Sunni and Shia
The words Sunni and Shia appear regularly in stories about the Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shia beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world.
The division between the Sunnis and the Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. To understand it, it is good to know a little bit about the political legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
When the Prophet died in the early 7th Century he not only left the religion of Islam but also an Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula with around one hundred thousand Muslim inhabitants. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide.
One group of Muslims (the larger group) elected Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet as the next caliph (leader) of the Muslims and he was duly appointed. However a smaller group believed that the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, should become the caliph.
Both Shi’as and Sunni have good evidence to support their theories. For example, the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, suggesting to Sunni’s that the Prophet was hinting at the next leader. Shi’as take the evidence that Muhammad stood up in front of hundreds of his companions on his way back from Hajj, and proclaimed that his family would never be led astray. Reports say he took Ali’s hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali.
Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should be the Prophet’s successor have come to be known as Sunni. Muslims who believe Ali should have been the Prophet’s successor are now known as Shia. The use of the word successor should not be confused to mean that that those that followed the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets – both Shia and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet.