Sunnis and Shiites
Dr. C. George Boeree
In Bosnian: Suniti i šiiti, translated by Amina Dugalić.
In Finnish: Sunnit ja shiiat, translated by Elsa Jansson.
In Swedish:: Sunniter och Shia, translated by Johanne Teerink.
The major split in Islam is that between the majority Sunnis and the
minority Shiites. The split goes back to events in the 7th
After Mohammed’s death in 632, leadership of the Islamic community
passed to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, one of Mohammed’s closest
companions. Some in
the community felt that this succession was not legitimate, and that
the title of caliph really belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali’s
supported by the fact that he was Mohammed’s cousin, his adopted son,
his first convert (at the age of nine), and husband of his daughter
Fatima. Both sides believe that Mohammed specifically designated
their man: Supporters of Abu became the Sunnis, those of ibn Ali
The Caliphate passed from Abu Bakr to Umar, and from Umar to
Ulthman. Ulthman at last passed the torch to Ali. When Ali
was murdered in 661, the Caliphate passed to Muawiya, who would found
the famous Umayyid Caliphate. Ali was buried in Najaf in what is
now Iraq, and the site remains a major Shiite holy site.
Sunni refers to the sunnas, or oral traditions and interpretations of
the Koran -- a body of work similar to the Jewish Talmud. Sunnis
believe that the position of Caliph should be a position to which one
is elected by the religious leaders of the Islamic community, and not
dependent on direct lineage from Mohammed.
Shiite comes from the word shia, which means "the party (of
They are mostly found in Iran and Iraq, and among the
Palestinians. They consider certain direct descendants of Ali -
the Imams - infallible and the true inheritors of Mohammed. Ali
was the first Imam, his son Hassan the second, his second son Hussein
the third. Ali’s sons were killed in the conflict with
Caliph Muawiya. However, their succession ended with the 12th
Imam, who went into hiding in 940. Most Shiites believe that the
12th Imam will reemerge someday as the Mahdi or Messiah, and reassert
his leadership of the Islamic world. In the meantime, ayatollahs
are elected to serve as caretakers of the faith.
Most Sunnis and Shiites are liberal, although not by western
standards. In peaceful and prosperous times, there is little
conflict between them. But both have more extreme factions as
Shiites, for example, have a
tradition of valuing martyrdom that came out of their early experiences
of conflict with the Sunnis. The
most famous Sunni extremist faction is the Wahhabi sect, of which
Osama bin Laden is possibly a member. It is characterized by
radical fundamentalism: The Koran is not to be interpreted but
rather taken literally. There are to be no prayers or other
appeals to prophets, saints, or any entity other than God. There
are to be no images of or monuments to any supposed Islamic leaders,
not even elaborate tombs for famous Moslems. And the Koran is to
be the sole source of secular as well as religious law.
Another famous group is the Sufi movement, which can be Sunni or
Shiite. Sufis are mystics who believe that God’s love shines
through everything, even ugliness and evil, and that by attaining a
certain state of mind, one can directly experience this. In this
sense, they resemble Zen Buddhism. Sufism is also noted for its
use of stories
that have layered meanings, much like the parables of Jesus. One
subgroup of the Sufis is the “whirling dervishes,” whose mystical
practice includes religious dance.
Map from Wikipedia Commons