With the state of the world as it is, more and more people are realizing that yes, it is important to understand the beliefs of other peoples. Now to any sane or rational individual this is something so obvious as to make one feel a bit of a fool for even bringing it up. But there are so many out there who do not grasp this basic concept. As such it is becoming more obvious that someone should educate the masses.
One of the greatest threats to diplomatic stability and governance is the issue of religion. Especially any disparity found within a religion. Most of us are familiar with the differences between the Catholic, Protestant and various sub denominations when it comes to Christianity. As we are living in a culture surrounded by Christianity, this is the norm (at least for the majority of my reader base). But when it comes to international affairs, far too many individuals are left lacking in their understanding of the internal strife of other religions.
How many times have we heard the terms Shia and Sunni Islam tossed around only to realize we do not know one from the other. In fact I would be surprised if most of those behind the major news stations could give a good explanation as to the difference between these sects and why it is something that causes so much hatred and bloodshed.
So what is the real difference between a Shia and a Sunni and why does it matter? For why it matters I can say this. Look at Northern Ireland where there is a long history of people killing each other over whether they are Protestant or Catholic. To an outsider of this religion it would seem to be based upon little more than semantics. Though from the point of view of those who enact such violence, it is certainly more then just differing views. To those who have marked the trenches and boundary lines it is something irrefutable and solid that stands between the two cultures. Even if those very people were once comrades, it is far too often that such differences cause a rift that leads to violence and bitter hatreds.
So what was it that split Islam into its two prime factions? Each seeing the other as the traitor to their own beliefs. It comes down to what is in all essence, two different understandings of how best to to practice the religion. But to understand what drives this difference we must first look to a time before such a split existed
On June 8, 632, in Medina, Muhammad died at age 63 after spending several days seriously ill. In the years preceding his death, Muhammad had finally succeeded in uniting the long waring Arab tribes into a single Arab Muslim religious polity (a polity being a unified government or organizational). Before his death, Muhammad had made it clear that one of his dying wishes was for the now unified Arab forces to rally against the Byzantines in retaliation for a previous defeat.
Upon Muhammad's death, a successor had to be named. Here, the first signs of dissent amongst Muhammad's followers can be seen. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a friend of Muhammad's for eighteen years and one of his Sahabah (a term for his companions), nominated Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was one of Muhammad's father-in-laws and a fellow Sahabah. Abu Bakr was especially trusted by Muhammad as can be seen by the fact that he often refered to him as Al-Siddiq, meaning 'the truthful'.
While the majority were in favor of Abu Bakr taking power, there were some who were greatly opposed to his nomination. They believed that Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib (or simply Ali as he is often referenced) was the rightful heir to Muhammad. The reason for this comes from varied accounts which claim that Muhammad himself stated that he wished for Ali to take his place upon his death. There were other reasons to claim Ali's place as the Prophets heir. Such things indcluded the fact that, despite Ali's parents being Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib (his father) and Fatima bint Asad (his mother), he was raised within Muhammad's house by the Prophet's uncle, Abu Talib. This made Ali a member of Ahl al-Bayt, or 'the household of Muhammad', which under the Qur'an and especially under certain Hadiths, was viewed as giving one a rightly high place within the hierarchy. The third and final piece of evidence used to argue for Ali as Muhammad's successor is that after the Prophet received what has become known as his divine revelation, Ali was the first male to accept his message and to dedicate his life to the cause of Islam.
Ultimantly, Abu Bakr was named the first Caliph after deliberation and a formal election. Between the time of his election and Muhammad's death, there was the beginnings of much internal strife amongst the previously unified Arab tribes. Many of which talked about breaking away with a few even founding their own separate leadership. But once Abu Bakr was elected, the majority of these dissenting tribes rejoined the whole. That is, except for those who had been in support of Ali as Muhammad's successor.
To further fuel the dissent between those who supported Abu Bakr as the first Caliph and those who saw Ali as the Prophet's rightful heir was the fact that Abu Bakr left Muhammad's funeral when he heard about those gathering to elect a successor. Along with Umar, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah (both Sahabahs) and a few others, they were able to convince those gathered to elect Abu Bakr. The followers of Ali saw this as a grave insult to the Prophet and evidence that Abu Bakr cared more for political power then for the wishes of Muhammad. This led to a view amongst the Alids (the followers of Ali) that Abu Bakr was part of a political coup against them.
Abu Bakr's succession led to a period of time known as the Al-Rashidun (or the Rightly Guided Caliphs). This was a period marked by the first four Caliphs. A Caliph being the head of the Caliphate, which was the term for the first system of government established under Islam that maintained a political unity over the Ummah (or collective states of Islam). The Caliphate was, in theory at least, a constitutional republic with the Caliphs being elected by the Shura, the tribal leaders who were themselves elected by the people of each individual tribe and/or state. The Al-Rashidun saw the worlds first major welfare-state and began the rise to prosperity seen by the early Islamic world as well as its philosophical, scientific and mathematical developments. Much of this came from the fact that that the goverment was grounded in much more a political system rather than a religious one. Granted much of the system was taken from religious texts, but the government itself attempted to rule primarily through political maneuverings instead of religious ones.
