Understanding The Islamic Divide


The rift between Shia and Sunni 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 Mohajirs (emigrators) while the people of Yathrib, who took them in, were called Ansars (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 Constitution of Medina 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 (Khalifa) 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 Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law as successor. The final determination was made at Saqifah where the Prophet’s Mohajirs friend  Umar successfully split from the Ansars and promoted a fellow Mohajir;  Abu Bakr as successor. Over the next few years the newly formed Rashidun Caliphate grew to encompass North Africa and Iran. Over time, the Khalifate leadership was passed down from Abu Bakr, to Umar (Mohajirs) to  Uthman ibn Affan (Mohajirs). 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 Fitna, Ali faced off against opponents or his rule. A group of Mohajirs led by Uthman’s cousin Muawiyah, 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 Hasan ibn Ali 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. Yazid, Muawiyah’s son, demanded that Hussein ibn Ali (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 Battle of Karbala, Yazid’s army defeated Hussein’s forces. Venerated to this day by many Shias, the day of Ashura 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 as Sahih al-Bukhari have 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

Twelver-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 Isma’ili-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 (Tughlugh Timur). These converts and their descendants built the Mughal Empire, along with the Sunni Turks who built the Ottoman Empire, 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, an Alawite-Shia minority 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 Salafi 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.


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    • Just wanted to point out a small error in your article… See Abu bakr was to succeed prophet Muhammad… It was evident from an incident from prophets life… And under dint promote him… Hope u correct it.. 🙂

  1. And you forgot to mention the Eid-e Ghadir, where the Prophet(P.B.U.H) himself mentioned Ali a.s. to be his successor. This is mentioned in both the Sunni and Shia history however sunnis still oppose it.

  2. You missed a big part which is about muslims outside middle east.. like in central and far east asia, eastern europe, and africa! which consider to have the biggest population of muslims..

    • The distinction that separates is religious. That means differences can be political, sporting, business but the separations are religious. That is the divide and it is artificial so can never be resolved.

  3. Ignorant People getting controlled by the Authorities. Suni and shia both are just ignorant. They dont follow the real religion Islam only follow the man made religion.In Quran its said that : Hold Allah’s rope firmly and dont get divided into groups.( But they all are opposing this )

  4. I will never call someone a false muslim or tell someone that he isn’t following the real religion of islam, but I do agree that they shouldn’t be division among muslims. Muslims are a single brotherhood.

    “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore serve Me (and no other)” [Al-Anbiyah: 92]

    that is the verses of the quran that Anonymous quoted : “And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves;” [Al-Qur’an 3:103]

    Islam is a blessing, and if you have the light of islam in your heart, if you love Allah (Subhanahu wa ta’aala)and follow the teaching of the quran and the sunnah of the prophet Mohammad (pbuh)then you are Muslim, no need for all of those divisions.

    with that being said, it it not my place to judge of course, I wish the best for all of my brothers and sisters.

    May Allah always guide us to the straight path that will lead into Heaven.
    May allah bless us all and guide us to the right path and fulfill all our desires in this world and hereafter.

  5. Wow, trying to explain a medieval storybook to people today as if it has some relevance.

    You people are extremely amusing 🙂

  6. There is another mistake, the Ahadith of Ali (r.a.) are also in Sahih Bukhari and the other Sunni Hadith books, the Sunnis do respect Ali (r.a.) and also recognize him as the fourth Khalifa. The religious differences between Sunni and Shia came after him like you have written it, but at first it was all about politics…


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