Sunnis and Shiites: Islam’s feuding arms

Palm Beach Post, Mar. 28, 2003
By Steve Gushee, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sects of the same religion often behave like warring relatives. Their feuds are violent, long lasting and, almost always, silly and unnecessary.

That’s historically true of Catholics and Protestants. It remains true of the Sunnis and Shiites of Islam that play such a crucial role in the pain and confusion of modern Iraq.

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They disagree on the way power was taken following Mohammed’s death and make nuanced distinctions in their interpretation of faith.

Those seemingly modest differences, however, belie the seriousness of their division. One sect of Islam has persecuted and slaughtered the other for hundreds of years whenever it had the opportunity. That hatred is part of the tragedy of Iraq.

About 20 percent of the population of that ancient land are Sunni Muslims, but they control the country under Sadaam Hussein. Sunnis openly persecute Shiites, who make up as much as 60 percent of the Iraqi people. Christians are a very small minority.

Shiites, however, are in the minority in Islam. More than 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Shiism is the controlling religious sect only in Iran, although it has many followers in Lebanon, Bahrain and, of course, Iraq.

The fundamental point of departure between these two groups that share the same faith is, not surprisingly, associated with the source and exercise of power.

Shiites insist that successors of Islam’s founder, Mohammed, must be descendents of the Prophet through the sons of Mohammed’s daughter, who alone survived him.

Upon the Prophet’s death, however, a committee of elders selected as caliph a man who had no hereditary linkage to Mohammed. Shiites argue that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and his sons were the only rightful leaders of Islam.

Ali ultimately disagreed with his own party and accepted the newly appointed Caliph. His followers, the Shiites, never did and thereby caused the earliest and most significant rift in Islam.

The two sects also differ on questions of authority in ways not unlike the different approaches taken by Catholics and Protestants.

Sunnis embrace a more centralized authority rooted in what they call community consensus. Shiites, like Protestants, favor a more individual interpretation of the faith.

Still, the question of the succession of power remains at the heart of their petty feud. That’s at the root of the antagonism between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iran.

That is also the religious reason Sadaam Hussein has callously mistreated so many of his own Muslim citizens.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday March 29, 2003.
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