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Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Sunni and the Shia

The Sunni tradition, which today comprises approximately 85-90 percent of all Muslims, differs from Shia tradition, which comprises the remainder of the Muslim world. The distinction between the two traditions essentially derives from different approaches to governance. The Sunni believe, based on specific provisions of the Qur'an and the Sunna, that the Muslim people are to be governed by consensus (ijma') through an elected head of state, the khalifa, according to democratic principles. The Shia, however, believe that the leader of Islam, whom they refer to as the imam rather than the khalifa, must be a descendant of the Prophet. The concept is the basis for a hereditary hierarchy in the Shia tradition.

The Shia movement dates from the period when a group of Muslims wanted Ali ibn abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, to become the khalifa instead of Abu Bakr, who had been elected the first khalifa following the death of Muhammad in 632. They advanced his candidacy on the basis of heredity. However, they were out voted. Ali ultimately became the fourth khalifa, succeeding Uthman, who succeeded Umar, who succeeded Abu Bakr. But Ali was overthrown by the rebellion of Muawia, the governor of Syria, whose seat was in Damascus. Muawia rebelled against Ali because he attributed the assassination of his kinsman Uthman to Ali's followers. Ali was subsequently assassinated after losing the Tahkim (arbitration) to Muawia. His followers then constituted what would today be cal led a political party to reinstate him and to secure succession to the Khalifa.

In 680 Hussain, one of Ali's sons, led a number of Muslims who were then rebelling against the ruling khalifa to try to establish in the area between Iran and Iraq a caliphate based on heredity from the Prophet. However, Hussain was lured into Iraq, and there at a place called Karbala he and his followers were massacred. Hussain's martyrdom spurred the Shia movement in Iraq and Iran. The anniversary of Karbala is commemorated every year by the Shia population. In Iran, in particular, it is conducted by means of a large popular demonstration in which people publicly weep and flagellate themselves as a sign of their remorse.

The political rift between followers of the principle of election and those favoring descent from the Prophet generated some other differences between Sunni and Shia approaches to jurisprudence. For example, the Shia view the sayings of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, and his cousin Ali (Fatima's husband), the fourth khalifa of the Islam, as equally authoritative as the Sunna of the Prophet. The Sunni do not. There are other differences involving the structure of Islam, such as existence of an organized Shia clergy, which does not exist in the Sunni tradition. Among them the Shia allow the imam much wider latitude in government than the Sunni ever could in light of the principles of consensus and equality. The most important of all differences between Sunni and Shia relates to the interpretation of the Qur'an. The Sunni look more to the letter of the Qur'an; the Shia look more to its spirit. In Arabic the distinction is referred to as al-dhaher (the apparent) versus al-baten (the hidden) meaning of the Qur'an. Thus the Shia religious hierarchy plays a determining role in interpreting the Qur'an. This role reinforces their spiritual and temporal influence in Shia society.

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