Islam, Shia And Sunni

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Islam, Shia And Sunni






Islam was born in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century CE, a time when the peninsula was populated by nomadic tribes, as well as settled agriculturalists and merchants. There was no central authority beyond a scattering of tribal leaders, most of them devoted to polytheistic religions.

The Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE, in Mecca. His family came from a poor branch (the Banu Hashim) of the leading Meccan tribe (the Quraysh). His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was a child; he was brought up by his grandfather and uncle. As a young man, Muhammad worked as the business manager of a wealthy widow named Khadijah (d. 619). He was dubbed the trustworthy for his business dealings and was thoroughly respected. He married Khadijah, who was his senior, when he was in his twenties. They had four daughters who married into eminent families. Little more is known about his early life before his call at age forty.

Like other young men in Mecca, Muhammad made solitary retreats into the nearby mountains. He was known to have become contemplative about leading a pure and honest life. On one of these occasions, he had a vision in which the angel Gabriel commanded him to recite Gods message which is now encapsulated in the Qu$ran, Sura 96, verses 15. According to the hadith, a collection of the Prophets sayings and actions, Muhammad was terrified by his vision. He is supposed to have wondered whether he was going mad, and he was physically affected by these thoughts, which he knew were not his own; this manifestation has been compared to an epileptic seizure.

Muhammad was reassured by his early supporters, including his wife, his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib (599661), and his close friends Abu Bakr (c. 573634) and Uthman ibn Affan (d. 656), that he was not losing his mind. In 613 Muhammad began preaching in the streets of Mecca. His monotheistic message offended leading members of the dominant Quraysh, and he was scorned, derided, and attacked. One of his persecutors, Umar ibn al-Khattab (c. 586644), later became a convert.

In 619 Muhammads wife and uncle died, and his position in Mecca became precarious. He began to look for support outside of Mecca, and was encouraged by exchanges with people from Medina (about 250 miles north of Mecca), a town with a population of émigré Jews. In 622 he moved to Medina in the so-called hijrah (migration), and, around this time, he gave his movement a political identity, formulating the ideal of a community of religious believers, known as the ummah.

In Medina, Muhammad came into contact with Christians as well as Jews and soon became a leader in the community. In 624 he began to ambush the caravans of Meccan traders in an attempt to economically and psychologically undermine the prestige of the Quraysh clan. The Meccans responded by sending an army against Muhammad and his followers, who, though seriously outnumbered, were victorious. Muhammad led an expedition into Syria, and his military prowess won him the support of Bedouin tribesmen. In 627 the Quraysh again were unsuccessful in their attempts to suppress Muhammad and his followers. In 630 Muhammad returned to Mecca as the leader of a united Arabian Peninsula. He died in 632.

After Muhammads death, his followers expanded throughout the Mediterranean basin and into the east. In the west, their expansion was checked by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel (c. 688741) at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Muhammads death precipitated a crisis among his followers. The community was in danger of crumbling, and it was only through the vigorous efforts of his successor, Abu Bakr, that it survived. Abu Bakr kept the Arabs unified by pursuing an expansionist policy, invading Syria and Iraq. When Abu Bakr died, he was succeeded by Umar, who continued the expansion, taking Egypt and Syria, and overthrowing the Persian Empire. Umars conquests were culturally important in that they bought a refined civilization within the Muslim orbit.

When Umar died in 644, the succession was contested. The two main candidates were Uthman and Ali. The electors chose Uthman. Uthmans reign began with an initial period of calm followed by corruption and lawlessness. He was asked to abdicate his position by the son of the first caliph Muhammad Abi Bakr, who reportedly was part of a group of men from Egypt who seized Uthmans house and murdered him. After Uthmans death, Ali took control, but a civil war broke out between him and Uthmans cousin, Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan (d. 680), the governor of Syria. In 661 Ali was murdered by Ibn Muljam of the Kharijites (secessionists), one of the earliest sects of Islam that contested the validity of the caliphate, and the line of right-guided caliphs (community leaders) ended. Muawiya inaugurated a new dynasty (the Umayyad caliphate), centered in Damascus.

The civil war precipitated the first split in Islam. A minority group, known as Shiites, became differentiated from the majority (later to be known as Sunnis ) in their belief that the descendants of Ali had a special claim to authority. Many Shiites assert that they are linked by blood to the Prophet through a series of holy men. In subsequent centuries, further splits developed within Shia Islam.

The Umayyads continued the holy war, spreading into North Africa, Spain, and France. Their success resulted from the weakness of the Byzantine Empire and the Latin West, the bureaucratic skills of the Umayyad caliphs, and the fact that the Germanic Goths and Vandals had trouble adapting to a settled way of life. In the 740s the Umayyad dynasty gave way to the Abbasid line, and the center of Islam moved from Damascus to Baghdad.


Muslims of all sects share several basic principles. At the center are two main doctrines: (1) there is one God; and (2) the righteous are required to submit to God. Etymologically, Islam means submission to God and Muslim means one who has submitted. A Muslim then, is someone who adheres to Islam by accepting and committing to the teachings of the Quʿran and the Prophet Muhammad. In time, the term Islam came to signify more than just a tradition of faith; it is also used to refer to entire peoples, cultures, and nation-states.

