Written by: Nancy Khalek
Following Muhammad's death in 632 C.E., the early Muslim community was immediately confronted with the question of who would succeed the prophet as the spiritual and political leader of the community. This was an important issue, since Muhammad had no living male heirs, and left no universally agreed upon successor. The terms for the subsequent and long-lasting divisions of the community, along the lines of proper leadership, are Shi'a and Sunni. The former comes from the Arabic phrase "Shi'at Ali," the "Party of Ali," which supported the leadership of Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. The term Sunni refers to those who did not support Ali's leadership at this crucial juncture, and is also a term derived from an Arabic phrase, "ahl al-sunna wa al-jamaa," the "People of the Prophet's way and Community." While there are subdivisions within each of these two categories, they represent the main sectarian divide among Muslims.
While Sunnism proper would develop legal and theological traditions in subsequent centuries, its origins lie in this original disagreement over who should lead the young Muslim community. It was generally agreed upon that the next leader, or Caliph, should be a member of the prophet's tribe of Quraysh. According to Sunni tradition, an ailing Muhammad designated his longtime companion Abu Bakr as his successor when he asked his friend to lead the community in congregational prayer. Traditionally an indication of leadership, the role of leading prayer is thus interpreted by Sunnis as a gesture signifying Abu Bakr as the proper heir to the prophet's authority.
Following Muhammad's death, a group composed of émigrés from Mecca (the Prophet's birthplace) and of Medinans who supported them (called the Ansar, Arabic for helpers, supporters), gathered at a place called Saqifah and chose Abu Bakr as their new leader, eschewing dynastic succession. This type of consensus, called shura, was rooted in longstanding methods of communal arbitration in the Arabian Peninsula. Later traditions developed, in the wake of this controversial decision, that had the prophet singling Abu Bakr out more explicitly or even naming him in particular, but these are parts of an ongoing dialogue and disagreement with sectarian adversaries who supported other candidates.