The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide

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Iraq Shi'ite Muslim men bleed as they gash their foreheads with swords and beat themselves during the religious festival of Ashura in Najaf, 160km (100 miles) south of Baghdad on November 13, 2013. During Ashura, Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD. The most important day in the Shi'ite calendar, Ashura has become a show of strength in Iraq for a majority whose public worship was repressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Iraq Shi'ite Muslim men bleed as they gash their foreheads with swords and beat themselves during the religious festival of Ashura in Najaf, 160km (100 miles) south of Baghdad on November 13, 2013. During Ashura, Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD. The most important day in the Shi'ite calendar, Ashura has become a show of strength in Iraq for a majority whose public worship was repressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

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(RNS) What is a Sunni and who is a Shiite and why do they hate each other? That and other answers to the biggest divide roiling Islam today.

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  • Fourth Valley

    Hmmmm. This is a very limited explanation. There’s no mention of the Umayyad Caliphate (the Caliphate that arose after Ali’s assassination) nor anything about why the Shia objected to its legitimacy (they claimed the Umayyad method of passing down the title of Caliph to their children in a dynasty was against Islam, and that a Caliph needed to be selected by the people), and barely mentions Hassan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, and the roles they played in their rebellion against the dynastic Umayyads and leaves out the reason behind Husayn’s martyrdom and the importance it bears in the Shia schools.

  • I get 750 words

  • Husayn

    Here’s what’s important. There is no shia/sunni divide. The Wahhabis/Salafai’s/Deobandis/takfiris/Taleban are not sunni.
    They are mostly reffered to by Muslims as Khwarij, or the ‘exitors’
    They are a sect that has reared its ugly head from time to time
    throughtout Islamic history and has brutally murdered Muslims
    from both sects. Truth of the matter is, that Shia and Sunni have coexisted
    for 1400 years. This was true of Iraq and Pakistan as well till the US flamed the
    fire firstly, to counter Russia (watch Charlie Wilson’s War) and Secondly, by removing Saddam and funding ‘moderate rebels’ a comedic term that mostly refers to what went on to form ISIS.

  • Fourth Valley

    Ahhh, I didn’t realize you had a limit. That would explain it. Or rather, ‘splain it.

  • Larry

    “Truth of the matter is, that Shia and Sunni have coexisted for 1400 years. ”

    I think Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) would have begged to differ with you on that point. The Shia Hashashin group (where we get the word “assassin” from) tried to kill him on several occasions. Shia do not treat him in a sympathetic light.

    Your post also ignored the Cold War between Shia Iran and Suuni Saudi Arabia which has been going on for over 35 years. The one where both nations intentionally fuel sectarian unrest by funding proxy soldiers on both sides of the religious divide.

    Syria being the most prominent battlefield for Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both funding Islamicist brigands on opposite sides of the conflict. Iran funding Hezbollah forces fighting for the Syrian government, Saudi Arabia with ISIS.

  • Garson Abuita

    “Zionism is the reason why we have radical Islam in our times. Why can’t Americans understand this?” Because most Americans — not the kind that get “revelations” while tripping in a yurt with their aging hippie Ojai friends — understand that Shiites and Sunnis feuding over control over Iraq and Iran has nothing to do with Zionism. Nor does ISIS or Al Qaeda’s attempt to establish a worldwide caliphate have anything to do with Zionism.

  • Peggy Wright

    Yes, I agree with you about the origins of Islam. I remind myself and others that this is the way that most organized religions have started, too many people trusting emotion believing that the fervor of a speaker is evidence of divine visitation. I want to be unforgiving of those billions that believe (faith and belief are two different concepts) but I have to remember what others point out so cogently, education is the first victim of religious zeal; that is, liberal education. I was taught distrust of liberal education in fundamentalist church.
    Promulgating this is important because young people in search of meaning are prey for those trolling for souls and for physical bodies to sacrifice to jihad.
    Let’s face it, billions of people are in established, organic belief systems. They are not going away. Many within these systems are searching for ways to be relevant. I believe it incumbent upon everyone to work with and within these systems to promote peace.

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  • Ibrahim

    Hi-The most important issues Sunnis have with Twelver Shia beliefs are
    1) Giving attributes of Allah to the Imams (i.e. being all knowing)
    2) Some of their scholars claim the Quran is corrupted
    3) Idolatry through performing acts of worship at imams (i.e. supplicating “Ya Hussein” when he is deceased and non but Allah can help)
    4) Claiming that the vast majority of the companions were apostates
    5) Innovating in matters of religion (i.e. Ashura ceremony in picture above)-

    There are various other Shia sects but those are issues are relating the the Twelvers, many of the beliefs above gradually developped over time. Sunnis also believe that the deaths of Ali & Hussein were unjustified.

    Thanks for reading

  • Excellent research. Thanks, Kimberly Winston.

    “The number of Muslims is expected to rise by 35 percent in the next 20 years.”

    I don’t fear Muslims. I fear a world which is forced to be religious
    against its will:

    “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy..” – Allah, Quran (4:104)
    “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations..” – Jesus (Matthew 28:19)

    The world would not automatically be perfect if religion were abandoned. But it would be better.

  • Amen, Peggy