What exactly is the difference between the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims? What is it that makes them hate each other enough to shed the blood of our Ummah so willingly? It is a question I have pondered for many years, but never as much as I have since the invasion of Iraq by America. Since 2003 I have seen the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims of Iraq fight each other harder then they have fought the people who are occupying their lands. I felt it is time to delve deeper into the situation to try and discern a meaningful reason for why we should spill the blood of our own brothers.
The majority of Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a believe in the basic principles of Salat (Prayer), Sawm (Fasting), Hajj (Pilgrimage) and Zakhat (Charity). Both Sunni and Shi’a believe in Tawheed (Generally referred to as The Oneness of Allah) and in the Rasul Allah Muhammad (Prophethood of Muhammad.). Fundamentally speaking, Shi’a and Sunni appear conform to the same boundaries.
Let us now move beyond the fundamentals of Islam, and look further for the differences. To help understand Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) the majority of Muslims look to a specific Madhab or school of thought for guidance. These madhab are named after the Imams who started them and for the Sunni they are, Hanafi (Imam Abu Hanifa), Shafi’ (Imam Shafi), Hanbali (Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal), Maliki (Imam Malik ibn Anas) with the Shi’a following the Ja’fari madhab (Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq). This is where we begin to see the differences appear between the Sunni and Shi’a as the Sunni follow the four madhab while the Shi’a refer to only the one, and while Sunni can recognize the Ja’fari madhab, the Shi’a do not follow the other four either preferring the Ja’fari over all others because of his direct lineage from Ali ibn Abu Taleb.
The lineage of Ali ibn Abu Taleb is where the break between Shi’a and Sunni becomes visible. Not only by way of the Ja’fari madhab but also in the ways of succession after the Prophet, specifically regarding Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun. The Sunni view as the majority of Muslims did at the time, that the Caliphate should go to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, followed by Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was followed by Uthman ibn Affan, which made Ali ibn Abu Taleb the fourth and last of the ‘Rightly Guided’ Calipha. For Shi’a, the first three Calipha are summarily dismissed because they believe the line of succession from the prophet should have fallen directly to Ali ibn Abu Taleb who had become the head of Ahl al-Bayt (People of the Prophets House).
Ahl al-Bayt seems to be the driving divide between the Sunni and Shia. Both Sunni and Shi’a use Quran and Hadeeth to support their claims, but if this is what is really dividing us – why? Why must we divide ourselves becoming so dynamically opposed to each other that blood flows when we meet?
In the 1950’s at the prestigious al Azhar University in Egypt several Sunni and Shi’a scholars came together to form the ‘Dar al-Taqreeb al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah’ or ‘Center for bringing together the various Islamic schools of thought’. This would help lead Sheik Mahmood Shaltoot, the head of Al Azhar to issue a fatwa in 1959 which authenticated the Ja’fari Madhab as a legitimate school of thought, thus meaning the Shi’a are not outside the boundaries of Islam.
I am neither promoting nor detracting from either Sunni or Shi’a, my goal instead has been to try and shed some light into the political differences that seem to have caused a major division within our Ummah. It imperative that we determine each other as Muslims and respect our rights as brothers because only then can we begin to truly move forward as one Ummah. I leave you with this thought, a saying I have seen numerous times…
"Once the sword is unsheathed among my followers, it will not be sheathed until the Last Day."