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Islam Explained Part 3 of 5: Shia-Sunni Explained

First publication of a pamphlet from Intellectual Muslim

What is the meaning of the words shia and sunni?

Shia means “followers” or “supporters.” Later in Islamic history, the term came to be applied to the followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib (hereandafter “Ali”), the successors of Prophet Muhammad.

Sunna means “habit” or “usual practice.” Later, the term came to be applied to the Muslim group who claimed to be the followers of the habit of the prophet. In English, we generally use a different form of the word when referring to this sect—sunni.

Why is this topic important?

The Shia-Sunni topic is very important not only for Muslims but for everyone else in the world. The Shia-Sunni division is most felt in the Arab countries which control most of the oil distributed to the world. A slight instability in that region is quickly felt in the streets of California and New York where cars and factories pay steeply for the energy to produce and operate. For example, during the writing of this document in 2011, there is a major uprising in Libya. Even though Libya produces only 2% of the world’s oil supply, the price of oil rose to a record. If the Shia-Sunni division leads to civil wars in those regions, may Allah forbid, oil production there will halt resulting in jobs lost and poverty here in the U.S.

What is the historical background of the terms?

Prophet Muhammad was the head of the young Islamic state in Medina. Under his rule, two competing tribes (Aws and Khazrej) were united—the two tribes had been engaged in civil wars for years. Muslim immigrants from Mecca to Medina comprised a third group. A fourth group was comprised of seemingly Muslim hypocrites who could be categorized as one of two kinds: 1) citizens of Medina who were wary of the prophet upsetting the status quo, 2) a subset of the immigrants from Mecca to Medina who knew that Islam would emerge victorious eventually and were so reserving spots in the powerful new state. This specific group would come to play a major role in successfully dividing Muslims until this day.

During the presence of the Holy Prophet, the first three groups abandoned their differences and strove to propagate Islam and defend it from non-believers in Mecca. But only hours after the prophet passed away, all four groups competed to appoint a caliph despite the clear command from the prophet that Ali was to be the leader after him. Before the prophet passed away, he had appointed the obvious best Muslim in all regards, Ali, to be his successor. The prophet had said about Ali, “I am from Ali, and Ali is from me. He is the only representative of me.” After the prophet’s death, each group wanted to seize leadership. The Meccan hypocrites emerged as the winner by exploiting the differences between the Aws and Khazrej. The Meccan Abu Bakr became the leader of all groups.

A few influential Muslims sided with the righteous leader, Ali, and refused the quick nomination of Abu Bakr that had been conducted on the sly while Ali was absent, preparing the burial of the Holy Prophet. The individuals who sided with Ali were called shiatu Ali, and that was the first appearance of the group that was to be called shia.

There is no accurate date of when the other group was called sunni, but it is no later than the 8th century A.D. The term sunni used to refer to the collectors (i.e., actual people) of hadith (sayings, actions, and concurrences of the prophet.) These collectors relied on the sahabah (sing. sahabi) of the prophet as their source. A sahabi is anyone who lived during the prophet’s time period and saw him, not necessarily meeting him, or heard him speak, even for a brief moment. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, one of the four lines of Sunni jurisprudence and the leading authority of the Hanbali doctrine, widened the term to also include the adherents of all four Sunni subgroups.

Both Shias and Sunnis refer to the Quran as the first source of knowledge and to the prophet as the second. Their difference lies in how, or rather, from where, they get the information about what the prophet said and did. Sunnis refer to the sayings, actions, and concurrences of the prophet (hadith) as relayed by sahabah. Shias refer to the sayings, actions, and concurrences of the prophet as relayed through the infallible progeny of the prophet.

Is the Shia-Sunni issue only a political dispute?

Muslims believe that all prophets were infallible in their words and actions. The appointment of Ali by Prophet Muhammad to head up the Islamic state after the prophet’s death was an appointment free from error and originated through revelation from Allah (Arabic for God) to the prophet shortly before his death. This appointment was designed to direct and preserve Islam under the ruling of the most pious, the bravest, and the most knowledgeable person, Ali. He was to teach Muslims, and the world, about the interpretations of the Quran and distinguish correct from false teachings. Ali sought power in order to establish a just civilization, not to gain political power. But because power was shifted from Ali to unqualified people, oppressive rulers emerged and started causeless wars and oppressed people. The new kings started unlawful expansion wars to polish their image as propagators of Islam. From that day until today, the Islamic world has never experienced the just and good leadership that Allah has designed.

Why does it matter if you are a Shia or not?

Allah has declared many times in the Quran that to be worthy of his mercy, Muslims ought to follow the teachings of the prophet.

And whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it. And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain (from it). And keep your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is stern in reprisal. (59:7)

And obey Allah and the messenger, that ye may find mercy. (3:132)

It is clear that obeying the prophet is equal to obeying Allah. The fate of the ones who disobey is made clear:

And whoso disobeyeth Allah and his messenger, lo! his is fire of hell, wherein such dwell for ever. (72:23)

It is essential to know what Allah is commanding us to do in these verses—Allah’s commandments are equal to what the prophet taught us what we must do and not do.

There have been numerous affirmations by the prophet that after his passing, Muslims should follow Ali, the head of the prophet’s progeny. For example, “I am about to answer the call (of death). Verily, I leave behind two precious things (thaqalayn) amongst you: the Book of Allah and my Ahl al-Bayt. Verily, the two will never separate until they come back to me by the side of the pond (in the hereafter).” Even famous Sunni scholars view this hadith as authentic:

  • al-Hakim al-Naysabouri in his book Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn
  • Muslim Bin Al Hajjaj in his book Saheem Muslim
  • Al-Nasa’I in his book Khasai’l Ali Bin Abi Talib
  • Ahmad bin Hanbal in his book Al-Musnad
  • Ibn Kathir in his book Tafseer al-Quran al-Adheemand many others more…

Honest investigators of the hadiths and the verses from the Quran will lead to only one conclusion—that Ali is the only one who must be followed to reach Allah’s happiness. Picking any other leader is putting oneself in the category of the ones who disobey the Holy Prophet.

How to handle the Shia-Sunni division

It is forbidden in Islam to force one’s opinion on others per the teaching in the Quran:

There is no compulsion in religion. (2:256)

Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another’s load. (35:18)

Unfortunately, anti-Shia remarks stream non-stop from Wahabi sheikhs in Saudi Arabia—“Shias are worse than Christians and Jews,” “Shias curse the sahabah of the prophet,” etc. These remarks have been the fuel for many suicide bombings in Shia-dominant Iraq that resulted in the killings of thousands of men, women, and children. Stopping these remarks would be a first step to ease the division between Shias and Sunnis. These sheikhs should be held accountable for their hate speech.

A second step would be the forthcoming of non-Wahabi Sunni scholars from Egypt, the head of the Sunni world, to condemn the hate crimes committed by Wahabis against Shias. Thirdly, Shias need to promote awareness about the true teachings of Islam amongst Muslims themselves. Last, but not least, Shias should be forthcoming to tell the world about Shia teachings. It is a personal responsibility, especially for ones who live in the West and have a notable level of freedom.

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