Intro to complicationsThis article by John Harney of the New York Times is practically from a primer on world religions. Think carefully about the generalizations and the exceptions to those generalizations (especially about Iran). And remember that unlike Roman Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy, there is no ultimate authority for Islam.
How Do Sunni and Shia Islam Differ?
Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr could escalate tensions in the Muslim world even further. In the Shiite theocracy Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, would face “divine vengeance” for the killing of the outspoken cleric…
What caused the split?
A schism emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. He died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community, and disputes arose over who should shepherd the new and rapidly growing faith.
Some believed that a new leader should be chosen by consensus; others thought that only the prophet’s descendants should become caliph. The title passed to a trusted aide, Abu Bakr, though some thought it should have gone to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law…
After Ali also was assassinated… his sons Hasan and then Hussein claimed the title. But Hussein and many of his relatives were massacred… His martyrdom became a central tenet to those who believed that Ali should have succeeded the prophet…. The followers became known as Shiites, a contraction of the phrase Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali.
The Sunnis, however, regard the first three caliphs before Ali as rightly guided and themselves as the true adherents to the Sunnah, or the prophet’s tradition…
How do their beliefs differ?
The Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam encompass a wide spectrum of doctrine, opinion and schools of thought. The branches are in agreement on many aspects of Islam, but there are considerable disagreements within each. Both branches include worshipers who run the gamut from secular to fundamentalist. Shiites consider Ali and the leaders who came after him as imams. Most believe in a line of 12 imams… Shiites known as Twelvers anticipate [the] return [of the 12th imam] as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Because of the different paths the two sects took, Sunnis emphasize God’s power in the material world, sometimes including the public and political realm, while Shiites value in martyrdom and sacrifice.
Which sect is larger, and where is each concentrated?
More than 85 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni. They live across the Arab world, as well as in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia [the nation with the largest Muslim population]. Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are largely Shiite…
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shiite powers in the Middle East, often take opposing sides in regional conflicts… In Syria, which has a Sunni majority, the Alawite Shiite sect of President Bashar al-Assad, which has long dominated the government, clings to power amid a bloody civil war. And in Iraq, bitter resentments between the Shiite-led government and Sunni communities have contributed to victories by the Islamic State.
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