Shi'ite and Sunni—what's the difference?
The short answer is that the split occurred in naming a successor to the Prophet Muhammad on his death in 622. Most wanted a group of Islamic leaders to decide while a minority felt that the Prophet's brother-in-law, Ali, was the rightful successor as it should be someone from the prophet's family. This issue of succession left two leader's of the nascent faith and a growing divide among the faithful. Fighting broke out between the two groups in 661 in present-day Iraq. Ali's son Hussein together with a force of 72-family members took on the army of the Caliph selected to lead Islam. His group was slaughtered and Hussein was beheaded. The NPR article notes:
"An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force," [Islamic author Vali] Nasr says. "He becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration."The Shi'ites came to have a Messianic hope in looking for a spiritual leader they call the Twelfth Imam. This expectation is not held by Sunnis who have often been the ones with political control. Today, those partisans of Ali are the minority within Islam, but the majority in Iran and Iraq. Belief in the messianic Twelfth Imam was a key component of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The split between the two sects is much greater now than it was before that Revolution which sought to bring about Islamist rule across the Arab world with the Shia Ayatollah Khomeini attempting to act as the leader of worldwide Islam. Khomeini hoped that Shi'ites in Iraq would side with him in the Iran-Iraq War, but they did not. But many Sunnis did react against that revolution in Iran by emphasizing the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Now the majority Shi'ite's in Iraq are enjoying flexing their muscles as shown by Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr naming part of Baghdad Sadr City and using his Mahdi Army to enflame sectarian violence following years of the minority Sunnis having political control through the largely secular nationalist Saddam Hussein.
These differences historic and religious help show some divisions we Americans largely don't notice. For example, Al Qaida is a Sunni group that would not associate itself with Shi'ite leadership in Iraq even though they share a common enemy.
The effects of this split are not unlike those from the one that occurred in the 16th century in Christianity when many chose not to acknowledge the Pope as the head of the universal church (or even like the earlier split between what we now call Catholics and the Orthodox Church). But Christianity had avoided the early division that still plagues Islam.
Jesus' half brother James was never a follower of Jesus in the Messiah's own lifetime. He came to faith through a post-resurrection appearance. James went on to be the leader of the church in Jerusalem, yet no claim to this was made due to Jesus' blood relationship to James. In fact there seems to have been no desire to have one central leader in Christianity at all as the faith claimed the dead and resurrected Jesus to still be the leader. James was put to death for not denying his faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Christian faith was strengthened rather than divided by James' death and Christianity continued with a resurrected Lord as the only central leader. Our deep divisions would come later.
This historical aside is offered to help put the news in some perspective as when religion is the root cause in civil war the fighting is all the more intense. Sadly, no faith seems immune to sibling rivalry and violence among believers.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor