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Religion Library: Islam

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Due to the large numbers of adherents, and the geographical and historical reach of Sunni Islam, the tradition necessarily incorporates a wide diversity of theological and legal views, and further diversity based in historical, geographical, and cultural differences. However, there are a number of historical points on which all Sunni Muslims share common ground. One of the most important of these is the rejection of the Shi'a claim that Muhammad chose Ali and his descendants as the sole legitimate heirs of the leadership of the global Muslim community.

The Shi'a is the smaller of the two groups, currently representing about 15 percent of the world's Muslims. At the time of Muhammad's death, they were known as the shi'at Ali, or the partisans of Ali. Ali finally became caliph in 656, but was assassinated in 661. When Ali died, the Shi'a thought that Ali's son, Hasan ibn Ali should become caliph, but Ali's enemy Mu'awiyah became caliph instead. After Hasan died, the Shi'a supported his brother Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn and his family were massacred at Karbala in what is now modern Iraq by an Iraqi governor, a tragedy that became the defining moment for the Shi'a. It plays a critical role in Shi'i identity, ritual, and politics. It also won Muslims to the Shi'a cause, especially Muslims disaffected with the Umayyads, and non-Arab Muslims wanting to free themselves from Arab dominance.

The Shi'a prefer the title of imam to the title of caliph. In Sunni Islam, humans are in a direct relationship with God, and the caliph became simply the political leader of the Arab states that emerged after Muhammad's death. A Sunni imam is a prayer leader, but not an intercessor. On the other hand, the Shi'a believe that Islam includes intercession. The rightful successors of Muhammad, the imams, are both the religious and political authoritative leaders of the community, directly descended from the Prophet and divinely inspired. They intercede with God on behalf of Muslims.

Use title "imam"Use title "caliph"
Imam is intercessorImam means "prayer leader" (not "intercessor"
Iman is descendant of MuhammadImam is not a descendant
Imam is a religious and political leaderCaliph is only a political leader

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