Primarily when one looks at the divisions between Sunni Muslims and Shi'a Muslims they would logically see political differences that too an outsider’s point of view seems fairly insubstantial. While there is hundreds of thousands of pages written on this subject, I will endeavor to try shed some light on the subject, and hopefully we can all understand a little better exactly what the division is.
In 632 CE the beloved prophet of Islam passed from this world, and regrettably it was this singular event that would shape the Muslims world for centuries to come. Instead of a unifying event that caused the Muslims to come together closer, the opposite happened. Immediate reaction was one of angst and uncertainty. No successor had been directly named which presented problems as the majority of his Sahaba were inclined to elect a successor from among those who were most qualified. Upon their selection, the prophet’s close friend and companion Abu Bakr was given the title of Khalifa and asked to lead the Muslim ummah. After Abu Bakr it was then Umar ibn Al Kattab who was to lead, as it came to Uthman after him. The last of Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun (The Rightly Guided Khalifa) was Ali bin Abi Talib the prophets cousin and son-in-law.
It is Ali ibn Abi Talib that stands at the center of this controversy. While Ali himself did not demand to become a Khalifa at all, let alone become the first, there were however others who believed that the Khalifa of the Muslim ummah should come directly form the prophets line, specifically pointing to Ali and his lineage. To support their claims they refer to several hadith, which purportedly name Ali as the successor in one manner or another. From this point on the division would only grow.
Twenty-Five years later, after Abu Bakr as Saddiq, Umar ibn Al Kittab, and Uthman ibn Affan had all raised the mantle of Khalifa, Ali ibn Abi Talib was raised to Khalifa of the Muslim Ummah. While Ali proved to be of the highest standards and moral virtue, his time as Khalifa was marred by internal strife and conflict with several groups choosing to rebel against him, most notably Uthman’s cousin Mu’awiyah, the provincial governor of Syria, who under the guise of demanding justice for the killers of Uthman refused to accept Ali’s Caliphate. While Ali was able to overcome most of his battles, he could not subdue Mu’awiyah, and was eventually forced to negotiate some form of truce with him.
Shortly thereafter in the year 661 CE Ali ibn Abi Talib was betrayed and assassinated leaving even more uncertainty for those of Ahul Bayt -The People of the House (of the Prophet) – who followed Ali. Mu’awiyah would not accept Ali’s designation of his eldest son Hassan as Khalifa so he furthered his own claims as he pressed Hassan who would eventually yield the Caliphate to Mu’awiyah and relinquish his pursuit of it until Mu’awiyah death. Hassan however would not outlast Mu’awiyah, as his life would tragically end as his father before him and the two Khalifa before him, at the hands of an assassin. Hussein, Ali’s second son abided by his brothers agreements and did not pursue the Caliphate while Mu’awiyah was alive, understanding that it would pass back to him upon the death Mu’awiyah. Upon his death Mu’awiyah’s son Yazid attempted to usurp the Caliphate from Hussein.
The Shi’a see Yazid as a dissolute and illegitimate ruler who usurped Caliphate and betrayed the Prophets line. More then anything Yazid is seen as the one who commanded his armies to go against Hussein in what would become known as the Battle of Karbala. In an attempt to force Hussein to accept his leadership Yazid sent a force of at least 4,000 soldiers who surrounded Hussein at the Iraqi city of Karbala. After demanding his acceptance from Hussein and his family, Yazid was refused which angered him so much that he ordered them all killed. Hussein led a force of 72 men plus their women and children against the 4,000 or more soldiers from Yazid, the resulting slaughter would mark one of the most important dates in Shi’a history. Hussein and his followers were slaughtered and by many accounts their heads were brought back to Yazid. The heroic tales of Hussein and his men against insurmountable odds caused revolts and rebellions for almost 12 years.
The division between what would become known as the Sunni and Shi’a was now set. The lineage of Mu’awiyah and Yazid established the Umayyad Dynasty, passing the Caliphate down a hereditary line while pushing the Shi’a further away. In 750 CE the Umayyad dynasty had been all but destroyed by Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah during the Battle of Zab (on the shores of the Great Zab River in Iraq). When Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah, with considerable support from the Shi’a, overthrew the ruling Umayyad dynasty the Shi’a assumed that the great grandson of Hussein, Jafar As-Saiddiq would be made the Khalifa. However the arrangements for the ascension of Jafar had not been finalized when Abu Al Abbass died in 754 and Al Mansur, Abu Al Abbass’ son, in turn killed Jafar so that he could seize the Caliphate for himself. Al Mansur founded the Sunni dominated Abbasid Dynasty, which lasted until the thirteenth century.
The Prophet Muhammad led us in both our physical and spiritual needs, and so it has been that religion and politics have become entwined in Islam. The most common ways to control people are politics and religion, so it is not that hard to see how and why political leaders have used and manipulated religion to further their own causes as have religious leaders used and manipulated politics to suit their own needs. So it has been for over 1300 years, the political machinations of corrupted leaders have led to hardening of a division which should not exist, causing retaliatory actions from one side or the other as they seek retribution for the wrongs of the past.