Ask a Shia: Shiites & Sunnis

This is the second installment of our weekly column entitled Ask a Shiite. Our resident Shiite will be fielding questions of a philosophical, physical, and political nature in regards to Shiite Islamic belief and Middle East perception. Interested in asking a question? Send an email to alec.

Question: What are the philosophical and moral differences of Sunni and Shiites? In your experience, how do the two groups regard and perceive each other? Is there really as much hostility between the two groups as we are led to believe in the American media?

Answer: The Shias and Sunnis are the two major sects in the religion of Islam. At the time of the Prophet’s (AS) death, there was a conflict upon who would succeed the Prophet. This conflict was not a typical one which comes to a person’s mind.

The Shias believe that Imam Ali (AS) was the rightful successor to the Prophet. Imam Ali was the Prophet’s son in law as he had only one daughter and the three others were adopted. Imam Ali was also the Prophet’s cousin. He was the first person to accept Islam when the it was revealed to the Prophet. He was only 10 years old when he accepted Islam.

The Sunnis believe that the first rightful successor was Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet. The first four of their caliphs (leaders) were called the Rightly Guided Caliphs. The second caliph was Umar ibn Khattab, third Usman ibn Affan and the last one Imam Ali.

What happened was that when the Prophet passed away, there was a meeting in a hut at a place called Sakifa. Only the Prophet’s so called companions were present. The fought amongst themselves and couldnt decide on a caliph. This meeting was a few hours after the Prophet’s death without the opinion of any of the other Muslims. Their intention is of course not known for sure but it is suggested from the behavior that the people were power hungry. Umar stood up and supported Abu Bakr and forced everyone else to do the same. This is all accepted as authentic by both Shias and Sunni.

The declared this to the all the Muslims. Everyone accepted except the partisans(Shias) of Ali. History shows that this small group of people were very loyal people. Imam Ali was a person who was very close to the Prophet, a person on whom the Prophet relied on and trusted. This is also accepted by both Shias and Sunnis. When the Abu Bakr and his followers found out about Imam Ali and his stance, they dragged him across the streets with a rope
around his neck, burnt his house causing a door to fall on the Prophet’s daughter leading to her miscarriage.

Imam Ali did not accept the new rule and his followers continued following him silently. He remained silent for the sake of Muslim unity. Silently he used to help the the first three caliphs from making critical mistakes. Umar himself has said that if Ali had not been there I would have perished. This is all accepted by both Shias and Sunnis. Imam Ali’s stance gives us a very high end example of patience.

The Shias believe that Imam Ali was the first of 12 Imams. An Imam in this sense means someone who is better than everyone else in everything. They are someone who are living examples of a perfect human being. Later on when Umar was dead the people came to Imam Ali and asked if he would accept the leadership but on four conditions. The first condition was that Imam Ali would give his rulings according to the Qur’an. Imam Ali accepted, then the next one was that his rulings would be according to the Prophet’s Sunnah. Sunnah is what the Prophet said, did and accepted. Basically it is what the Prophet approved of from his actions and sayings. The Sunnah is recorded from different narrators. Imam Ali accepted this as well. The third condition was that Imam Ali’s rulings comply with Abu Bakr and Umar’s rulings. Imam Ali asked them if the two went against the Quan and Sunnah and if they did then why should he accept the condition and if they did not then the two had wrong leadership. The people went silent on this and went and made Usman the third caliph.

After Usman the people were sick of the caliphs rule as it had messed up the society and they wanted Imam Ali to take up leadership. He accepted with a lot of reluctance and set about putting the society right. Basically Shias believe that the successor to the Prophet has to be divinely appointed whereas the Sunnis do not and they take Abu Bakr as the first caliph. One of the caliphs even said that he would go astray and the Muslim population should put hi right if he does so.

From this ‘split’ many other differences arise amongst the Muslims. Some narrators were accepted in bringing forward the Prophet’s Sunnah. All the differences between Muslims comes form this main split. But even then the Muslims, at least the Shias, have to consider the others as their Muslims brothers and have to stay united. Creating differences between the two is not allowed for the Shias.

Quite a few other factors also led to the difference there is amongst us. But even then it is not such that we consider each other as from a totally different faith. The most important things are accepted unanimously in both the sects. For example our declaration of faith is the same in both: There is no deity(worthy of worship) except for Allah Muhammad is His Messenger

Most of our differences are quite ignorable. The Shi’ite perception towards the Sunnis is quite tolerant. We consider them as fellow Muslims, we treat them like any other person and leave our differences for Allah to judge. We generally ignore the differences.

The Sunni perception towards us quite mixed. Most of the average Sunnis accept us like we accept them. But some extremist groups or some people to whom our (Shia) message has not reached treat us as non-Muslims and even think that killing us will send them to heaven. Normally these people hate us and think that we should be oppressed and if we rise, we will overwhelm and oppress them back. But this perception of theirs is quite wrong. I am a Shia and I know my religious leaders well. We want all Muslims to be united and we would never oppress them. We have been oppressed since the death of the Prophet and that kind of oppression more or less continues till this day. at one point of time the oppression was such that the Shias were almost ‘extinct’. Muslims leaders have been more or less oppressive people in history. We Shias almost never had power. It is recently that Iran was made, Iraqi being liberated but on the other hand possibly occupied and our message is getting to other parts of the Muslims world.

