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Sunnis and Shi’ites
Since September 11, 2001, most Americans have heard of Sunnis and Shi’ites but have little idea of what makes them different. Here are the essentials.
Sunnis are far and away the most numerous, representing about 85 percent of all Muslims in the world. Their interpretation of the faith is based on what the ulama have said. These are the Islamic scholars who have reached consensus on what is true and right, based on their understanding of the Qur’an and Hadith—the collected record of what the Prophet said and did. Sunnis think revelation stopped with the decisions of the early ulama centuries ago. Their consensus judgments were infallible. Some modernist Muslims blame Islamic radicalism on this belief in infallibility. They say the ulama should never have taken away Muslims’ right to think independently (ijtihad) based on the Qur’an and Islamic law.
Sunnis also believe Muhammad did not designate a successor, and so the first leaders after the Prophets (caliphs) were legitimately chosen by the early Islamic community. Shi’ites disagree with this, as you will see.
Sunnis have generally had the upper hand in Islamic history, so they have an optimistic view of history. They believe Islam is steadily growing and winning ascendancy in the world. The last fifty years, in which Muslim nations have found great oil wealth under their sands, seems to have confirmed this view for many.
Shi’ites, on the other hand, are only 15 percent of the world’s Muslims and live mostly in Iran and southern Iraq. They get their name from the battles over Muhammad’s successor, after which they split from the majority to form their own distinct party (shia). Shi’ites believe Muhammad’s successor should have come from his family, and that the Prophet had chosen Ali, his cousin and son-in-law to succeed him. But since the Muslim community chose Abu Bakr and several other caliphs from outside the family, Shi’ites consider three of the first four caliphs (one was Ali) to have been illegitimate.
The most important event in Shia history was the martyrdom in AD 680 of Ali’s son Hussein, who led an uprising against one of the “illegitimate” caliphs. Hussein has become the Shi’ite symbol of resistance to tyranny, and to this day participation in the annual re-enactment of his martyrdom is the central act of Shi’ite piety.
The largest group within the Shi’ite faith is known as the “Twelvers.” They believe the leader who stood at the end of Muhammad’s line, the Twelfth Imam (prayer leader), is still alive invisibly and is going to return visibly at the end of history to rid the world of evil. The recent president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said publicly that the purpose of the Iranian revolution (started in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini) is to pave the way for the Mahdi’s return.
Other prominent Shi’ite leaders, however, disagree. Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani teaches that the Mahdi’s coming cannot be hastened by human activity.
For most of their history, Shi’ites have been powerless, marginalized, and oppressed—often by Sunnis. They have not held much hope for the success of their movement in this world. Therefore their recent success in Iran and now Iraq, and the hope of some for the early return of the Mahdi, is fairly new.
Islam and Violence
Some have attributed the horror of September 11 to Islamic jihad, which is usually translated as “holy war.” But this is misleading. Jihad is divided by Muslims into two categories: the greater and the lesser. The greater jihad is the war within oneself against one’s own evil. The lesser jihad is defense against aggressive attacks on Islam. These actions do not necessarily involve armed conflict but may simply be expressions of the pen or tongue. While radical Islam today thinks jihad should be carried to all the world, mainstream Islam through most of its history has said that armed conflict is to be primarily defensive and strictly regulated.
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