Muhammad’s Succession and the Sunni/Shia Division


This is the fourth in a series of posts about Islam. For more articles in this series, click on the links at the end of this article.

Muhammad’s Divided Succession

After Muhammad’s death in 632, there was tumult. Since he had no living sons and he had not left directives on succession, there was disagreement between those who later became known as Sunni and Shia. The majority (Sunnis) wanted the Muslim community to elect a successor while a minority (Shias) believed Muhammad had chosen his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. Eventually, the tribal chiefs in the Arabian peninsula elected a series of caliphs (successors) to rule. The first four were known as “the rightly-guided caliphs” (Al Khoulafaa Al Rashidoun). They were: Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s companion and the father of his favorite wife, Aisha); Umar ibn Al-Khattab (Abu Bakr’s right-hand man, Muhammad’s companion, and later his father-in-law, the father of his wife, Hafsa); Uthman ibn Affan (Muhammad’s companion and son-in-law); and Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Ali ibn Abi Talib was Muhammad’s cousin, son of his uncle Abu Talib. He had also married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima. He is said to have been the first male to accept Islam. He was the fourth caliph; but the Shiites regard him as Muhammad’s rightful successor and the first Shia Imam. He officially became the caliph in 656 after Uthman was assassinated. His right to the caliphate was challenged by several groups, leading to a series of civil wars (known as fitna), and eventually to different sects of Islam. He himself was assassinated in Kufa in 661 and was buried in Najaf (both cities in modern day Iraq).

His son, Hasan, succeeded him and was thus considered the second Shia Imam. He and Muawiyah bickered and warred over who had the right to the succession. Muawiyah was the first caliph of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty located in Damascus. Those who followed Hasan were later known as Shia Ali (the party of Ali) and the household of Muhammad). In order to end the ongoing war, Hasan abdicated to Muawiyah seven months later. They made a treaty by which Hasan would succeed the more aged Muawiyah after the latter’s death. However, Hasan was poisoned around nine years later in 670, supposedly by his wife at the instigation of Muawiyah. Muawiyah then broke up all aspects of the treaty.

Upon Hasan’s death, his brother, Hussein, succeeded him as the third Shia Imam. When Muawiyah eventually died in 680, Hussein refused to pledge allegiance to the latter’s son Yazid I. As he was traveling from Mecca to Kufa, he was intercepted by Yazid and his army on the tenth day of Muharram in 680. Hussein and his followers were all killed in the Battle of Karbala. The “Day of Ashura” commemorates this anniversary and is held by the Shia every year on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. It is a solemn day of mourning and self-flagellation. These events, while far back in history, are extremely important as their consequences are still playing out today.

Sunni and Shia

Both Sunni and Shia Muslims hold the Quran as authoritative and believe in the five pillars of Islam.

The word Sunni comes from the phrase Ahl Al-Sunnah (“People of the tradition”). Sunnah refers to a series of Muhammad’s actions, sayings, and teachings collected into what is known as Hadith (“sayings”). Sunnis hold the Hadith in high esteem and use it as a guide for daily practice. Today, Sunnis make up more than 85% of all Muslims around the world (more than 1.5 billion). They are the majority in many countries, including Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Nigeria.

Shias make up around 10% of all Muslims (nearly 200 million) and are found mainly in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon, with pockets in India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In addition to the Quran, Shias use a few of the same hadiths. But they hold Ali’s sayings and teachings in even higher esteem and look to today’s Ayatollah’s teachings for guidance in practice.

Shias often combine the five daily prayers into three. When prostrating for prayer, they rest their foreheads on a piece of clay or hard soil instead of the prayer rug. With time, this leaves a clear mark on men’s foreheads rendering them easily recognizable as Shia. Another difference is the allowing of “Mutaa” by Shia, which is a short-term temporary marriage for the sole purpose of pleasure.

In addition, Sunni and Shia women wear the hijab differently. The chador is almost exclusively worn by Shia women, while a burqa is almost exclusively worn by women in areas controlled by Sunni Salafis such as Afghanistan. A burqa covers the entire body, including a mesh over the eyes. It is not to be confused with the niqab which also covers the entire body but leaves the eyes unveiled. This is mostly worn by Sunni women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the Emirates.

Sunni-Shia Conflicts and Extremism

Dating back to the Seventh Century AD, conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims continue today, mostly led by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unfortunately, they all too often are carried out through proxy wars, such as in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Nearly all modern extremist groups are Sunnis: Al-Qaeda (Saudi Arabia and other countries), Taliban (Afghanistan), ISIS (the Levant), Al Chabab (Somalia), Boko Haram (Nigeria), Abu Sayyaf (Philippines), Mujahideen (Indonesia), and others.

For more articles in this series on Islam, click on the links below:

Part 12 | 3

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