Submission involves the five pillars of the faith:

  1. Confession of faith: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. Muhammad is regarded as the last and greatest in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
  2. Prayers. Muslims offer prayers five times daily, preceded by ritual purification.
  3. Almsgiving. One must give a minimum of one-fortieth of ones income for the benefit of the poor and the underprivileged in the community; the righteous give more. The Quran repeatedly urges fairness and generosity.
  4. Fasting. In the month of Ramadan, nothing may be eaten or drunk between sunrise and sunset (allowances are made for the sick, pregnant women, and travelers). Ramadan marks the month that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad.
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca. The pilgrimage to Mecca involves visiting the site at which Abraham is supposed to have placed a sacred rock. The pilgrimage connects Islam not only with the source of Judaism and Christianity, but also with Arab traditions that precede Islam.

All of the pillars, with the exception of almsgiving (zakat ), are matters of ritual. Zakat concerns everyday behavior. The Quran is much concerned with directing the actions of the faithful. It insists again and again on honesty and justice in daily life.

There may be a sixth pillar jihad. According to some interpretations of the Quran, Muslims must spread the word of Allah and contend with nonbelievers. This interpretation is controversial, and some have described jihad to mean holy war. The concept of jihad is as old as Islam but may be manipulated. In the Quran, it is discussed as a personal struggle (in terms of faith, belief, and virtue). This has been interpreted as a larger struggle against non-believers.

All Muslims have in common a belief in the scripture. This is particularly important in understanding and approaching Islam as a discursive or textual (rather than oral) tradition, as argued by Talal Asad (1986).


The branch of Islam known as Sunnism was already defined as distinct from Shiism in the eighth century. Sunnis represent nine-tenths of the total world Muslim population. Taking a cue from Marshall Hodgson (1974), one should not consider Sunnism to be mainstream Islam, nor the normative depiction of what is considered Islamic orthodoxy to be represented by Sunnism, with Shiism standing for heterodoxy. Sunnism, as it has been shaped since shortly after the birth of Islam, should be considered a sect of Islam. The followers of this sect are referred to as the men of the sunnah (established practice) and the jamaah (Muslim community). The term is an acknowledgment of the religious power of Muhammads companions, and does not refer to the bloodline of Ali and his family. By this definition, Sunnism encompasses the majority of the Muslim community.

During the eighth century, Sunnis strove to continue the tradition of the Prophets daily practices as expressed in the hadith. By the ninth century, Sunni Islam had become well established through schools of law and seminaries known as madrasahs. Sunnis acknowledged the Quʿran, the hadith, and the sharia (Islamic law) as the basic principles of Islam. The Umayyad caliphate endeavored to establish a belief system that would not differentiate Muslims based on creed or set a specific standard for what it is to be a Muslim.

For Sunni Muslims, Islam became institutionalized in four schools of law: (1) the Maliki school in North Africa; (2) the Hanafi school, dominant in South Asia, Central Asia, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq; (3) the Shafii school, established in Egypt and Southeast Asia; and (4) the Hanbali school in Saudi Arabia. Though distinct in approach, all four schools agreed on the basic principles of the faith.


Literally, the term Sufism refers to the woolen clothing worn by adherents. Sufism dates back to the beginning of Islam when companions of the Prophet sought an ascetic and monastic lifestyle. A strong relationship with God is important to Sufis, who retreat inward while striving to become closer to God and gain a better understanding of Islam. The earliest Sufi master (pir ) was Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), a hadith scholar who taught fear of God. Sufism began to take shape among Sunnis in Kufa at the same time that Shiism and Sunnism were developing. In these early years, most Sufis were Sunni. However, Sufis developed strong ties to Shiite thought and practice, especially the idea of the imam as infallible and a belief in the imams close, esoteric, and mystical relationship with God.

The concept of a community led by an exalted leader with divine ordinance is central in Sufism, as are spirituality and a personal relationship with God. Sufi forms of worship also differ from those of Sunni and Shiite practice. Sufis attend weekly meetings at a place of worship (khanaqah, tekke, or zawiyah ) and perform dhikr, which is the union with God through constant repetition of his name. These meetings vary among each Sufi order.

Sufism grew from a small movement in the eighth and ninth centuries to become an important aspect of Islamic civilization. It was particularly important in spreading Islam to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Most Sufi masters lived by example, but a few actually developed schools of thought. Al-Junayd (d. 910), founder of the school of Baghdad, was the first Sufi Muslim to develop a comprehensive system of Sufi thought. Al-Hallaj (d. 923), founder of the school of Khurasan, became a martyr among Sufis after he was executed by the Abassid caliph for heresy for proclaiming, I am haqq (truth, here meaning God).

By the twelfth century, Sufi orders had begun to develop global followings. Some orders later became politically active (especially in Turkey during the 1920s when they were threatened by Kemal Atatürk [18811938]). Others shunned material life and took vows of chastity and purity, all in order to bring them closer to God and truth.


