“There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh. The Successor of the Messenger of Alláh And his first Caliph.” (The Shia shahadah – declaration of faith)
The crux of the Shia/Sunni split is the relationship that Shia’s have with Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Historically, the split occurred in the decades following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD (Amin, 2007, Huda, 2007). Although Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam (the Five Pillars) and recognise each other as Muslims there are practical, theological, political and significant geographical differences between the two facets of Islam. It is more accurate to refer to the split as representing two facets of Islam rather than two sects. This distinction needs to be made primarily because of the debate on the nature of the schism, which some authors refer to as having created an inexorable divide, or contrary to that position many authors suggest that aspects of Shia practice have been slowly imbued by Sunni practice, thus blurring Shia/Sunni boundaries.
The followers or successors of the Prophet are referred to as caliphs. One of the important points of contention between Shia and Sunni is the recognition of Ali in the line of the caliphs directly following the Prophet (Hodgson, 1955). Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, following on from Abu Bakr 632-634, Umar 634-644 and Uthman 644-656 (Amin, 2007). Shias, on the other hand, feel that Ali should have been the first caliph and that the caliphate should have passed down through the direct descendants of Muhammad, through Ali and Fatima. Therefore, Shia Muslims often refer themselves as “ahl al bayt or “people of the house” [of the prophet]” (Amin, 2007).
When Uthman (644-656) was murdered while at prayer, Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate, though not uncontested. Aisha, the wife of the prophet and daughter of Abu Bakr (632-634) accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman’s killers to justice and wage war to defend her right to ascend to the caliphate. After Ali’s army defeated Aisha’s forces at the Battle of the Camel in 656, Aisha apologized to Ali and was allowed to return to her home in Madinah where she withdrew from public life.
Mu’awiya Ummayad, Uthman’s cousin and governor of Damascus presented a second challenge to Ali’s claim on the caliphate. Mu’awiya Ummayad refused to recognise Ali until Uthman’s killers had been apprehended and met Ali’s forces at the Battle of Suffin. While Mu’awiya’s soldiers stuck verses of the Quran onto the ends of their spears, Ali’s pious supporters refused to wage war distancing many of his own supporters so much so that Ali was eventually struck down by one of his own men in 661. Mu’awiya finally declared himself caliph. Ali’s elder son Hassan relinquished his claim to the caliphate by accepting a pension from Mu’awiya. After his death (allegedly poison), Ali’s younger son Hussein agreed to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until Mu’awiya’s death. However, when Mu’awiya finally died in 680, his son Yazid usurped the caliphate resulting in Hussein leading an army against Yazid. Hussein’s army, hopelessly outnumbered, was slaughtered at the Battle of Karbala where religious symbolism of the battle is enacted to the modern day. The battle of Karbala forged what is now seen as the definite schism between Shia and Sunni. Hussein’s infant son, Ali, survived so the Shia line continued. Yazid formed the hereditary Ummayad dynasty, heading what is seen as the Sunni line today.
Barring the historically relevant differences relating primarily to the rightful heir to the caliphate, aspects of Shia and Sunni religious practices differ. In 837CE, the line of Ali and Hussein was faced with a serious dilemma with the disappearance of the last Shia Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who had no brothers. With the Shia line now threatened, the Shias refused to accept that Muhammad al-Mahdi had died, instead preferring to believe that he was ‘hidden’ away and would eventually return to claim his caliphate. This belief that the last Imam would return, also referred to as waqf, was first popularised by Ibn Saba. When after several centuries this failed to happen, spiritual power passed to the ulema, a council of twelve scholars (known as the twelvers) who elected a supreme Imam. The best-known modern example of the Shia supreme Imam is the late Ayyatollah Khomeni, whose portrait hangs in many Shia homes.
The practice of Shia religion, as Hodgson (1955) argues is imbued with the experiences of the early twelvers. One of the important aspects of early Shia religious practice is that of raj’a, the idea that a hero may return to lead his people like the last Imam from the line of Ali would (Hodgson, 1955). Another important aspect of Shia religious worship is that of the idea of imagining God. Frowned upon by Islam in general, any depiction of God is considered problematic given the Prophet’s reluctance to provide images of God. However, given the importance of the twelvers in maintaining the sanctity and authenticity of Shia Islam the role of men in the religion was tackled with determination. The Shia Imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility. Shias believe that their supreme Imam is a fully spiritual guide and the twelvers are believed to be inerrant interpreters of Islamic law and tradition. Furthermore, Shia theology is distinguished by its glorification of Ali. With its preoccupation with the martyrdom of Ali and Hussein, Shi’ism has attracted a range of Muslim groups who resent the monopolistic sway of the Arab Muslims. With regard to political thought, the schism between Sunni and Shia hangs on the Shia insistence that all political theology, ethics, philosophy, and jurisprudence is bound by discussions on the idea of leadership. Viewed from a historical perspective leadership colours much of the Shi’ite codes and therefore, it is no surprise that the Shia concerns on political thought rest on issues on the method of identifying the rightful leader and the characteristics which this leader should possess (Vaezi, 2004).