The media in most cases over exaggerates the differences and sense of enmity. They do not, as I have said earlier, show how the Muslims are uniting. There are so many unity meetings where world leaders take part but none of that is shown. All that is shown is how the Muslims are fighting amongst themselves and hence an image is created that the Shias and Sunnis are at each others’ throats all the time. As said before terrorists create the problems in the world for Muslims because they rise form within Muslims and say that they are doing it for Islam, so everyone thinks that they represent Islam and the Muslims even though they do not.

To summarize it all, Shias believe in a divinely appointed leader because divine matters can not be meddled with by fallible people, Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr was the closest ‘friend’ of the Prophet and try to justify the reign of the caliphs, our differences were quite hostile earlier on but we are moving towards unity at a snails pace and the terrorists mess things up for Muslims and they do not represent Islam and finally the western media exaggerates our hostility and plays down our unity.

     

[tags]religious divide, islamic sects, shiites, sunnis, divisions in muslim faith, allah, prophet muhammed, explanation in differences, iraq, iran, middle east, muslim world, arabs, perceptions of each other[/tags]

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  1. alec says:

    Very interesting. My question (and this could almost be the next question of the week for you), is it almost the same sort of relationship between Arabs & Persians? Where there is perceived difference/animosity to each other seen by the Western world but really is not so veritable in the Middle East?

  2. Seann says:

    So the difference seems to be the literal equivalent of Catholics & Protestants; They are all Christian – even the protestant offshoot Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvanists and Presbyterians – except they all identify in slightly (sometimes greatly) different ways.

    What sort of parallels do you see between periods like the Reformation and what is occurring currently within and against the various sects of Islam?

    I cannot seem to find much claiming that there was a lot of Warfare involved during those periods of Christian Reformation. I could have easily missed some. Can you suggest any possible reasons why the Islamic situation may be different or may call for greater force of arms?

    Thanks again m8. Keep up the hard work.

    – Seann
    p.s. Had any time to respond to my last question? I would still love to hear your thoughts on that paper.

  3. Shia says:

    Almost Persians today are Shias whereas quite a high percentage of Arabs are Sunnis but there are still many Shia Arabs. Informally there is still some lack of trust from the Arab side towards the Persians but the situation is getting better day by day as you might know that President Ahmedinejad visited the UAE some time back. Behind the scenes, there is still some ‘division’ but the current Saudi King is rumored to be a good one with a different opinion from his predecessors and because of that everything might be normal again.

    To Seann:
    I am really sorry but I totally forgot to write an answer for you. I read through the paper a few times but never got down to writing an answer. I am really sorry for this.

    The changes that are occuring now are not dramatic or revolutionary and they are not being carried out by a particular movement, group or organization. Its just that diplomatically we are trying to forgive each other, stop whatvere hostilities there are, build more trust in each other and overall getting ‘closer’ to each other and get rid of the ‘distance’ we had kept earlier. We are trying to stop the fights that the minority groups are waging, move towards more economic ties and basically move towards the one ‘Ummah’ goal for more unity. Ummah means the Muslim nation.

    Thank You

  4. AlvinBlah says:

    I’m glad to hear your thoughts on all of this, it’s great reading.

    My questions are in relation to the conflicts among Shia and Sunni within Iraq. I understand that it is a mess, and much of the violence stems from Saddam’s oppression of the opposing sect, but considering what you have said about a slow but steady regional move to acceptance between the two groups, why is the violence so pronounced between the groups in Iraq, and what is the regional community doing to help reduce some of the cultural tensions?

    I am aware that Iraq by it’s nature creates some very obvious extenuating circumstances, but the perception that is cultivated on this side of the ocean is that most of the Middle East is very happy to watch the United States struggle with the floundering Iraq state that is wrought with conflict coming from a religious divide (amongst other issues). Is this true?

  5. […] Installments of Ask a Shiite: Shiites & Sunnis and Perceptions of the United States in the Middle […]

  6. Mr. Emerson says:

    Hey Seann,

    Just a friendly clarification on this comment:

    “I cannot seem to find much claiming that there was a lot of Warfare involved during those periods of Christian Reformation. I could have easily missed some.”

    The Protestant Reformation in fact ignited a series of wars across central and western Europe, ending in the massive 30 Years War (1618-1648). Catholic-Protestant warfare didn’t end there, either. Just ask anyone from Belfast.

    It seems a convenient analogy to view the Shia / Sunni split in Islam as somehow analogous to Protestantism / Catholicism in Christianity. I am hardly an authority on either, but from what I understand the division in Islam is mostly political in origin. The Protestant Reformation, on the other hand, had its roots in a cultural Renaissance and in 16th century intellectual Humanism. The Reformation had political consequences, in other words, but not necessarily motives.

    Many thanks to Alec and his eloquent and helpful Shia correspondent for this interesting column!

