is also the author of several books.
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