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Why They Fight — And what it means for us (Pt 2)

Shia and Sunni: Different Histories

The split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam is rooted in the question of rightful succession after the death of Muhammad in 632.

The Shia believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that the wrong person would be chosen.

The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad’s death, however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or Tradition of the Prophet. This is the root of the Sunni tradition. Sunnis have a belief in “the sanctity of the consensus of the community… ‘My community will never agree in error’: the Prophet is thus claimed by the Sunnis to have conferred on his community the very infallibility that the Shi`is ascribe to their Imams,” Hamid Enayat, wrote in his book “Modern Islamic Political Thought.”

The assembly elected as Muhammad’s successor Abu Baker, a close companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or successor, of God’s messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned “imam,” or male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali’s son Hussein, who led an uprising against the “illegitimate” caliph (72 of Hussein’s followers were killed as well). “For the Shia, Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny,” according to Masood Farivar. “His martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety.”

The end of Muhammad’s line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the “Twelfth Imam” —or Mahdi (“the one who guides”) — who disappeared as a child at the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari, the eleventh imam.