FC46A: The Origins of the Sunni-Shi'Ite Split

“Verily the Lord has a sword sheathed in a scabbard as long as Uthman lives, and when Uthman is slain that sword shall be drawn and it will not be sheathed until the day of resurrection.”—Words attributed to Mohammed

Beginning of the rift.
Soon after Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E., the Islamic world suffered a religious/political schism that still constitutes the major divide among Muslims today: the Sunni-Shi’ite split.  What made this so serious is the theocratic nature of Islam that combines religion and politics, where religious law, especially the Quran, rules state and society.  This affected the Muslim world in three ways.

Two of them had to do with the Muslim Arabs’ mission to spread Islam, resulting in the rapid conquest of a vast empire stretching from India to Spain.  This, in turn, had two effects.  One was the sudden accumulation of great power and riches by Arab leaders, who in many cases became corrupt and oppressed poorer Arabs and non-Arab converts to Islam.  These conquests also brought the Arabs into increasing contact with and influence from Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, all religions with belief in a future savior.

Meanwhile, a split had arisen between followers of Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed’s first converts, and Ali, the prophet’s very pious cousin and son-in-law over who should succeed as Kalifa (AKA caliph, literally deputy). Abu Bakr (632-634) was chosen over Ali, followed by the puritanical and severe Umar (634-44).  When a Christian slave murdered Umar, Ali was again passed up in favor of Uthman from the powerful Umayyad clan.  As was accepted custom, Uthman appointed many of his relatives to high posts in the rapidly expanding empire. When complaints about one of those relatives’ corruption came to him, a dispute broke out which ended in Uthman’s murder by an angry mob.  In the aftermath, Ali was chosen caliph.  However, Muawiya, the governor of Syria, led Uthman’s Umayyad relatives in revolt.  In 661 Ali, last of what were known as the four Orthodox Caliphs, was murdered, and Muawiya founded the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) in his place.

However, the dispute was far from over, because many Muslims believed Mohammed had designated that only his son-in-law, Ali, and his descendants should rule as imam (he who walks in front or guides).  This, combined with growing discontent over Umayyad corruption and oppression, became the basis of the Sunni-Shi’ite split.  Shi’a is the shortened form for Shi’atu Ali, meaning followers of Ali, while  Sunni comes from Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘ah meaning "people of the example (of Muhammad) and the community".

Two events in the decades after Ali’s death intensified the dispute.  In 680 C.E., a revolt by Ali’s son, Husayn, was put down when he and seventy other members of his family were massacred in the present-day Iraqi city, Karbala, making this the Shi’ites’ holiest city after Mecca and Medina.  Only one son of Husayn, Ali, survived this massacre.  Five years later, Ali’s oldest son, Hasan, failed in an attempted revolt against the Umayyads. Twelvers, the dominant branch of Shi’a Islam, believe that Ali, his two sons, Hasan and Husayn, and a succession of nine of Husayn’s descendants are the Twelve Imams. Many Shi’ites believe the twelfth and last of these imams, Muhammed ibn al-Hassan, is still alive and hidden by God until his chosen time, when he will return as the mahdi (rightfully guided one) with Jesus to restore just rule to the earth.  Shi’ites believe the imams possess supernatural knowledge directly from God and thus are infallible.  Sunnis reject this claim.

The deaths of Husayn and Hasan have also given Shi’a Islam a theme of suffering and expiation. This has justified in many Shi’ites’ minds a long pattern of revolutions centered on the da’l, preachers of the imams’ message who lead their followers to victory or martyrdom.  These have given rise to more radical groups, some with beliefs far removed from mainstream Islamic beliefs.   At least one group incorporated local beliefs, such as reincarnation, into their own.  Others have gone so far as to deify the imams, attributing to them miraculous powers.  Some Shi’ites, by rejecting all, especially Sunni, law have justified such things as murder and assassination, which has been the cornerstone of beliefs for a number of terrorist groups.  One of these groups, known as the Assassins, targeted Sunni Muslims and crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, murdering anyone who refused to pay them tribute.  Our word, assassin, comes from hashish, which this group’s followers would supposedly smoke before carrying out their political murders.

This is also the basis for present day resistance groups who, rightly or wrongly, are labeled terrorists. For example, Hezbollah (“Party of God”) in Lebanon, which started out as a resistance group without a solid base, has over the years come to provide many of the social services, such as schools and hospitals for many Lebanese Shi’ites.  Ironically, the main terrorist group and nemesis of the West since the 1990s, Al Qaeda, is Sunni.  Today, Sunnis make up about two-thirds of the Muslim world, but Shi’ites predominate in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.  Most Shi’ites are known as Twelvers, believing in the twelve imams, but there are various splinter groups, such as the Ismailis and Zaydi (Fivers) who believe in a different line of succession for the imams.  Both Shi’ites and Sunnis revere the Quran as the revealed word of God.