The Al-Rashidun began with the rule of Abu Bakr who nominated Umar Ibn Khattab (who, as was previously stated, was also a Sahabah). Abu Bakr's choice had consensus with the Shura and Umar was elected. However before Umar could nominate his own successor, he was killed by one of his servants.
This led to obvious unrest and a Majlis (or political gathering similar. A Majlis can be a temporary formation or a more permanent assembly as is the case in some Arabic states where it acts as a formal legislature) was formed to elect the third Caliph. They chose Uthman Ibn Affan (also a Sahabah). This decision was later questioned as the years progressed and Uthman began to rule as more of a self appointed king then an elected Caliph. Unrest became particularly apparent in Egypt where an uprising succeeded in making the four regions of Egypt independent states for a time. Egypt then sent armed forces to march on Medina, the site of Uthman's house. There they were able to assassinate Uthman and end his reign.
This created enough political unrest throughout the Islamic states, the Ummah, for Ali seize power, after being nominated by the Sahaba, but never fully recognized the all of the Ummah. His supporters, the Alids, never truly recognized the three previous Caliphs. In fact the Hadiths preferred by his supporters never authorized for Abu Bakr and his successors to be elected in the first place. This is only found in what is now part of the Sunni Hadiths. What is now the Shia Hadiths claimed that only members of Muhammads family, the Ahl al-Bayt, could reign. This marked the official split between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Those who were to later be known as Sunni refered to Ali as the fourth Caliph and final member of the Al-Rashidun dynasty. To those who would later be remembered as the Shia, Ali was given the title of the first Imam (or rightful Caliph).
The unrest that marred the final years of Uthman's reign carried over to Ali's reign. He faced two major rebellions and was assassinated after reigning for only five years. The entire time of from Uthman's assassination, through Ali's rule and eventual assassination to the election of the fifth Caliph (Muawiyah) is also known as the First Fitna. This period is known as Islam's first civil war and the true end of Arab unity.
Those who are now known as Sunni continued on to recognize a series of Caliphs until the practice was abolished by the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk under the Republics new constitution. Discussions to revive the practice have occurred but have yet to lead to any action. Under the Sunni school of thought, it is believed that any person who is accepted as such by his peers may become a true successor to Muhammad. Currently, Sunni is by far the larger of the two denominations. While the exact numbers are disputed, only around 10% of today's Muslims are Shia while the remainder are primarily Sunni.
Those who are now know as the Shia do not recognize the Caliphs, but instead those known as Imams as the true successors to Muhammad. The Shia believe that humanity requires spiritual guidance by certain enlightened individuals known as the Imam. They further believe that only those who can trace direct ancestry to Muhammad (members of the Ahl al-Bayt) can claim to be an Imam. The number of Imams to have existed differed depending on the sect of Shia Islam followed. The largest, the Twelvers, recognize only twelve. Where as the Ismailis recognize only eight and the Zaidiyya recognize either five or twelve depending on which sub-sect is followed.
Further differneces can be seen in the Hadiths that each group recognizes. As has been previously mentioned, it is the differences in the Hadiths recognized that has allowed for the derision in acknowledgment between the two groups in who is to lead them. To further complicate matters, which of the many Hadiths varies even within both Sunni and Shia Islam.
These differences and more have led to the two factions to become notorious enemies in many locations. The Shia, being the minority, are often repressed by their Sunni counterparts. This has led to a seemingly endless state of unrest that often leads to bloodshed. In many states the Shia are both culturally and politically repressed. This has often caused many Shia groups to hide themselves and fight against their oppressors. This has led to further derision where many within the Sunni community see the Shia as the aggressors who seek to destabilize the state and community. This near constant state of Shia oppression (and often times outright genocide) and the resulting Shia counter attacks as well their own assaults against otherwise peaceful Sunni communities based entirely upon their differing belief systems and interpretations has lead to furthering religious extremism in both groups.
In fact, this resulting extremism is the reason for the fall of the Islamic world as a capital of scientific, philosophical and mathematical thought. As the religious extremists gained more power as the two denominations became increasingly hostile towards one another, they passed more edicts against such schools of thought which they saw as competition. This drove an increasingly fundamentalist public to rise against, banish and even execute those in favor of progressive and reasoned thinking. This, along with a near constant state of striff between the Shia and Sunni communities has led to a virtual stagnation in the development of the Islamic world. As such, essentially all of the backwards thinking, bigotry, poverty and other cultural and political woes facing the modern Islamic states can be traced to the disparity between the Sunni and Shia.