Islam is the second largest religion in the world in terms of the population as well as global spread. Prophet Muhammad started the religion in the year 610 CE after receiving a revelation through Gabriel who delivered a message to him from God. Islam believers and followers are referred to as Muslims.
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The Quran is their holy book that acts as a guide for all Muslims as it contains the message from Prophet Muhammad. It guides Muslims on how to live and or conduct their lives religiously. Blanchard (2009, 2) indicates that several Muslim groups have emerged. The groups are defined by their beliefs and practices through their interpretation of the Quran.
Among them are the Shia, the Sunnis, Sufism, Ahmadiya, Ibadi, and Yazdanism amongst others. The paper focuses on the Sunni and Shia groups, which are the largest in the world of Muslims, in an effort to find out their defining factors in terms of development, beliefs and traditions, and their significant followers amongst other parameters.
Development of the Shia
The Shia group of Muslims is the second largest group after the Sunnis. It constitutes about 10-20% of the whole Muslim population in the world. The development of the Shia community started immediately the prophet died due to the different schools of thought adopted by leaders who were around the prophet.
This difference was brought about by a succession in terms of who should succeed the prophet in addition to how it should be done. In fact, the prophet had died without clearly indicating how the succession would happen. Therefore, the leading clerics around him took upon themselves to define what the prophet’s succession would have meant thus leading to the emergence of the two groups.
Shomali (2003) postulates that the Shia group was guided by the belief that the prophet had appointed his caliph through divine messages that he had given his followers when he was alive. This revelation was simply an interpretation of the messages he had left behind, which was contrary to what the Sunni group believed.
The Shia group is guided by the belief that the Muslim nation’s leadership is a prerogative of God who should be the sole appointer of their leader. This teaching led this group to follow Ali ibn Abi Talib who was Prophet Mohammad’s son in-law.
Development of the Sunni
The development of the Sunni can be traced back to the time when the prophet Muhammad died. There was a need to appoint a successor in his place. The Sunni can be described as the largest branch of Islam making up 75-90% of the Muslim population in approximation. The emergence of the Sunni group came about the same time as the Shia group. The two can be described as the original groups of Islam immediately after the demise of the prophet.
Elshamsy (2008) states that the Sunni came about due to the belief that the appointment of the caliphate was a prerogative of the people and that the first four caliphs were supposed to be the successors of the prophet because he had not appointed a successor nor defined the succession procedure to his followers at the time of his death.
The Sunnis therefore believe that a caliph should be chosen by the community and can be anyone as long as he or she is righteous as per the Quran teachings. They therefore do not believe that only the descendants of the prophet should lead the Muslim community.
Beliefs and Traditions of the Shia
The Shias just like all other Muslims believe that Prophet Mohammad was God’s last prophet and that he was sent by Allah as a messenger to the people to spread Islam. The Shia people believe in the hadith, which are defined as the sayings of the prophet and his aides, which usually form part of the Quran.
The Shias believe in the five pillars of Islam, which are Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Saum, and Hajji. These five tenets are the guiding principles that all Muslims should follow for them to attain holiness. Other than the Quran, the Shia derive their teachings and practices from the Sunna, which are the customs and practices done by the prophet ranging from the qiyas, which are analogies to the Ijma, which can be described as a consensus, not ignoring the ijtihad, which is a given individual’s reasoning as Barzegar (2008, 88) reveals.
The Shia group believes that the leadership of Islam should be God appointed since He (God) appointed the prophet and that it should follow the prophet’s bloodline. The group also holds that the mujtahids, who are spiritual people, took over the leadership of faith and community when the Imams who were offsprings of Ali ended and that the heads have the mandate to construe lawful, supernatural, and holy knowledge to the community.
The Shia group views and commemorates Ashura, which is the tenth day of the month Muharram according to the Islamic calendar according to Fibiger (2010, 32). This day marks the time when Hussein who was Ali’s youngest son was killed by Sunni forces in Karbala Iraq.
