The Two Main Branches Growing from the Same Root: Sunni and Shi’a Split
Islam (Islām) which is one of the greatest and well-spreading religion in the world means the total submission or surrender of one’s will to the only true god worthy of worship who is “Allah” and anyone who does and accepts explicitly from the heart is defined as a “Muslim” CITATION DrB19 \l 1033 (Philips n.d.). Also, the word Islām is linguistically related to salām which can be defined as entering into peace with Allah and hence, with oneself, society, and environment as well.
In this sense, rather than being a new religion brought by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in early 7th century CE in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam is the complete and universal version of a primordial faith, the true religion of Allah re-expressed in its ultimate form which was revealed through the first Prophet Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus to the last and the Quran in its Arabic to be the unaltered and final revelation of God.
Although, after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, the main denominational difference among Muslims emerged of which roots lie under a deep historical dispute; whether the Prophet designated a successor after Him or not and who should lead the Muslim community (ummah).
While the Sunnis believe that the Prophet did not assign any successor (khalifa) and it should have been chosen by representatives of the ummah, the Shi‘is (also mostly called as the Shi‘a) assert that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib who is Prophet Muhammad’s closest male relative, was designated by and should have been his successor yet was unjustly denied this role.
In this perspective, as both Sunnis and Shi’as share the same roots of Islam such as consensus on the need for social justice, the belief in five pillars of Islam, and so on, there emerged significant distinctions between the two prominent denominations of Islam based on the political split which will be analyzed through the article as doctrinal differences, the structure of religious and juridical organizations after the necessary background information is given.
Firstly, when Abu Bakr who was one of the closest companions of the Prophet and the father of Muhammad’s (PBUH) third wife Aisha, was selected as the first Caliph, or leader, of the Muslims by the “Majlis al-Shura” (assembly of advisors) which is composed of the most devoted and conscious Muslims as at the time for the major issues, the Prophet had taken advice from, it was indicated that leaders were to be elected by Muslims based on their piety and merit and left out the idea of a bloodline succession after the Prophet in the sense of religious and political governance of Islam.
Most of the Muslims accepted Abu Bakr as the first legitimate Caliph who would rule according to pursuing the practices established by the Prophet CITATION Han94 \l
1033 (Hanif 1994), and later called Sunnis composed of 87–90 % of the world’s Muslims which are sometimes referred to as ‘orthodox’, constitute the main branch of Islam and adopting one of the four schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi. Even so, all the schools of law have a different point of view in interpreting Islamic law, they have been little change in the methodology and recognize each other’s validity which has been interacted in legal debate throughout centuries.
In the meantime, Ali is highly respected by Sunni Muslims, the Shiite concept of the succession to the Prophet is refused. However, the first Shiites who were not more than a small group of people resisted the selection of Abu Bakr and supported Ali’s leadership who had married the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, son-in-law and the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, because the legitimate bloodline succession (Hāshimites) must be pursued.
Even, Ali was one essential members of the assembly which elected Abu Bakr as the first Caliph of Islam but, it was regarded by some Muslims as the denial of the right of Ali in succeeding the Prophet and being the following Leader or Imam with using the saying as a base; “There will be twelve Muslim rulers (who will rule all the Islamic world) … All of them (those rulers) will be from Quraysh.” CITATION Buk \t \l 1033 (Bukhari n.d.), (Bukhari, 7222; Muslim, Volume 9, Book 89, Number 329). Actually, rather than emerging as a religious partition, the root of Shiism is grounded more on a political division.
Therewith, the Shiite vehemently refused the Caliphate and promoted the idea of ‘Imamate’(imāmah) which means in general a religious or political ideology based on the leadership and guidance by Imams, alongside in particular the term refers to the Twelve Imams (Ali and his eleven male descendants) who followed the Prophet Muhammad. The concept of Imamate explains the belief that regardless of time and place, humanity has been in need of a divinely ordained leader who is endowed with purity from sin and misdeed.
There are also some distinctions within the Shiite Islam which are Twelvers (Imāmiyāh), Seveners (Isma`ilis) and Fivers (Zaydis). The most predominant branch among Shiites is the Twelvers which is also known as, ‘Ithnā ‘Asharīyah’ in Arabic, centered in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. It is considered that the Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by twelve Imams who are directly descended from him through began with Ali ibn Abu Talib (600-661 CE), and his wife Fatima and ended with Muhammad ibn al-Hasan (born 869 CE), known as Mahdi who disappeared and will reappear one day to commence a reign of justice and bring peace to the world.
Moreover, rejection or disobedience to any of these twelve Imams creates infidelity which is seen as equal to the denial of the Prophet Muhammad CITATION Don93 \p 344 \l 1033 (Donaldson 1993, 344). In the light of this concept, Shiites indicate to certain sayings of Muhammad (PBUH) that cause discussions by the Sunnis, for instance, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is my gate” (Bayat 1982, 4). Besides, Seveners (Isma`ilis) along with accepting the first six of the Twelve Imams, believe that the son of the sixth Imam, Isma`il whose descendants still lead until today was the legitimate succeeding Imam.
The current Aga Khan is the Imam of the most known subsection of Isma’ilis. Although Fivers (Zaydis) which is the most similar to Sunni Hanafi’s among the Shi’a and known also as Houthis that centered in Yemen, believe that the divine guidance of Imams but unlike the Twelvers and Isma’ilis, do not accept the infallibility of them, refuse the doctrine about the ‘hidden Imām’ and also, the idea that the Imāmate succession must pass from father to son but, it can be only held by any descendant of Ali who is Hasan and Hussain.
