The Sunni - Shi'a Split

Like many major religions such as Christianity and Judaism, Islam experienced a division among its followers. This division began after the Prophet Muhammad died. Many Muslims believed that the leader of Islam should be someone in Muhammad’s family. Others believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. This disagreement created a division between Muslims and resulted in two different groups called Sunni and Shi'a. 

The majority of Muslims in the world base their religion on Sunni Islam. The Arabic word Sunni means “one who follows traditions of the Prophet”. After Muhammad’s death, many Muslims believed that the successor should be someone chosen by the elite members of the community. They eventually chose Muhammad’s close friend and advisor Abu Bakr as the first caliph of the Islamic community. 

Muslims who believe that leadership should stay within Muhammad’s family are known as Shiite, or Shi'a. The Arabic word “Shi'a” is a shortened word for “Shia-t-Ali” which means the Party of Ali. Shi'a make up a majority of Muslims in Iran, but represent a minority of Muslims worldwide. This was a result of the rise of the Safavid dynasty to power in the 16th century that made the Middle East a stronghold for the Shi'a. Shiites believe that the rightful successor of Muhammad should have been his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Shiites follow divinely appointed leaders called Imams. 

Shiites highly worship Imams and believe that they are sinless and their authority comes from Allah. Sunnis do not support the Imam and do not believe in a birthright or privileged class of leaders. They believe that leadership and trust is given and taken by the people. In addition to differences in leadership, Sunnis and Shi'a Muslims differ on their traditions and religious practices as well. Sunni Muslims base their religion on the testimonies of Muhammad’s close companions, but Shi'a Muslims do not believe in the traditions written by the early caliphs and follow verses and texts that come from the prophet’s family.

Although there are differences in some aspects of their practice of Islam, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims share the most fundamental beliefs and articles of Islamic faith such as the God Allah, the five Pillars of Islam, and belief in the Qu’ran as their holy book.