Though events of centuries ago may seem distant today, many took place in Iraq in locations currently in the news — places such as Karbala and Samarra, the site of Wednesday’s bombing of a famous mosque, one of the holiest Shiite sites.
The rift began when the prophet died in 632. Sunni Muslims, who make up about 85 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, believe that leadership passed to Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s trusted companions. Sunni comes from the word “sunna,” which means the tradition of the prophet.
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Shiite Muslims, who are a minority in most of the Islamic world, but are the largest strain in modern Iraq and Iran, believe Muhammad’s direct offspring succeeded him, rather than a caliph selected by a council. They believe that Ali al-Hadi, the prophet’s son-in-law and first cousin, was the rightful heir. The term Shiite means “advocates for Ali.”
Ali was assassinated after he attempted to broker peace between the rival strains. His son, Hassan al-Askari, who died in battle at Karbala, Iraq, which today is the site of an annual Shiite pilgrimage, was considered the next in line. Their tombs are in the Askariya shrine that was bombed Wednesday.
While all Muslims share some fundamental beliefs about God and Muhammad and the basic obligations of an observant believer, Sunnis and Shiites developed separate traditions following Muhammad’s death. One of the critical differences is the Shiite belief in a clerical hierarchy, where the top imams’ acts and deeds should be emulated.
“The Shia imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility, and the Shia religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church within Christianity,” wrote Hussein Abdulwaheed Amin, editor of IslamForToday.com. “Sunni Islam, in contrast, more closely resembles the myriad independent churches of American Protestantism.”
In the minds of many Westerners, Shiite became synonymous with radical Islam after the 1979 Revolution in Iran. In reality, there are extremist strains among both Shiites and Sunnis, which do not necessarily represent the views of mainstream Muslims.
Neither denomination is monolithic. Among Shiites, most believe Muhammad’s line through Ali and Hussein became extinct in 873 when the 12th Shiite imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared after inheriting the title as a young boy. “Twelver” Shiites do not accept that the imam died, but that he is merely “hidden” and will return in the future, messianically.
Shiites believe Imam Mahdi was last seen in Samarra, at the mosque destroyed Wednesday. The shrine was built by Caliph al-Mutasim in 836 to replace Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and abandoned by Caliph Al-Mutamid in 892.
Includes information from The Associated Press