The term Shia refers to followers of Ali. There are several sects within Shiism: the Alids, who believe in Ali as leader of the Muslim community (followers are few and spread throughout the globe but can be found largely in Syria); the Zaydis, followers of Zayd (d. 738), a brother of the fifth imam who established a dynasty in Yemen that lasted until the 1960s; the Ismailis or Seveners, considered by many to be militant because of their establishment during the tenth through twelfth centuries of the Fatimid dynasty in Syria and Egypt; and the Twelvers, the largest of the Shiite groups, found mostly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The most important event in Shiite history is the Battle of Karbala (680). The governor of Syria and Uthmans cousin, Muawiya urged the Muslim community to accept his son Yazid as the leader of the community. Some of the older families refused to accept Yazid and urged Alis second son, Husayn, to rebel in the city of Kufah in present-day Iraq. Husayn, the Prophets grandson, was belied by the people of Kufah who showed their support for Yazid. Husayn and his small army, which included his family, did not surrender and were pushed out to the desert near the city of Karbala. They were murdered at this famous battle. After this battle, the Shia considered themselves distinct from the Sunnis. The battle also led to the institutionalization of Shiite rituals that commemorate Imam Husayns martyrdom, a holiday called Ashura that is held on the tenth of the Islamic month of Muharram. Spectacular passion plays are set each year reenacting Husayns martyrdom, leading to what Hodgson called the piety of protest and an idealization of martyrdom. Some Shia groups do not participate in such commemorations of the Battle of Karbala.

After the death of Muhammad in 632, Muslims rallied around Ali, who was regarded as the Prophets successor. However, the first three caliphs questioned Alis succession. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, by establishing the caliphate, stripped the Prophets family of its special privileges, an act that challenged the ascendancy of blood over community (ummah ). Thus, the caliphs position as head of the community was established shortly after the death of Muhammad.

The second caliphate, headed by Umar, was established in 634 after the death of Abu Bakr. Before his death, Umar urged six men to choose a new caliph. Uthman was chosen and became the third caliph in 644. However, some Muslims considered Uthman to be corrupt and ineffective. According to some sources, Ali began to express disapproval of Uthmans reign and with his followers formed a party of dissentthe Shia. Thus, the rift between Sunni and Shia developed during the third caliphate. Ali had support in KuFa (in present-day Iraq), and he established his governance there. Muawiya decided to avenge his cousin Uthmans death. Muawiya questioned Alis role in his cousins death because Ali initially refused to avenge his death, preferring to end the bloodshed instead of seeking revenge. What followed were a series of skirmishes and arbitration that led to Muawiya raising a successful army and gaining territory, while Ali lost support, the caliphate, and ultimately his life to kharijites, or seceders. Kharijites are the earliest sect of Islam, who opposed many of the caliphates governance.

The Umayyad caliphate, led by Muawiya, sought power after the death of Ali by signing a peace treaty with his son Hasan (625670). Muawiya, in turn, promised the safety of the followers of Ali. After Muawiyas death in 680, his son Yazid (c. 645683) was named his successor, an event that is considered the first dynastic succession in Islamic history. Yazids first order of business was to establish unity and allegiance to the Umayyad caliphate. He called on Husayn to give his allegiance to the governor of Medina, but Husayn refused, an act that prompted oppositional movements against Yazid in other cities. Having discovered that his legitimacy as caliph was being questioned by some prominent families in Medina, Yazid decided to crush Husayn and his small army. After Husayn refused to surrender, Yazids forces isolated him in the desert near Karbala, where he was killed in battle in 680. That event, along with Alis death, confirmed the role of Shiites as protesters to tyranny and established power.

For Shia Islam, authority lies in the figure of Ali as imam and caliph, and allegiance and loyalty to Ali and his descendents became a guiding principal. Thus the ima-mate system is the single most important theological and political aspect of Shiism. Shiites developed their own hadith based on Alis Nahj al-Balaghah (Path of Eloquence); for Shiites, these missives, aphorisms, and sayings of Ali remain words to live by. Shiism also developed its own school of lawthe Jafari school, named after the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (c. 702765), who established the principle of nass. Nass refers to a special power to gain a deep understanding of the Qu$ran and hadith, as well as the power to pass this knowledge on to the succeeding imam. It is common in Shiism to view the imam as masum, an innocent, flawless leader of knowledge concerning religious truth.

Alis line of descendents ended with the twelfth imam, Imam-i Zaman (born in 689, and believe to be still alive in occultation) who was referred to as the mahdi, or the messiah, a crucial fact about the imamate system within Shiism. The twelfth imam is believed to have left the earthly world only to return to restore the true faith and to establish justice and a kingdom of God on earth. This view is markedly different from what the majority of Sunni Muslims believe. Sunnis believe strongly in the strength of tradition (hadith) and the agreement of jurists on all matters, as opposed to belief in the piety of Ali and his descendents.

SEE ALSO Heaven; Hell; Mecca; Monotheism; Muhammad; Religion


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Narges Erami

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Islam, Shia And Sunni

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