Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991, Page 24

Issues in Islam

Sunni-Shi’i Schism: Less There Than Meets the Eye

By Greg Noakes

Much of the ink spilled in recent weeks by political theorists and pundits with regard to the civil strife in Iraq has involved the sectarian split between Sunni and Shi'i. The reader is told that there is a Shi'i Arab majority and a ruling Sunni Arab minority, and, conversely, a Sunni Kurdish majority and a Shi'i Kurdish minority in Iraq, but remains in the dark as to the significance of these divisions. There have been similar sectarian analyses devoted to the situation in Lebanon and to relations between the overwhelmingly Shi'i Iranians and the overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs, but little appreciation of the issues at the heart of the Sunni-Shi'i schism.

This division, one of the oldest and certainly the most important in Islamic history, continues to influence events. Yet non-Muslims are often unfamiliar with the issues surrounding the initial split, while Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'i, carry the accumulated baggage of 13 centuries of often bitter polemic. How different are the minority Shi'i, representing roughly 20 percent of the world Muslim community, from the Sunni majority, and why?

The Issue of Leadership

Shi'ism developed from a conflict over the issue of leadership after the Prophet Muhammad's death. During his lifetime, Muhammad was the acknowledged head of the Muslim community, exercising both political control and religious authority by virtue of his prophethood. After his death, his close friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was selected by a group of prominent Companions of the Prophet to be Muhammad's khalifia (caliph, or successor). Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, who was in turn succeeded by Uthman. After the latter's murder, the community elected the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as the fourth caliph. Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not designate a successor before his death, and that the caliph should be selected by the consensus of the Muslim community. These first four caliphs are viewed with particular respect by the Sunnis, who refer to them as "rightly guided. " The Shi'i, on the other hand, believe that the Prophet selected Ali to lead the community, and regard the first three caliphs as usurpers. Several prominent Companions and a number of other Muslims supported Ali's claim, and came to be known as the ShilatAli (Party of Ali), or simply the Shi'i.

Ali's caliphate was marked by a number of challenges to his authority. The most serious of these was launched by Muawiyya, a nephew of Uthman and a scion of the influential Umayyad clan. Many Muslims were upset with Ali for supposedly not pursuing Uthman's killers, and the community was badly split.

After battling Muawiyya's forces to a deadlock at Siffin, Ali agreed to arbitration with the challenger, against the wishes of some of his strongest supporters. Though Ali rejected the negative finding of the arbitrators, he had alienated many in his own camp and was assassinated in 661 by a member of this faction of erstwhile supporters, the Kharajites.

Muawiyya assumed the caliphate and the era of the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty began. Under the Umayyads and their successors, the Baghdad-based Abbassids, Ali's descendants were often persecuted, allegedly assassinated, and in the case of Ali's son Husain, martyred in battle. Nevertheless, the Shi'i continued to support the claims of Ali's family to be the legitimate rulers and to demand the return of the caliphate to the Household of the Prophet, meaning the descendants of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Ali.

Two Points of Contention

There were basically two points of contention between the Sunni and the Shi'i regarding caliphal succession—the exercise of political and administrative decision-making and that of religious authority. The Sunnis conferred political power on the elected caliph, while the Shi'i believed that Ali and his descendants should rightfully govern.

In matters of faith, both communities looked to the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet, but when questions of the proper interpretation of those sources arose, the Sunnis looked to the consensus of the community and the practice of prominent Companions. There was also the influence of local custom, particularly that of Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) and of Kufa (in present-day Iraq).

The Shi'i, however, invested ultimate religious authority in a series of imams, beginning with Ali and continuing through his line of descendants. (The term imam is somewhat confusing: here it is used in a specific sense, though it can also refer to the leader of a contemporary Shi'i community, such as the late Imam Musa Sadr of Lebanon, or to the leader of congregational prayers among both Sunnis and Shi'is.)

The imams did not claim to be prophets, but the Shi'i believe that the imams possessed Divine Knowledge and thus were capable of infallible interpretation of the Qur'an. While the imams were usually unable to exercise any political power and were thus forced to cede governmental authority to the Sunni caliphs, they continued to be invested with spiritual authority, according to their followers. There is thus a clear de facto—though not a dejure—split in religious and temporal spheres of activity among the early Shi'i, not unlike a separation of "church" and state.

Most importantly, Sunnis and Shili recognize each other as Muslims.

This means that Sunnis and Shi'i look to different sources to interpret the Qur'an and to answer questions concerning the proper practice of Islam. Both communities share many hadith, or traditions, of the Prophet, which have been collected and handed down from generation to generation.

In order to be regarded as sound, a hadith must have a good chain of transmission, and here the Sunni and Shi'i often differ. The same hadith can exist with several different chains of transmission. The Sunni versions mention the names of prominent Companions and their associates, while the Shi'i chains name members of Ali's family and Companions sympathetic to Ali's cause.

