Of the over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, around 85 percent of them are a sect called “Sunni” and 15 percent of them are a sect called “Shia.”
The “split” is an ancient one, 1,387 years old, to be precise. But even today, it threatens the “stability” of the entire Middle East and offers context to many “headlines” we see in world news.
So how did this world religion end up with two major “sects”? It all started when Muhammad, the “prophet and founder” of Islam, died.
When Muhammad died in AD 632, a great “dispute” arose over who would claim his position as the “leader” of the new religion. Islam was more than a religion, it dictated “social and political” events.
The “successor” to Muhammad would have powerful influence over “society, government and trade.”
Some people thought anyone with “qualifications” could take over. These were the followers of “Sunna” (the way) of Muhammad, and they became known as “Sunni” Muslims. They insisted Muhammad’s father-in-law and friend “Abu Bakr” take control.
Others believed that only someone from Muhammad’s family would be the rightful leader. This camp favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, “Ali ibn Abi Talib,” and they became known as the “Shi’atu Ali” (party of Ali), or “Shiite” Muslims.
In the end, the majority Sunni sect got their way and Abu Bakr became the first official successor, or Caliph, to the prophet Muhammad. The Shiites did not “recognize” Abu Bakr as legitimate and held fast to their conviction about their “allegiance” to Muhammad’s descendants whom they called Āl al-Bayt, the “family of the house.”
The Shiite-favorite Ali had two sons named Hasan and Husayn. After Ali and his son Hasan’s deaths, Husayn took over as the “spiritual” leader of Shiite Islam until AD 680 when he was “killed” by Sunni Muslims during a battle in Karbala, Iraq.
This battle and the death of Husayn is a “bitter memory” for Shiite Muslims. Even centuries later, this “martyrdom” and the issue of “rightful” leadership over Islam is still today the heart of the “Sunni-Shiite divide.”
Both sects maintain the foundational “beliefs and practices” of Islam. They uphold the “Qur’an” as the revelation of Allah and hold to Islam’s “Five” Pillars: “giving to the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, practicing daily ritual prayers, taking the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and professing that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Shiite Muslims complete all five daily “ritual prayers” but squeeze them into three sessions instead of five. When they “prostrate” for prayer, Shiite Muslims place their face on a clay tablet called a “turbah.” Many of these tablets are inscribed with the names of Husayn or others from the prophet’s family. For Shiite Muslims, revering the “family of the house” brings you closer to God. Shiites also hold to ten obligatory acts beyond the basic Five Pillars.
The loss of Husayn and the leadership of Muhammad’s family cast an enduring “hue of sadness” over Shiite Muslims. They live in “mourning,” wearing black most of the year. One of the biggest Shiite holidays is the anniversary of Husayn’s death on the holiday named Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram.
On this day, Shiite Muslims in the Middle East and Asia “parade in the street, chanting laments at the death of Husayn, wailing loudly and beating themselves.” Some even flail themselves “bloody” with chains and cut their own “heads” with swords.
The city of Karbala in Iraq is a “pilgrimage” site for Shiite Muslims, many of whom sell everything they own to visit this “sacred” battleground. In many locations, they even “reenact” the battle, believing that the recognition and reenactment of the “battle at Karbala” gets them closer to God.
These commemorations are not “limited” to the Middle East. Shiite Muslims around the world—even in the United States—remember their troubled past and slain leader.
Sunni Muslims find the Shiite “obsession” with the house of Muhammad to be a “false” Islam that places undue “veneration” on the prophet’s family. Likewise, Shiite Muslims feel Sunnis are not “true” Muslims.
Their sharp disagreements, UN-reconciled for centuries, result in a “fractured” Middle East peace and perpetually unresolved tension.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the leading powers of the two branches of Islam. The “heart” of Sunni Islam is Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Iran is primarily Shiite and has been led by a Shiite “Supreme” Leader since its Islamic Revolution in 1979. The “power” play of these two countries causes constant “violent” friction within the Middle East.
Some countries in the Middle East have significant numbers of Islamic “sectarian” minorities. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni dictator in a largely Shiite country. After his death, reports surfaced that some Shiite Muslims present at his death “danced and recited their Shiite chants in victory” that they had again claimed the land of Iraq.
Bahrain currently has a majority “Shiite” population yet is led by a “Sunni” government. Various “uprisings” over the years complicate attempts to keep “peace” in the Middle East.
Understanding these “differences” is a significant key to unlock headlines that describe ongoing “conflicts and tension” among Muslim sects. But it’s not just in the Middle East. Shiite and Sunni Muslims live around the world—perhaps even in your “own” neighborhood.
So how should we “engage” our Muslim friends and neighbors in light of this context?
First, understand that most Shiite Muslims view themselves as the oppressed minority. Even fervent Shiites who complete the pilgrimage to Mecca often face mistreatment in Saudi Arabia by majority-Sunnis. This should inform our prayers. Pray that those who feel they are oppressed will understand the freedom and peace that comes through faith in Christ.
Second, show practical love to all. Whether Sunni or Shiite, all Muslims living in America are minorities. Kindness can look like showing new neighbors where to shop or where the nearest park is. Simple acts of love can go a long way in changing the way Muslims think about Christians and their Savior. Muslims are now observing Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, until June 4. Consider inviting Muslims you know to break their fast at your house for an evening meal.
Third, remember that only the truth about Christ sets us free from bondage to sin. Many Muslims approach conversations confident in their ideas against the gospel. You may find your Sunni friends, for example, quick to attack basic Christian beliefs like the authenticity of the New Testament. Yet when we lovingly share the truth of Christ, they have the opportunity to receive freedom as the Spirit opens their hearts.
We celebrate that “truth.” It’s the truth of a sinless “Savior” who took the punishment for our “sins” so all who trust in him for “salvation” can be forgiven and received into the family of God. And it’s this good news that “unites” the church in a “call to love, a call to go, and a call to proclaim” its truth among all Muslims—“Sunni and Shiite.”