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How the Shiites differ from the Sunnis - it's theological
San Francisco Chronicle


February 25, 2006

Despite fear of civil war and raging gunbattles between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, the two main branches of Islam have generally lived in peace - especially during the past century when religious scholars sought to create accords on many of the Islamic traditions that unite them.

The theological schism between the two main branches of Islam stems from arguments over the prophet Muhammad's successors as caliph, the spiritual and temporal leader of Muslims.




The Shiites wanted the caliphate to descend through Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, who they believed was chosen by Muhammad to be his successor. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but was murdered; Ali's son, Hussein, was also killed along with his followers at Karbala in 680, in what is now Iraq. Some scholars say Hussein's death helped shape the Shiite world view they call the "Karbala paradigm" - disregard for death and acceptance of tragedy. It is during the anniversary of Hussein's death that Shiites mourn, flagellate themselves and recite moving poems.

Loyalty to Ali and his descendants is at the core of Shiism. Shiites believe that each new leader, or imam, should be a descendant of Mohammad and Ali. The Shiites believed the early caliphs should not only rule, but interpret the Koran. Today, Shiite leadership is vested in imams or ayatollahs, who are both political and religious leaders considered to be the final interpreters of God's will.

The Sunnis, on the other hand, reject such concentrations of religious power. They believe Muhammad's role in revealing God's laws in the Koran ended with him. They believe caliphs held mainly political power, ruling over the community to preserve public order. As a result, religious interpretation today is typically vested not in any single religious leader but in the ulema, or body of Muslim scholars.

Both Shiites and Sunnis believe in the five pillars of Islam. Over the centuries, different rituals and forms of prayer have evolved - much of which is only marginally different. Shiites, for example, tend to combine the five daily prayers into three sessions and on journeys during Ramadan, fast only until noon. Both celebrate holidays marking the end of the Ramadan fast, the end of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Mohammad's birthdate and the death of Ali's son, Hussein.

Over the years, Shiites developed their own schools of law, theology, philosophy and religious interpretation of the Koran. Shrines and saints - considered un-Islamic by Sunnis - are an important part of Shiite customs.

The two sects also have a divergent view of history. Sunnis believe their early successes were signs of God's rewards to a faithful community, while Shiites deem Islamic history as the enactment of the struggle and sacrifice of an oppressed minority attempting to restore God's rule on earth.

The CIA estimates that Muslims constitute about 20 percent of the world population.

The 940 million Sunnis ("Principle" or "Path") comprise the larger branch of Islam, and live in countries that virtually span the globe. In Saudi Arabia, home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, most Sunnis follow a particularly conservative type of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism.

The approximately 120 million Shiites ("Group" or "Sect") are about 10 percent of all Muslims. Iran, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain and Azerbaijan are majority Shiite, while a number of other countries have sizable minorities, including Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.


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