The rift betweenand goes back to the very beginning of Islam.
The Ansars and the Mohajirs
Shortly after he began preaching, the Prophet Muhammad emigrated from the urban city of Mecca to the desert oasis of Yathrib (Medina). The companions that made the journey with him were called(emigrators) while the people of Yathrib, who took them in, were called s (helpers). The Ansars were a community divided into 2 competing tribes, the Khazraj and the Aws. Throughout the Prophet’s life, he constantly worked to mediate their quarrels through a variety of methods. The provided a framework for mediating these disputes.
Who Succeeds the Prophet?
After the Prophet’s death in 632 CE there was a sharp disagreement over who the correct successor () would be. Many supported the Mohajirs as the successors because they had lived their lives by the side of the prophet. Others instead supported the Ansars as an alternative and looked to appoint , the Prophet’s son-in-law as successor. The final determination was made at where the Prophet’s Mohajirs friend successfully split from the Ansars and promoted a fellow Mohajir; as successor. Over the next few years the newly formed grew to encompass North Africa and Iran. Over time, the Khalifate leadership was passed down from Abu Bakr, to Umar (Mohajirs) to . At the same time the Ansars refused to accept this leadership structure and did not believe in the direction of the Mahajirs. Deciding to take action to resolve their dispute, in 656 a group of Ansar rebels assassinated Uthman, appointing Ali as the new Khalifa.
Uthman’s Family versus Ali’s
Ali quickly went to work replacing Uthman’s family from prominent positions of power across the Empire. Although this pleased the Ansar people, it quickly alienated the Mohajirs. Conflict soon ensued and in a series of confrontations called the, Ali faced off against opponents or his rule. A group of Mohajirs led by Uthman’s cousin , whom Ali had tried to replace as the Governor of Syria, successfully overran Ali’s forces. Muawiyah had Ali assassinated for his actions and in doing so became the defacto new Khalifa. In an attempt to end the hostilities, Ali’s son reached out to Muawiyah and successfully negotiated a peace treaty between the two groups.
The Next Generation
After the death of Hassan and Muawiyah, their families inherited their positions., Muawiyah’s son, demanded that (Massam’s younger brother) bow and pledge his allegiance to him. Hussein refused. As a result the two sides went back to war against one another. On the 10th of Muharram 680 AD at the Yazid’s army defeated Hussein’s forces. Venerated to this day by many Shias, the as it is known marks the irreversible split between the Sunni and Shia.
The Sunni Shia Divide
Simply put, the supporters of Ali’s family became the Shia, while the followers of Uthman’s family became the Sunni. Although both Sunni and Shia believe in the same Quran, they have somewhat different books of hadith (sayings of the Prophet). Both sides censor the books of the other side and do not allow their people to follow them. For example Sunni books such ashave completely removed the words of Ali. Shia on the other hand make villians out of Umar and Uthman and have turned the defeats of Ali, Hassan, and Hussein into a integral part of their worldview. In this way stressing the importance of and glorifying sacrifice and martyrdom to further a cause.
From a political standpoint the constant argument over who should rule the Empire/Caliphate also had a direct effect on how religion is practiced by the two sides. Shia’s gave power to the prophets family after his death and because of this give their Imams much more latitude when interpreting the Quran. The Sunni’s on the other hand take a much more literal interpretation of the Quran as law.
Where They Are Now
-Shia Islam survived under both Abbasid and Mongol rule. There are around 200 million Twelver-Shias living in Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Bahrain today.
The-Shia Fatimid Caliphate also devolved into semi-autonomous Kingdoms before falling to a combination of Crusaders, Sunnis, and Civil War around 1170 CE. Today’s Ismaili-Shia Muslims are their spiritual descendants with approximately 25 million followers in India, Pakistan and Yemen today.
The Sunnis successfully converted the Mongol Western Khanates to Islam (). These converts and their descendants built the , along with the Sunni Turks who built the , while hanging on to the rest of the Muslim world. There are over 1.2 billion Sunni Muslims today.
Sunni Shia Relations
The vast majority of Muslim countries are ruled and populated by overwhelming Sunni majorities. Notable exceptions include Iran and Iraq, where Shias rule Shias. In Bahrain for example we see a Sunni minority rule over a Shia majority. In Syria, anminority rules a Sunni majority. As with any group of competing ideologies, there is much discrimination and social segregation which exists between the two sides. In recent years the emergence of the sect among Sunnis has created increased friction with Shias. Going as far as to call all Shias non-Muslims or at the very least transgressors.
There are two countries which compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. How this rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Today there are hundreds of thousands of organized sectarian militants spread throughout the regions capable of triggering a broader conflict. Despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics to reduce tensions through dialogue and non-violent means, many fear that Islam’s divide will continue to lead toward escalating violence and continue to threaten international peace and security.