The doctrine of wilayat al-faqih is the axiomatic political thought around which Shi’ism is focused. Imam Shi’ism dwells on the political role played by Imams in the Islamic State but extends the argument further to include theological discussions on the role played by Allah and the Prophet in choosing the Imam to lead them. The infallibility of religious doctrine awarded to the Imam is one such example of the murky political and religious status, which the Imam holds in Shi’ite Islam (Vaezi, 2004). Sunni Islam, in contrast, do not have a formal clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions (Amin, 2007). Vaezi (2004) makes distinctions between the Imamate and the Caliphate, which he suggests, forms a major theological and political rift between the Shia and Sunni forms of worship. Broadly speaking Sunni perspectives on the Calipha relate back to an interpretation of the role played by the first four caliphs. As opposed to the Prophet, the caliphs were deemed to be successors of the Prophet rather than the ‘deputies’ of the messenger of Allah (Vaezi, 2004). Therefore, Sunnis elect caliphs as legitimate rulers of the state and society who must possess specific qualities in order to effectively rule. Although attempts have been made to award divine status to the caliph, the understandings of the role played by the caliph remain primarily political and not spiritual. Imami political theory, practiced by the majority of Shias, believes that the only method of appointing a caliph is through divine installation. Therefore, caliphs according to Shia political and theological thought are imbued with spiritual and political purpose. With regard to the qualities that one must possess in order to be a caliph, there is further dissent, relating back to the role played by caliphs in general. Sunni thought does not believe that caliphs are capable of living sin-free lives, as caliphs are men, not divine beings. However, caliphs are endowed with the right to provide guidance and direction based on interpretive readings of the Koran. Shias believe that the caliph, bestowed with divine providence, must “embody the highest moral and intellectual qualities, such as immunity from sin and infallible knowledge” (Vaezi 2004:65).
Interesting sets of debates have arisen on examining the nature of Sufi Islam and the attitudes that Shia and Sunni alike, have towards Sufism. Historically, Sufism is said to have originated as an aspect of Shia practices in Basra, modern day Iraq. Sufi groups interestingly can be associated either with Sunni or Shia groups, blurring the Shia/Sunni divide. The Sufi experience is based on the student-teacher relationship through which, it is suggested, the teachings of Allah are transmitted (Armanios, 2004). Many authors argue that Sufism, often mistaken to be a sect of Islam, is a set of teachings on how to live an Islamic way of life (Armanios, 2004). Because of the primarily mystical nature of the practice of Sufism, the flexibility afforded Sufis allows them to be associated with either Shia or Sunni groups, thus bridging the otherwise contentious divides.
As mentioned earlier, many Sunni’s would agree with the idea that Shias relegate what Sunnis see as the fundamentals of Islam to the background, taking for granted the Prophet’s teachings. Rather, Sunnis argue, the Shia community dwells with more passion on the martyrdoms of Ali and Hussein probably best illustrated by the enactment of the Battle of Karbala in Ashura, over a period of ten days during which time the Imam incites the congregation into frenzy.
It is alleged that instead of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shia harbor a deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam and prefer to devote their attention to winning over other Muslims to their group. There is ongoing violent strife between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. On the other hand, in recent years there has been signification co-operation between the two groups in the Lebanon. And some of the most dynamic developments in Islam today are taking place in Shia-dominated Iran.
On a more practical daily level, Shias have a different call to prayer; they perform wudu and salat differently. During prayer they pay obeisance to the martyrdom of Ali and Hussein at the Battle of Karbala by placing the forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers, sometimes worshipping three times per day instead of five. The Shias also have some different ahadith and prefer those narrated by Ali and Fatima to those related by other companions of the Prophet. Because of her opposition to Ali, those narrated by Aisha count among the least favored.
Shia Islam also permits muttah (fixed-term temporary marriage), which is now banned by the Sunnis. Historically, muttah was permitted at the time of the Prophet as a practice to ensure the protection of women in times of war. Toda, muttah is being promoted in Iran by an unlikely alliance of conservative clerics and feminists. The feminist interest in muttah relates to the challenge to both Sunni and Shia clerics on the obsession with female virginity.
One major rift, which may occur between Shia and Sunni interpretations of Islamic, Sharia law may manifest on the death of a male family member. In such instances the sectarian affiliation of the deceased may hold sway on the issue of succession (Schacht, 1982). In keeping with the importance awarded to blood relations by Shias, seen by the importance given to Ali as the direct descendant of the Prophet, surviving female family members are treated differently. If the deceased were a recognised Sunni, unless he had left behind a male heir the property left behind by him would be distributed among other relatives with the closest familial male heir. However, among Shias, surviving female relatives are entitled to a small share of the property of the deceased. Depending on the geographical location of the practice of these laws the implementation of these laws have been contested by a variety of national laws which engage with Sharia law; for example the Indian special marriage act of 1954 (Carroll, 1995).
