The Shia-Sunni Split and What It Says about Islam

A brief history of the split between Shia and Sunni in the Islamic world, the conflict it has caused and the implications for Islam.

Although violence between different sects in the same religion is mostly a bad memory in the modern world, it is still commonly seen in Islam. In fact, modern technology has combined with religion to create horrific car bombings against civilian targets and other religiously-motivated atrocities. The major sects in this Muslim-on-Muslim violence are the Sunni and Shia. This is a look at the history of the divide and its implications for Islam.

Differences between Sunni and Shia
In fundamental beliefs, the differences between the sects are not great. Both regard the Quran is the word of Allah. There are some differing opinions on the Hadith, leadership, how often prayer is required in some situations, etc. but these are not significant enough to greatly separate the sects.

Most of what separates the two sides lies much more in struggles for succession and bloody battles that were fought long ago than it does in differences in teachings. Much of this friction arose from the struggles over who should have succeeded Muhammad for leadership in the Islamic world after his death.

Religion is the state
Muhammad was both a political and religious leader in his time. Religion and government were not separated. The tradition, in addition to making theocratic government more common in the Islamic world today, made leadership of the Islamic Ummah (which can be translated as either “nation” or “community”), an even greater prize after Muhammad’s death. The holder of this position had both the political and spiritual leadership of the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) vs. the rest of the world, the Dar al-harb (the House of War).

The concentration of political and spiritual power into a single position caused a split in politics to bring about a division of Islam into different sects.

A question of leaders
The details, intrigues, and most other issues that arose during the struggle over succession after Muhammad’s death are beyond the scope of this article. In summary, what arose was the following:

  • Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr, the father of Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha (now looked upon unfavorably by the Shia), was the rightful successor to Muhammad.
  • On the other hand, Shias hold the belief that Muhammad had chosen his son-in-law Ali, married to his daughter Fatimah (Muhammad did not have any surviving male heirs), to be his successor. As they regard Ali’s succession Muhammad’s, and therefore Allah’s, will, others maneuvering their way into the position first were going against divine will.

Both sides are convinced, and have what they regard as strong evidence to prove their claims and refute those of the other side, that Muhammad intended their man to take over leadership. With no absolute proof for either side, there has doubt and confusion. This has brought about division and bloodshed ever since.

Bloody succession
sunni shia splitAli, who the Shia thought should have been the first caliph, did not get the position until three others had led and died before him. However, there was horrible infighting, most notably the Battle of the Camel, where Ali’s forces defeated Aisha’s in a very bloody battle. However, Ali’s reign was not long as he was struck down by an assassin.

Afterwards, the incident that really divided Shia and Sunni more than any other was the Battle of Karbala. Ali’s son and Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali (whom Muhammad had doted on), led a group of followers, that regarded Ali as the rightful caliph, against the Umayyad caliph Yazid I. Facing impossible odds, Ali and his followers made a suicidal stand, which ended in their deaths and their heads being cut off and displayed (including that of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein) as trophies.

Regardless of who was wrong or right
Both sides have differing opinions of exactly what happened and who is to blame. However, what nobody denies is that there were bad leaders, and this caused divisions and wars.

What should be more troubling to Muslims than what exactly happened and who caused it is the fact that an all-powerful being supposedly let it happen. If the creator of the universe had humanity in mind and wanted Islam to dominate the world, why didn’t he make sure his flawed creations had the right leadership and kept Islam united? Why not ensure Muhammad had a clear heir or successor? Why not make sure bad leaders did not become caliphs? There are just so many ways the division and bloodshed that has come to plague Islam could have been prevented by any god guiding his flawed creations providing the most basic guidance.

Cynicism and atrocities
In addition to the atrocities from beheading Muhammad’s grandson to suicide bombers killing their fellow Muslims of different sects today, there was also been self-serving cynicism. A well-known example was at the Battle of Siffin. Mu’awiya, who later became caliph, was losing a very bloody battle with Ali’s forces when he ordered his soldiers to flag their ends of their spears with versus from the Quran. While it was an obvious use of the piety of his enemies to avoid defeat, the ploy worked.

What does all of this show? Even from its early days and among those who personally knew Muhammad, there were all the kinds of behavior you would expect from people looking out for their best interests. In spite of this being a time many Muslims regard as pious and golden, people were acting pretty much as they always have with no sign of any divine intervention.

To this day, no divine hand
Of course, there are many instances of harmonious relationships between the sects, but the hatreds and mistrust between them comes from more than just the extremists. For example, polls have shown that 40% of Sunni in the Middle East and North Africa do not consider the Shia proper Muslims. Other sects, including the Alevis, Druze, Sufis and  Alawite, are accepted as Muslims in varying degrees in different parts of the world. As a general rule, Muslims tend to show less acceptance of other sects, which often leads to hatred and violence.

While they are more violent than what is seen in other religions in the modern world, the divisions found in Islam are certainly not unique. They formed in the early days of the religion and have plagued it ever since. Of course, from a military, intellectual and moral standpoint, this division and infighting have often weakened Islam too. Once again, we see every indication of a religion that is just as prone division as every other ideology. You may be able to argue Islam is not worse, but you certainly cannot argue that it has been any better. Therefore, there is no reason to assume Islam is any more divinely inspired or protected than any other ideology.

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Faith can be a very dangerous thing if not backed up by evidence. Question everything and do not blindly follow. Certainty does not necessitate truth. If your God is almighty, he can certainly stand up to human questioning.

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