The division between Sunnis and Shi’as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. The main difference between them is the identity of the successor of Muhammad the Prophet. The majority of his converts decided his close companion, Abu Bakr, should be the leader or Caliph. The minority, including some of Muhammad’s closest circle, believed that the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be Caliph. These followers believed Muhammad himself had named Ali to be the sole interpreter of his legacy. The majority had its way and Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph.
According to accounts, the Shi’as say Muhammad appointed Ali in front of his companions on his way back from his last Hajj, proclaiming him the spiritual guide and master to be followed. Sunnis say Abu Barkr was the chosen by Mohammad to lead prayers while on his death bed. So you can perhaps remember this distinction, Sunna means one who follows the Sunnah.’ Sunnah is what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned. Shi’a is a contraction of the phrase ‘Shiat Ali’ which describes a follower of Ali.
Abu Barkr was the father of one of the prophet’s wives, Aisha, who of course claimed to be the favorite wife. When Ali was finally chosen as the fourth Caliph, after the third Caliph was murdered, Aisha opposed him. Ali moved his capital to Kufa in Iraq, away for Medina. Aisha took issue with Ali for not finding those who murdered the third Caliph and this led to the Battle of the Camel in 656 CE and a division of Islam. Ali was eventually killed by a relative of the third Caliph who wanted the title for himself. Unfortunately, Ali was praying at a mosque at the time of his death. Mu’awiya assumed the Caliphate of the Islamic state and moved its capital to Damascus, Syria. When Mu’awiya died, his son Yazid succeeded him in monarchical fashion.
Ali’s youngest son Hussein from his marriage to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammad was called by the people of Kufa in Iraq to become their leader. Hussein was met by forces of Yazid and refused to pay allegiance. Hussein died in battle and is considered to have sacrificed himself for Shi’a Islam.
Sunni Islam developing four major schools of religious jurisprudence (fiqh) following the thinking of scholars from the 7th and 8th centuries, the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii schools. These teachings provide answers to more and religious questions. Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties to the powerful Mughal and Ottoman empires down to the 20th century. This branch of Islam spread east through central Asia and the Indian sub-continent to the Indonesian archipelago, and west towards Africa and the periphery of Europe. Today about a billion people world wide are Sunni Muslims, 85% of the total.
Shi’a leadership continued through Imams considered to be divinely appointed through the Prophet’s family. The Shi’a believe that 12 Imams descended from the Prophet and some believe the 12th will come again. The Shi’a community is led by scholars know by the honorific title Ayatollah and they act as representatives of the Hidden Imam on earth. Shi’as are now found in many countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Albania and Yemen and make up 90% of the population of Iran.
What began as a question of who should lead Islam has developed into doctrinal differences because of alternative interpretations. A central tenet of Shi’a theology is the coming of a rightly guided one, Mahdi, at the end of time to spread justice and peace. He will be a descendant of the Prophet in the line of Ali’s wife Fatima. Many Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of the Mahdi. Orthodox Sunni Muslims tend to dispute thie concept of the Mahdi as he is not mentioned in the Qur’an.
The Wahabi movement of Sunni views the Shi’a practice of visiting and venerating shrines to the Imams of the Prophet’s Family and other saintly figures as heretical. In Shi’a there is a hierarchy of religious leadership, with political and religious authority is vested the most learned spiritual leaders. Sunni has its own divisions, between the traditionalists who tend to a literal interpenetration and rationalists.
Does any of this sound familiar? Think about Catholics and Protestants, Theravada and Mahayana, Apple and PC, Android and IOS. Many people claiming to be followers of Christ don’t realize that Muslims have high regard of Isa, Peace be upon Him. They believe Isa aka Jesus was born of a virgin, was a prophet, performed miracles and will return to earth before the Day of Judgment to defeat the false Messiah. In Islamic eschatology, Al-Masih Ad-Dajjal is an evil false prophet. Keep that in mind if you watch the Netflix series Messiah.
When ISIL acknowledged the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October, it named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, as his successor to head ISIS. ISIS Affiliated media accounts claim its affiliates and followers are pledging allegiance to the new leader. ISIL follows a fundamentalist version of Sunni and the organization has destroyed sites revered by Shi’a.