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Thus, it observes the day by self-flagellation. Hussein was killed in the year 680 by Sunni forces. The Shia group is strongly guided by the doctrine of the imamate. It centers most of its beliefs and teachings on Ali. According to it, the Imam is sinless and infallible and a source of religious absolute.
Beliefs and Traditions of the Sunni
Just like the Shia, the Sunni came about due to the succession debate within the Muslim society. The Sunnis suppose that the religious head should be chosen through consent of the community and not simply from the bloodline of the prophet. They believe that the prophet Muhammad was a messenger sent by God. They believe in the hadith and the teachings of the Quran.
Just like the Shia, the Sunni believe and practice the five pillars of Islam, which are Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Saum, and Hajj. Shias’ teachings are based on the Quran, the Sunna, the hadith, the qiyas, the Ijma, and Ijtihad. The Sunnis never bestow the status of the prophet to their leaders, as they believe that the last person to have the status was the prophet himself. The Sunnis do not have a strict and complicated religious hierarchy.
They allow laypersons to lead prayers at the mosque. The practice is only restricted to religious leaders under the Shia group. The Sunnis have several permissible institutions that provide jurisprudence when it comes to the construal of legal issues. The four are Hanfi, founded by Abu Hanifa, Maliki, founded by Malik ibn Anas, Shafi founded by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi, and the Hanbali, which was founded by Ahmad Hanbal.
These legal schools are prevalent in specific regions of the world, which have chosen to use them as Blanchard (2009, 3) points out. Within the Sunni group, there is a movement called Wahabi, which can be described as purist that interprets the Quran in a fundamentalist way.
The Sunni group believes that they are the original group and that their interpretation of the Quran is the correct one. Under the Sunni group, the Imams have a big responsibility when it comes to matters of birth, marriage, and death. They are viewed as the leaders of the religion.
Leaders and Significant Followers of Shia
The Shia can be described as the most fragmented group in the Muslim nation because of the different factions it has among its followers. The Shia group follows Ali who was Muhammad’s cousin as well as the son in law with the belief that Muslim leadership is God appointed. The Shia group has most of its followers in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, central Asia, and Southern Asia. The Shia group is divided into different groups with two major ones coming out prominently.
As Shomali (2003) explains, there is the twelver Shiism that believes in the line of twelve imams who are descendants from Ali whose appointments were divine from birth. The twelve Shia leaders are Ali ibn Abu Talib, Hassan ibn Ali, Husayn ibn Ali, Ali ibn Husayn, Muhammad ibn Ali, Jafar ibn Muhammad, Musa ibn Jafar, Ali ibn Musa, Muhammad ibn Ali, Ali ibn Muhammad, Hassan ibn Ali, and Muhammad ibn Alhassan. All of these leaders were assassinated. They existed at different lines with all of them being descendants of Ali.
Leaders and Significant Followers of the Sunni
The Sunnis believe in the first four Caliphs after the demise of the prophet. The Sunni subscribe to four schools of Jurisprudence brought about by the four leaders at different times. These schools of jurisprudence have been spread across the Sunni followers across the world with people in specific areas subscribing to specific schools of thought.
Fibiger (2010, 34) lists four scholars that the Sunnis look up to. They include Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD) whose jurisprudence is called the Hanafi having followers in Bangladesh, turkey, the Balkans, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Jordan, Central Asia and India. The other scholar is Malik ibn Anas (d. 795 AD) whose followers call themselves the Maliki group.
They are mostly found in Bahrain, Kuwait, North Africa, and Mauritania. Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’s (d. 819 AD) school of jurisprudence is called Shafi group and is prevalent in Malaysia, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, parts of Yeme,n and Ethiopia. Ahamad Hanbali (d. 855) has Hanbali as his school of jurisprudence. He has followers in the following parts of the world who subscribe to his views and thoughts: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arabs Emirates, and Oman.
