Sunni and Shiite Muslims

 

Muslims make up one seventh of the population yet, many westerners are unfamiliar with the major sects of Islam, and Islam itself, so here are the basics: Muslims believe that Allah (the same as Christian God) has only one prophet, Muhammad, who lived during the seventh century and founded Islam. Practices in the Islamic faith are centered around The Five Pillars of Islam which are drawn out in the holy text of Islam, the Quran.

The two sects of Islam that have retained size and significance since the seventh century are Sunnis and Shiites. Separation of these two groups is rooted in disagreement of power. Sunnis believe the four successors of Muhammad and their heirs have true claim to the position of Caliph (religious leader of Islam), while Shiites believe Ali (the fifth Caliph) and his descendants have rightful claim as Caliph.

Typically Sunnis are more orthodox than Shiites, and they accept most of the information in the Islamic religious texts, the Hadith and Sunnah, as it is presented. In contrast Shiites read the Hadith and Sunnah critically and do not use them solely to define Islamic law. These different interpretation have lead to Sunnis and Shiites having slightly different practices. For example, instead of praying five times a day as Sunnis do, Shiites often pray three. Sunnis’ only pilgrimage site is Mecca, while Shiites have certain shrines for saints as pilgrimage sites in addition to Mecca.

One of the most predominant differences between Shiites and Sunnis is in leadership. Shiites choose to follow a cleric of the Shiite clergy, who establishes views on politics, technology, and social trends, often making quite progressive stances. The Sunni clergy is less involved in modern dilemmas and more focused on interpretation of the Quran and other religious texts and how they should influence the law.

The original disagreement of power and different perceptions of texts are the main attributes that cause conflicts between Sunni and Shiites. The type of conflicts and how extreme they are, depends largely on where they take place. Sunni dominated countries often have conservative leaders in power that encourage societal structures in which Shiite make up the poorest of the community. Isolation and separation like this is what causes uprisings and revolutions, such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which Shiites took power. In addition there are extremists in both groups, as there are in any religion, who are largely responsible for the bloody overthrows and terrorist attacks that are in the media so often. It is ultimately up to each Muslim individual to decide what relationship Sunnis and Shiites should have and how political and religious power should mix within their own country.