Secondly, the doctrinal differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam are mostly based upon the concept of the Imamate. From in Shiite point of view, the Twelve Imams which are descendants of Ali ibn Abi Talib through the Prophet Muhammad are considered not only the temporal successors but as well as the inheritors of the privilege to the closeness to Allah. Furthermore, the Imams who are the true interpreters of the Quran, have three functions: ruling over the Ummah, explaining the Islamic law and the religious sciences, and being a spiritual guide (mediator) to lead mankind towards the deeper meanings of things that cannot be reached otherwise CITATION Han94 \l 1033 (Hanif 1994).
For these reasons, the Imams cannot be select by the assembly but only receive his authority of leading from Allah. Accordingly, each Imam is assigned by the previous one through the Divine Command. In contrast, Sunni Muslims do not recognize the idea of the hereditary Imamate of the Twelvers as a part of the Islamic faith and even the progeny of all the prophets are denied to be privileged of the closeness and the blessings if they fail to practice the commandments of Allah. In this regard, it is said in the Quran that “And [mention, O Muhammad], when Abraham was tried by his Lord with commands and he fulfilled them.
[Allah] said, “Indeed, I will make you a leader for the people.” [Abraham] said, “And of my descendants?” [Allah] said, “My covenant does not include the wrongdoers” (Quran, 2:124). The Sunni view supports that there is no human accepted as equal to the prophets including the Twelve Imams of Shiism and also, it is not mentioned in the Quran that the Twelve Imams are divinely ordained to lead the Ummah as a mediator after the Prophet Muhammad.
Then the guides of Muslims can be the words of Muhammad (PBUH)’s Last Sermon which is known as ‘The Farewell Sermon’ (Khuṭbatu’l-Wadā) such as: “I am leaving behind two things; as long as you cling to them, you will not go astray. One is the “Book of Allah,” and the other is my ‘tradition’” (Zaheer 1985, 10). Following, Ijma which means ‘consensus’ of Islamic scholars on a matter of Islamic law does not differ much between Sunni and Shi’a of which sources constitute the Quran, Sunnah (Muhammad’s practices), consensus, and analogy CITATION Sey78 \l 1033 (Nasr 1978).
However, In Shiism, the Imams’ views determine the consensus, and more freedom is exercised in the sense of analogy than in Sunni Islam. Also, in the hereafter, the basis of heaven besides pursuing the Hadith and doing the righteous deeds is grounded at the mercy of Allah which the Sunnis embark on. In contrast, according to the Shiite belief, in addition to Sunnis’ perspective, following and obeying the Twelve Imams who have a vital intermediary role are seen as necessary for entering into paradise.
In this sense, the role and status of the contemporary Imams differ greatly that Sunnis view the Twelve Shiite Imams (Ayatollahs,” or the “shadows of Allah) as humans without divine features and respected them for their righteousness and relationship with the Ali and his blessed family.
Thirdly, the divergences between Sunni and Shiite Islam are not restricted to theological divisions but also the structure of juridical and religious organizations differ greatly which are embedded in social and political patterns of the Middle East. Accordingly, in mainstream Shiism, the concept of Imamate is rigged with more hierarchical order than Sunni Islam CITATION Tab79 \l 1033 (Tabatabai 1979).
Also, the appointments of the most important senior religious positions are not made by the state that means governments in the Shiite communities, but the spiritual leaders. In contrast, governments create religious ministries which can be conducted by the state in the Sunni predominating countries such as the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey (‘Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı’).
In this sense, the Iranian Revolution which led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a Mujtahid or faqih (an expert in Sharia) to avoid the secularization process through the westernization of the country and overthrew the last Shah of Iran and made an end to the 2,500 years old Persian monarchy in 1979 indicates that the political power of the Shiite clergy can reach over and acquire the legitimacy of the state.
In conclusion, throughout history, Sunnis and Shiites which are united under the one roof of Islam have been living together, yet they have been conflicted regarding the doctrinal differences, the structure of religious and juridical organizations which emerged from the matter of succession that who should lead the Muslim community, (ummah) after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Thus, the main divergence occurred while Sunnis support that the Prophet did not decide any successor and he should have been chosen by the representatives of the ummah who is Abu Bakr, the Shiites pointed out Ali ibn Talib was designated by and should be the successor, but unmeritedly denied the leadership. In this respect, what cannot be underestimated that even if Sunnis and Shiites have consensus upon the need for social justice, believe in five pillars of Islam and so on which constitute the core elements of Muslims, the split of Shi’a which has begun with political sphere then spread to the religious affairs evolved cumulatively to a distinct entity.
Bukhari. n.d. Muslim. 89. Vol. 9. Book 89.
Donaldson, M. 1993. The Shi’ite Religion: A History of Islam in Persia and Iraq. London: Luzac & Company.
Hanif, Muhammad. 1994. “Islam: Sunnis and Shiites.” Social Education (National Council for the Social Studies) 58 (6): 339-344. Accessed October 29, 2019.
Nasr, Seyyed Hussain. 1978. Ithna Ashariyya. Vol. 4, in In Encyclopedia of Islam, by Seyyed Hussain Nasr, 277-278.
Philips, Dr. B. n.d. “The Religion of Islam.” Islam House. Accessed 10 29, 2019. https://islamhouse.com/en/articles/184541/.
Tabatabai, Sayyid Muhammad Hussain. 1979. Shi’ite Islam. Inc: Free Islamic Literatures.