What's the Difference Between Sunni and Shia Muslims?
Curiosity is a good quality, but what about when it is prompted by violence? Such is often the case with ethnic and religious divisions. It would be nice if people were intrinsically interested in the difference between Catholics and Protestants or Hutus and Tutsis, but most aren’t. It sometimes take a tragedy to make people curious.
Sadly, that’s the case for the divide between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. The cycle of violence between them has been going on for more than a thousand years. Millions have died. Sunni on Shia and Shia on Sunni terrorism and territorial wars plague the Middle East. What caused this bitter divide?
On the face of it, not much. Sunni and Shia Muslims have almost identical beliefs about God and how to please him. Thus there are countless examples of peaceful co-existence throughout history. But there are differences, and they led to horrific violence early on.
When the prophet Muhammad died in 632, Muslims faced a critical decision. Who would replace their founding prophet? Abu Bakr, a long-time companion of Muhammad, seized the opportunity, taking the title of caliph, or successor to the prophet. However, members of Muhammad’s family were preparing his body for burial and therefore weren’t present at the decisive meetings. They cried foul. They believed that Muhammad’s successor should be a blood relative of the prophet, such as Ali, his grandson and son-in-law. Muhammad’s family believed that Abu Bakr had stolen the leadership from Ali. They were outraged. Those who supported Ali’s claim became known as the Shia, meaning followers of Ali; everyone else was Sunni.
Ali did eventually become caliph. However, in 661, one of Ali’s opponents attacked him. He survived the initial sword blow but the poison on the blade killed Ali two days later.
The growing rift between the Shia Muslims and the Sunni majority became a chasm in 680 when Ali’s son Husayn was hacked to death by the armies of the caliph in Karbala, a city in modern Iraq. Muhammad’s family had lost the argument that they should be the leaders of the Muslim world.
Grief now gave a new complexion to the religion of the Shia. Those who mourned Husayn’s death honoured him as one who had given his life in the struggle against injustice and oppression. Their memorials of the martyrdoms of Ali and Husayn became annual reminders of their historic grievances against the Sunni. Eventually, the Shia would develop contrasting beliefs to Sunnis, especially on leadership—Shia believe that spiritual and political leadership belong together in a way that Sunnis don’t. But a distinct Shia identity emerged mainly from their veneration of the family of Ali and the ceremonies by which they remembered them.
The honour that Shia Muslims gave to their martyrs looks suspiciously like idolatry to Sunnis, who have always formed the majority of the Muslim community. This has spurred anti-Shia violence. In 1802, Al-Wahhab, a militant Sunni from modern-day Saudi Arabia, attacked the Shia shrines in Karbala. Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, did the same thing in 1991. Events like these confirmed the Shia in their belief that they were oppressed.
The Iran-Iraq War, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, instability in Iraq, the regional rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia—all can be explained largely by the historic animosity between these two strands of Islam. The roots of the disagreement go deep. Its fruit has been bitter.
That could change. The relationship between Protestant and Catholic Christians has been similarly violent but has improved greatly in the last several decades. There’s no reason why the same might not also be true for Sunni and Shia. They would be in the news less, and people would be much less curious about the differences between them. On this issue at least, it would be bliss if future generations were more ignorant.