Understanding Islam Essential Library.



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21SPCMP World Civilization

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21SPCMP World Civilization

According to Scheckler & Morina (2011), the Shi’ite and the Sunni are the main Islamic factions. The two groups agreed on most Islamic practices and beliefs; however, their differences go back to the 14th century when there was a bitter split between them. The Shiites form the second largest group of Islam. They are guided by the religious teachings of Muhammad and the guidance he showed his descendants or family, whom they are regarded as Shia Imams. On the other hand, the Sunni is the Islam branch with the most significant number of followers, nearly 85% of the total Muslim (Scheckler & Morina, 2011). The name Sunni was derived from the reference to Muhammad’s behaviour.  Therefore, this paper will discuss the reasons for the split.

The split between the two factions can be traced back to the 632 A.D, and it was because of the succession of Muhammad. Their differences immediately started after Prophet Muhammad died. There were conflicts on who would take his place. Most of his followers believed that a successor had to come from the elite group of the Islamic community, and smaller groups believed that a successor would only come from Muhammad’s family, for example, his son-in-law or even cousin. The smaller group was referred to like Ali’s followers; in Arabic, it was Shia. Therefore, it was due to the political divide that Shi’ite and the Sunni split began. Being the majority faction, the Sunnis’ quest prevailed, and they finally chose a successor who became the first caliph. Ali was the fourth caliph; however, it was until violence broke out. The two earliest caliphs were killed. In 661 A.D, war erupted, and Ali was murdered near Kufa, a place found in present-day Iraq. The war intensified, forming a rift, forming two branches of Islam, the Shi’ite and the Sunni. It was a split that lasted to the present time. Political powers between the two factions also fueled the split. In the following centuries, the two religious groups conflicted with the European Crusaders (Gail, 2019).

There were some differences and similarities in the teachings and beliefs of the two groups. Both groups believed a one true God named Allah, and He had his messenger called Prophet Muhammad. Also, both branches read the Quran and considered it as the holy book, followed and respected the five tenets of Islam, pledged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasted during the holy month of Ramadan, gave charity to the poor, practised prayer rituals that entailed five prayers in a day, and pledged themselves to the Islam faith. The significant difference was in their beliefs on the rightful successor. The Shiites believed and held that it had to be someone from Muhammad’s bloodline, while Sunni believed that only pious people could take over. Another difference is in the interpretations of Islam’s school of law. Compared to the Shiites, Sunni’s religious hierarchy was less elaborate. Shiites gave Quran’s prophets an exalted status as they gave to human beings, something that the Sunnis did not do. , the divide was not because of religious doctrines but somewhat over political leadership (Jin et al., 2017).

The split between the two branches of Islam continued to the 21st century. Instead of unifying and being one religious group, the drift between the two continued to widen.  Jin et al. (2017) attribute the sharpening of the divide to two significant milestones. First is the rise of the Safavid dynasty during the 16th century, which transformed Iran into a Shia stronghold from a Sunni centre. Second, there have been several upheavals such as the mass uprising due to the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Persian Gulf Wars resulting from the US-backed ouster and killing of Sadam Hussein. The conflicts in the present day are evident with Sunni-Shia divisions that have fueled the fighting in Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere, the long-running war in Syria, and terrorist violence spread across the globe. There is a common element in all these conflicts: the ongoing war between the two branches of Islam. The Shias from Iran and Sunnis from Saudi Arabia have influenced the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and the surrounding areas. The two groups have been in conflicts for centuries, but they have managed to co-exist in relative peace, which suggests that the deepening split in the modern days has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with power and wealth.

The Shiites and Sunnis are majorly located in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the heart of Sunni Islam, while Iran is Shiites. Since 1979, Iran has been led by a supreme leader from the Shiite group. The tensions in the Middle East are significantly caused by the power players of the two nations. Other countries in the Middle East have a large number of Islamic sectarian minorities. In details, Iraq had Shia majority, Syria with Shia minority, Lebanon with Christians majority followed by Shiites and Sunni, Egypt by Sunni majority, Jordan by the Sunni majority, Turkey by Shiites minority, Bahrain by Shia majority, and Sunni majority in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, and Yemen.

It is significant to note that terrorism in the 21st century is fueled partly by the Sunni-Shiite split. These factions believe in Jihad, an anchoring foundation of terrorism. For example, the Islamic State Group originated from Iraq that has a majority of Sunnis. The people believe that they have a right to kill all the non-Sunnis (Gail, 2019).


Gail Radley. (2019). Understanding Islam. Essential Library.

Jin, Y., Ho, W.-Y., & Chan, A. C. (2017). Islam. Brill.

Scheckler, L. P., & Morina, J. L. (2011). Modern Islam: Traditions and Concerns. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.


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