The legalities formulated as part of Sharia Law are broad, open to a degree of interpretation. Given the role played by the Imam in Shia Islam, the interpretation of the law in cases of disputes will be determined by the Imam and will be binding. Sunni Islam enables the caliph and ‘learned’ men to interpret the law in cases of disputes but only provide guidelines and direction in cases of ambiguity (Schacht, 1982).
Few countries enjoy a Shia majority. Iran is probably the most well-known nation state with a majority Shia population of around eighty nine percent (Amin, 2007). Shias also form a majority of the population in Yemen and Azerbaijan, Bahrain and 60% of the population of Iraq. There are also sizeable Shia communities along the east coast of Saudi Arabia and in the Lebanon. Furthermore, the Hizbollah, a well-known militant organisation, is also comprised of Shias. Worldwide, Shias constitute ten to fifteen percent of the overall Muslim population (Amin, 2007).
Many authors have argued that the long-standing and often antagonistic relationship between Shia and Sunnis reiterated by social, economic and political experiences. The relationship between Shia and Sunni in Iraq illustrates this idea adequately. As is historically evidenced a minority of Sunnis have ruled a majority Shia population in Iraq for large periods of time (Sluglett, 1978). Shias have been largely sidelined in political processes, as political decisions are taken mainly in Baghdad; which is comprised of a large Sunni population. Sluglett (1978) provide a Marxist account of the relationship between political and economic power and the relationship with the nature of production, which they suggest, explains the political power skewed in favour of a Sunni majority in Iraq. The few Shia power elites in Iraq, Sluglett suggests, are bound by old tribal loyalties and not influenced by the Shia/Sunni sectarian rift, as most religious scholars envisage. Given, this case study it is important to deconstruct what may be seen as traditional sectarian divisions within Islam, to include social and political processes.
A substantial body of work has been done on the nature of social protest, specific to Shia Islam. Many factors, authors suggest, promote social protest as a form of action, among Shia Muslims – economic and social change that are common to many muslim and developing countries, the often seen case of lack of Shia representation in political and social debates and processes, some aspects of Shia history which favours protest or dissent against the ruling power, and most importantly the role played by Iran (as a largely Shia state) in supporting Shia protest in other countries (Cole, 1986). Social protest often arises with the changing nature of capitalist processes and access to economic wealth causing greater rifts between the rich and the poor. This instigator of social protest is seen amongst Saudi Shias who work largely around oil fields and feel that they are economically discriminated against as a result of being oppressed by Wahhabi Sunnis. Similar situations have also been seen in Lebanon and Iraq, where economic development failed to reach the minority and often disenfranchised Shia populations.
The Shia experience in many parts of the world varies, as does the nature of social protest. In Afghanistan, for example, of the three groups of Imami Shias that are prevalent in the country, the largest population, the Hazaras, inhabit the harshest parts of the country, and are consequently some of the poorest groups (Edwards, 1986). With the establishment of centralised political structures in Afghanistan many of these nomadic tribes were forced to relinquish authority and autonomy to the central state, enabling Shi’i dissent to be expressed through shared experiences of oppression, thus giving birth to social movements expressed through the lens of Shi’i Islam, based largely in political and economic oppression. In Saudi Arabia, for example, with a six percent minority, the Shia experience is based around a historically antagonistic relationship with the Wahhabi Sunnis (Goldberg, 1986). With the assault on Karbala, a major source of dissent between the Shia and Sunni populations in Saudi Arabia, much of the conflict between the two sects has revolved around the manner in which Shia’s practice Islam. Nonetheless, the status of Shia Muslims as second class citizens in the country, compounds the conflict already grounded in disagreements over religious practices. Early dissent grounded in religious conflict, Goldberg (1986) suggests, has today metamorphosed into political conflict relating to the potential links between Iran and the Shia Muslims and the influence the Iran-Shia alliance may have on their political efficacy within Saudi Arabia.
Although the main schism between Shia and Sunni occurred over the importance given to Ali as a caliph, the differences between the two forms of Islam have been reinforced and reformed through social, political and economic divisions as is clearly seen in the Iraqi experience and the role that Iran is seen to play in reinforcing Shia loyalties, forms of dissent and protest. The religious and theological differences physically manifested in the form of the twelvers and their religious legitimacy is probably the most visible difference between Shia and Sunni practices. Much of the conflict between Shia and Sunni, rooted in a deep-seated historical rift has been transformed into expressions of political and economic protest legitimised by pre-existing religious schisms. This does not suggest that all forms of religious divisions have been taken over by political and economic divisions. However, the differences on which the conflict has been traditionally based, has now become murky given the impact of the changing nature of political and cultural structures. It is no longer adequate to assume that conflicts expressed through the Shia/Sunni lens are completely religious in nature. The nature of political and economic efficacy now reinforces the divide.