  7. alec says:

    There’s a couple of interesting links on this topic at the Christian Science Monitor as well: Islam’s Sunni-Shiite split: A look at the historic divide within the Muslim world and you can even take a quiz.

  8. Abu Aisha says:

    With all due respect, whilst Shite may be reffered to as a “sect”, Sunni is not a sect. Although your version as to what occured subsequent to the death of the Prophet (PBUH) is incorrect, the difference between Sunni and shite (Rafidah) goes beyond who should have been successor to the Prophet (PBUH), and extends to acceptance of the truth (sunni) and the of falsehood (shite). Your rejection of the wife of the Prophet (PBUH) goes to show you people how lost you are.

  9. shia by origin says:

    salam “Abu Aisha”:

    am greatly moved by your conclusion.there is no principle or pillar in islam that allow you to label anyone as truth or false because he/she dislike a personality.all the questions and answers i have been reading is based on the shia/sunni perception of each other and how they relate to one another and how they view others.regarding the issue of aisha the prophet’s wife,i find it odd being discussed here.we all know there are differences.we are not here to settle or find out what the differences are or how we can solve them or who is right and who is wrong.

    just to answer you,i dont know how islamic it is to judge someone else as false because that sect view a particular personality to be false.then you are in the same shoe as us-the shia.you are calling us false because we call someone else false.why not first examine the reasons and try to judge impartially whether an action on the shia part amounts to falsehood.shia do not dislike aisha because she was the prophet’s wife.on the contrary we should respect her for that.what you have forgotten is the tradition of the prophet (the sunna) from which you derive your name-sunni!there is the tradition of justice in islam and that is the sunnah of the prophet.the prophet muhammad was so just to even annmounce that even if fatima-his beloved daughter- steals he would cut off her hand.

    i can give you important examples of relatives of prophets who were unjust.the wife of lot,and the son of noah.on the contrary,muslims love the wife of the pharaoh because she disobeyed her wicked husband and followed the path of Allah and his messenger moses.many traditions relate how aisha was disobedient.a good example is how she wagedembarked on a war against imam ali,the husband of the prophet’s daughter-fatima-,i.e. her step-daughter’s husband.there is no justification for such an action by a woman.a woman climbing a horse to fight a war is reminiscent of muawiya’s mother,hind,in the days of ignorance.hind was responsible for hamza’s death and she was said to have split one of his(hamza’s) organ and drank his blood in vengeance.hamza was prophet muhammad’s uncle.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This article is shiite propaganda

  11. Perceptions of Barack Obama And John McCain In The Middle East…

    This is the seventh installment of our (not so) weekly column entitled Ask a Shiite. Our resident Shiite and United Arab Emirates citizen will be fielding questions of a philosophical, physical, and political nature in regards to Shiite Islamic belief …

  12. Anonymous says:

    SubhanAllah! Are you comparing Aisha (R.A) to Lot’s (A.S.) wife? May Allah give you and all Shia who believe this what you deserve. The Prophet (S.A.W) said the most beloved person to him in this world is Aisha (R.A). So do you shia disagree with Prophet(s.a.w.)?

  13. Jesus says:

    I can’t believe how ignorant some sunnis are. Muawiyas mother conceived him by having sex with numerous men during the time of ignorance. He was also a very corrupt leader, and a hypocrite.

    As for Aisha, do you really think anyone who wages war against the prophets daughter and Ali (who grew up under the prophets hand) is of good morality? What idiocy is this. How can you follow anyone who makes the prophets family suffer? What about al-hassan and al-hussein? Did they not die in vain due to the corruption of your beloved companions?

  14. inna allaha ma3 asabireen says:

    there are a couple of points i must make about this article. First of all….it is very bias. It is told directly from a shia perception of islam. Even the facts that u said were accepted by both the sunni and shia party are false statements. No where in the sunni books does it say that Omar(A.S) and Abu Bakr (A.S) aggressively took power. They took a vote because Islam is a very democratic religion. Ali (A.S) was not present in the meeting for the simple fact that he had the priveledge of burying th most beloved man in all of history. Just to tell you how wrong this is…..there is historical evidence that imam Ali named his sons (Not from Fatima (R.A)) Omar and Abubakr…This is after they “supposedly” dragged imam Ali by his neck and killed Fatima (R.A). They loved each other. They never fought over this issue and yet it’s the main reason why the shia sect branched off.
    Also, the Shia “culture” implements a HUGE bid3a (something implemented into the religion from sources other than Prophet Mohammad or the Quran or any of the companions at the time

  15. mandry says:

    So man made these decision……. Once these (*)(^(*7349 realize there is only one God and we have free will. Maybe they will get along with everyone..

  16. I converted to Islam 4 years ago. Through intensive study I have found the Qur’an to warn against Muslims separating ourselves into sects and schools of thought. I do not consider myself to follow sunni, shia, Druze, Sufi, Yesdyyah, or any other tradition other than what is written in the Qur’an. Do we not consider doing something against what is plainly stated in the Qur’an to be Haram? I am in no way meaning this to be offensive to any of my fellow brothers or sisters. It is only a question posed through my own personal observance and I wish to know your repose as such in all due respect.

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