September 16th, 2009
10:35 AM ET

Understanding the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide

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Alyssa Fetini

The split between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is one of the most important schisms in modern religion — yet in the West, at least, it's one of the least understood. The centuries-old strife sporadically erupts into new bloodshed throughout the Middle East — today, particularly, in war-torn Iraq, where the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein has reopened old wounds. As British-born journalist Lesley Hazleton argues, these wounds have been left to fester by a lack of adequate planning or understanding of the issue's complexities on the part of American policymakers. Her new book, After the Prophet, recounts the epic story of the split between Islam's two main factions and its present role in the Middle East. TIME talked to Hazleton about the history and misunderstandings of this dispute and what, if anything, can be done to extinguish it once and for all.

What's the Shi'ite-Sunni split really about?
It's about who should lead Islam, and it began at the moment of Muhammad's death. As the founder of Islam, he was the undisputed leader. And if he had had a son, the split might never have happened — a son would automatically have inherited his father's authority. But he died without sons and without leaving a clear will. His closest male relative was his cousin and son-in-law, the philosopher-warrior Ali, whose followers — the Shiat Ali [followers of Ali], or Shi'ite for short — say that he was the only one with the spiritual authority to succeed Muhammad. The Sunnis believed that the caliphate should go to whoever would be best equipped politically to maintain the burgeoning Muslim empire, backing Muhammad's father-in-law Abu Bakr. In the end, Abu Bakr was named the first caliph. Though Ali eventually assumed the caliphate 25 years later, he was assassinated, power fell to the founder of the first Sunni dynasty, and the Shi'ites felt a terrible, lasting sense of dispossession. In a nutshell, the difference between the two is that the Sunnis tend to respect how power actually works rather than the way it should work in an ideal world. In a sense, the Shi'ite ideology is more idealistic, while the Sunni one more pragmatic.


Filed under: Iraq • Middle East • Religion
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Stacy

    This was a good succinct explanation.

    September 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm |
  2. MAC

    I enjoy learning about religions other than my own. Books are good, the Baghdad Blogger fantastic, and speaking with the many Muslim people in my area most informative.

    I understand murder as well, being the parent of a homecide victim. One's emotions go into hyperdrive, the parties don't speak to eachother, we yell at eachother. The pain in my case will continue for at least 3 generations.

    Being a member of a Native family I understand a bit about tribal culture as well. Some things are sacred, being non-Native I sometimes get my feelings hurt when I am excluded.

    Education and communication are key. In time there will be peace, maybe not in my lifetime, but one day there will be peace.

    September 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm |