Answer Man: What's behind Islam's Sunni-Shiite split?

News-DemocratMay 17, 2013 

Q. In so many stories about the Middle East (Iraq, etc.), we read about the hostility between two factions of Islam -- the Sunni and the Shiites. Can you please explain when their monumental split occurred and why there is so much animosity between the two?

-- Tom Murphy, of Belleville

A. Have you ever seen family members squabble over possessions after their parents die -- especially if there was no will to settle the dispute?

"Mom always told me I could have her Waterford vases." "No, she told me two weeks before she died that I would treasure them more." You know how such fights can lead to splits that last a lifetime.

With that in mind, just imagine what can happen when the founder of an embryonic religion dies. Who becomes the new leader to carry the faith forward? That's basically the question that divided Islam in its earliest days and has persisted ever since, according to scholar Geoffery Parrinder in his book "World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present."

If you know anything about Islam, you know it was founded by a merchant-shepherd now known as the Prophet Muhammad. In about 613, Muhammad began preaching that he had received revelations from God/Allah, proclaiming that "Allah is one" and that "complete submission to Allah" (islam) is the only way. Spurned by many at first, he eventually founded the first Islamic state at Medina in 622, which Muslims still mark as the first year of the Islamic calendar.

But just a decade later, Muhammad fell ill. On June 8, 632, with his head resting in the lap of his wife Aisha, he reportedly told her to give away his final worldly possessions (seven coins) and uttered his last words: "Rather, God on high and paradise."

On the surface, it seemed that the transition of leadership might be smooth. Abu Bakr -- Aisha's father and a close friend and adviser of Muhammad -- was proclaimed "caliph" (successor). Two years later, Umar was similarly acclaimed, and, after him, Uthman. Most Muslims seemed to think that the caliph should be, in essence, an elective post based on a candidate's ability to fulfill the required tasks.

But there was a distinct minority who felt that only direct descendants of the prophet's family deserved to be caliph. They believed that the leadership of a faith should be more than a potential popularity contest and that only descendants were taught sufficiently well to pass on the faith. As a result, they immediately thought that Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law -- Ali ibn Abi Talib -- should have been named as the first caliph, not Abu Bakr.

This latter group became known as Shiah Ali -- the party of Ali -- now known as Shiites. They observe numerous traditions in which Muhammad is reported to have specifically designated Ali as his successor. They even point to verses in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, that they say back their beliefs.

As a result, they view the first three caliphs as illegitimate. They allege that those who now call themselves Sunnis suppressed all evidence that Ali was the rightful successor, resulting in the initial bad feelings. They continue to curse the names of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, Parrinder writes.

Eventually, Ali did become the fourth caliph (some say Shiites were behind Uthman's slaying), but his ascension was short-lived when he himself was slain by a fanatic. The split then became cemented when one of Ali's sons said he didn't want any part of the leadership while the other died during a civil war in 680.

Now, nearly 1,400 years later, the two sides seem as far apart as ever. Sunnis -- so named because they say they are following the "sunnah" or "path" of Muhammad -- number about 940 million, which is about 90 percent of all Muslims.

As noted before, Sunnis recognize all heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious teachers. Sunnis also believe that the Mahdi -- or "Rightly Guided Imam" -- has yet to come to Earth and make his presence felt, according to Parrinder.

On this last point, the 120 million Shiites also hold a radically different belief. When their 12th directly descended imam disappeared in 874 at his father's funeral, they came to see him as the Messiah being hidden away from the public by Allah. Now, these so-called Twelver Shiites continue to wait for his reappearance and bring absolute justice to the world.

Whether this holy chasm in Islam itself can ever be bridged remains to be seen as well.

Today's trivia

Where was India ink invented?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: Using a statistical analysis known as "wins above replacement," Baseball-Reference deemed the 1939 New York Yankees as arguably the greatest team of all time. With a record of 106-45, they became the first team to win four consecutive World Series. The 2001 Seattle Mariners were second.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 239-2465.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service