The Prophet Muhammad was the religious and political leader of Muslims during his time. With the spread of Islam under the leadership of Muhammad grew a formidable empire stretching across Arabia. Disagreement over who should succeed Muhammad as caliph, that is the religious and political leader of the Muslim world resulted in a split in the community that has lasted for centuries.
The Prophet Muhammad died in AD 632 without choosing an heir to lead the Muslim world. A meeting was convened in Medina to choose his successor and the first Caliph of the Muslims. Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and longtime companion, was chosen. It is believed that Abu Bakr was favored for practical reasons. He was believed to be the most capable of maintaining the growing Muslim realm. Abu Bakr died two years later, and was succeeded by his advisor Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭab, who was killed by a slave and succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan. Uthman was killed by rebels in 656. Those who supported the line of succession following Abu Bakr became known as Sunni Muslims.
At the time of Muhammad’s death, there was a minority of Muslims who believed that the true heir of Muhammad was Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. His supporters believed that Ali was the only one with the spiritual authority to succeed Muhammad. He rose to the position of Caliph after the death of Uthman, 25 years after the death of Muhammad. His supporters became known as Shi’ites, meaning “Party of Ali.” Ali was assassinated after assuming leadership, and rule fell back to the line supported by the Sunni faction.
The Shi’ite cause didn’t die with Ali, but was instead taken up by Ali’s son, Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein. Hussein challenged, what he saw, as the corrupt leadership of the Sunni Caliph. Hussein and much of his family were massacred as a result, in the city of Karbala. Hussein became the greatest martyr of the Shi’ite Muslims, receiving the title “Prince of Martyrs.”
The split between the two sects has lasted since the death of Muhammad. Sunni Muslims remain the majority in most Muslim countries with the exceptions of Iraq and Iran. The split has been largely a peaceful division, since the Shi'ites lost the competition for dominance of the Muslim world early on.
The Broad Picture
Where violence between the two groups has occurred, it has largely been within the context of other cultural and political factors rather than simply a matter of religion. According to Shireen Hunter, the director of the Carnegie Project on Reformist Islam at Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, one of the few large scale wars between Shi'ites and Sunnis, the Ottoman-Saffavid wars in the sixteenth century, was more a result of imperial competition between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi'ite Persians than it was a result of religious sectarianism. In the same manner, the recent violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq is not simply about the split, but also the result of domestic politics and foreign intervention.
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