Other works of Sunni jurisprudence also include reports on the practices of and decisions by the rightly guided caliphs and Companions. The Shi'i, though, look to judgments rendered by the imams as an important source of law, rejecting the practices of the first three caliphs.

Because of the different sources of law and the nature of those sources, Sunni and Shi'i jurisprudence have followed different courses. Four principal Sunni schools of law evolved: the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i and Hanbali. Each of them recognizes the others as valid. Once the basis of the law finally was established and agreed upon, however, Sunni jurisprudence entered into a period of stagnation. The "door" of ijtihad, or individual intellectual effort, was closed in the medieval period, and jurisprudence became largely a matter of transmitting texts from one generation to another. Recently, though, many Sunni reformers have called for a reapplication of ijtihad.

In Shi'i Islam, however, ijtihad continued to be exercised, with the result that Shi'i jurisprudence was more adaptable and mutable. This was particularly important because the Shi'i, for the most part shut out of political power, found themselves in a variety of difficult situations and circumstances throughout their history.

While Sunni doctrine teaches that it is better to endure the rule of an unjust leader than to cause civil strife and the breakup of institutions, Shi'i Islam stresses the need to resist, if possible. If Sunni Islam has historically been aligned with the "establishment," Shi'i Islam has developed with the mentality of a minority opposition.

This accounts in part, perhaps, for the number of splits within Shi'ism itself. Three significant branches of Shi'ism. survive to the present day: the Zaydis, the Isma'ilis, and the Imarnis, or "Twelver" Shi'i. Each traces a different lineage and number of imams, though there are other differences as well.

The Zaydis believe that any descendant of Ali can become an imam under certain conditions, and a Zaydi imam ruled Yemen until 1962. In contrast to other Shi'is, the Zaydis utilize the jurisprudential tradition of Abu Hanifa, founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law. The Isma'ilis recognize seven imams, much of heir religious doctrine revolves around the number seven, and they believe that the Qur'an has a hidden allegorical content which was transmitted to Ali and the other imams. The Nizari branch of Isma'ilism is led by the Aga Khan, while the Druze and the Alawis (or Nusairis) of the Levant are heretical offshoots of Isma'ilism.

The "Twelvers" are the largest branch of Shi'ism, and are so called because they recognize 12 imams. They believe that the 12th imam did not die, but rather went into occultation or "hiding" and will return at the end of time. Therefore the line of imams has not passed, but has stopped with the 12th imam, who continues to be the "imam of the age" despite his occultation. The leader of the Imami community (the late Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance) acts as the hidden imam's representative on earth, exercising political and religious power in his name.

Despite their differences, there is more that links the Sunni and Shi'i than divides them. There are no significant theological differences between the two with regard to the nature of God and the mission of Muhammad. The schism occurred only after the death of the Prophet, and it is from the issue of succession that the differences between the two sects spring. Their disagreements are over the implementation of the message of Islam, not over the message itself.

Sunnis and Shi'i each recognize the same religious obligations and duties, follow the same calendar, and share the same liturgical ceremonies. Both agree on the text of the Qur'an, but interpret certain verses differently.

There are some slight differences in ritual practices: the call to prayer is slightly different, Shi'is combine certain prayers which Sunnis pray separately, and Shi'is break their fast during Ramadan at the end of sunset rather than at the beginning. These and other differences in interpretation are minor, however, and no more significant than the differences between the four mutually compatible Sunni schools of law.

The Shi'i often perform pilgrimages to the tombs of the imams, and remember the death of the Imam Husain every year on Ashura, the anniversary of his martyrdom at Karbala. Sunnis also keep Ashura as a holiday, however, and at the level of popular practice visits to the tombs of "holy men" or saints" have always been significant.

Most importantly, Sunnis and Shi'i recognize each other as Muslims. Despite their differences, neither sect has attempted to cast out the other from the community of believers, as they have smaller groups who, by denying certain fundamental teachings of Islam, have placed themselves beyond the pale. " Sunni " and " Shi'i " are best visualized not as nouns, but as adjectives modifying and defining "Islam."

Diversity Within Unity

Perhaps the most valuable realization that can emerge from an examination of the differences between the Sunni and Shi'i is that Islam is a faith of incredible diversity within unity. The ability of the Islamic faith to adapt itself to a variety of cultures and societies, but never lose its own unique character, is almost unparalleled.

Non-Muslims should recognize that although ties between Sunni and Shi'i are at times strained, they remain intact nonetheless. There are factors other than religion at work in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

We Muslims, for our part, should seek to understand the issues over which we disagree. With understanding comes the realization that by respecting the other's views we are not compromising our own beliefs, and that its rich diversity can, in fact, strengthen our shared community.

Greg Noakes, an American Muslim, is the advertising director for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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