Ground Breaking Events of the Shia
Groundbreaking events of the Shia Muslims can be traced back to the day the prophet Mohamed was born. This period was in earnest the start of Islam as a religion, which would later on lead to the development of the Shia group. The death of Muhammad in the year 632 AD led to succession events with the majority siding with Abu Bakr while the minority sided with Ali only for the group to secure the name Shiat Ali.
During this period, the once unified Muslim nation became divided thus giving birth to the Shia and Sunni. Fibiger (2010) states that the killing of Husain who was Ali’s youngest son and a third successor after Ali led to the remembrance of the day by celebrating the day of Ashura when he was killed. This experience further aligned the Shia Muslims towards having their identity in the leadership of Prophet Muhammad’s lineage thus strengthening the Shia group.
Ground Breaking Events of the Sunni
The groundbreaking events for the Sunni following can be ascribed to the birth of the prophet who later on led the Muslim world. All Muslims celebrate the birth of the prophet because it was the first step to the birth of Islam. The demise of the forecaster led to the separation of the Muslim world between the two groups under scrutiny.
From this point, the Sunnis were able to define their principles and beliefs. Before the death of the prophet, the Muslims were one group under the leadership of the prophet. According to Sunni News (2009), the Sunni also celebrate the Ashura but not with the same reasons as the Shia but rather as instructions from the prophet who observed the day by fasting. Generally, very few Sunni events can be described as specifically belonging to the Sunnis because most of the days they celebrate are also common with the Shia.
Where the Shia Stand Today
The Shia group remains small in terms of followership compared to the Sunni. The Shia group is concentrated in specific countries. Their interpretation of the Quran has been criticized as being manipulative to fit their own theories. Nevertheless, the Shia group remains a big force to reckon within the Muslim world because they form almost a quarter of the Muslim population.
The Shia Muslims continue to be persecuted in countries where there is the majority of Sunnis. The situation has led to what can be described as an intra-religious war between the two groups. The current structure of the Shia continues to be led by Imams who are regarded as their spiritual leaders.
Although they have had splits, the different Shia groups have minor differences that tend to define their existence. For instance, the seveners and the twelvers are the major Shia groups in existence. The groups are divided along diverse schools of thought about the lineage of Imams to follow.
As Barzegar (2008) states, some of the Shias’ hadiths differ from those of the Sunnis. In fact, they include some imams that are not recognized by the Sunni. The Shias just like other religious groups has an expansionist agenda of converting more followers into its group.
Where the Sunni Stand Today
The Sunnis comprise the largest Muslim group in the world with a 75-90% followership in the whole Muslim nation. Their spread in the world is also the largest due to its popularity. Blanchard (2009, 2) finds that the Sunnis have an organized leadership in the countries where they exist with the highest honor being bestowed on the most learned leader in religious matters.
They can be found in countries like Iran where the Ayatollah wields so much influence in both spiritual and political matters. The Sunnis view the Shia people as a group that is out to distort Islamic teachings for selfish reasons by taking every opportunity to fight them. The Sunnis continue to popularize Islam wherever they are by starting community projects that help the community with the aim of winning more converts by generally performing their religious duty as per the Quran.
Barzegar, Kayhan. “Iran & Shiite Cresent: Myths and Realities.” Brown Journal of World Affairs 15, no. 1 (2008): 87-99.
Blanchard, Christopher. Islam: Sunnis and Shiites. London: Congressional Research Service, 2009.
Elshamsy, Ahmad. “The first Shafii. The Traditionalist Legal Thought of Abu Yaqub alBuwayt.” Islamic Law & Society 14, no. 3 (2007): 301-341.
Fibiger, Thomas. “Ashura in Bahrain.” Social Analyst 54, no. 3 (2010): 29-46.
Shomali, Muhammad. “Shia Islam: Origins, Faith and Practices.” Last modified June 20, 2003. http://shiabook.blogspot.com/2010/09/blog-post_3293.html
Sunni News. “Sunni Muslims Look at Ashura as good.” Web.