Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Understanding the Difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims

The following is a post Canon Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, posted on his blog earlier today. I think it is excellent information for those who don't understand the differences, and an interesting take, seeing as he is both a Christian and someone facilitating reconciliation between the two factions. He does delve into politics, and, as I do try to steer clear of politics, the opinions are solely his own. 
(Reprinted with Permission) 
-The Archer

by Canon Andrew White

A large amount of my work now days is concerned with reconciliation between Shia and Sunni. The conflict between the two has been widely publicized in the media. Yet the vast majority of people do not even know what the differences of these two are. I therefore want to go into significant detail about these two major strands of Islam so that people understand the fundamentals of this issue.

In Christian terms the difference can be seen like the difference between Catholic and Protestant two strands with the same creeds. They used to kill each other regularly not so long ago and sadly we have seen similar violence and murder between Sunni and Shia. Both are Muslims who fundamentally share the same Islamic beliefs. Their differences are not primarily theological but historical. They date back to the very beginning of Islam regarding who would take over from Mohammed. Over the years several different practices and have developed and these in turn are seen as carrying certain spiritual implications.

The separation dates back to the death of Mohamed. Who was going to take over from him? There were those who thought that the leadership of Islam should be placed under the controls of the companions of Mohamed who were proven capable leaders. There were twelve people who were seen as the right leader team and they became known as the Caliphs. Those who held to this position gave birth to the group that became known as the Sunnis. They where originally lead by one called Abu Bakr. Whom along with Imar, Aisha does the Shia reject. As is much of they’re etching about Mohamed. The Sunni see themselves as orthodox traditional Muslims. This diversity results in a considerable difference in practice on prayer, pilgrimage and fasting. The word Sunni comes from “Ahl al–Sunna” which literally means the people of the tradition. They see that their tradition is closer to Mohamed and the prophets mentioned in the Koran. Though Mohamed seen as the final prophet is seen as the ultimate and there are not seen as key people such as Imam Ali and Husain to the Shia. Such leaders after Mohammed are all seen as being merely temporal. The Sunni have also traditionally come under stat control, whilst in reality in countries such as Iraq and Iran the Shia clerics are the real ultimate authority.

This results in a major difference in practice between Sunni and Shia. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni (about 85%) therefore Shia are a minority but the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The major division is about the issue of hereditary leadership passed through the hereditary line from Mohammed through his son in law Imam Ali.

Thus believe in a hereditary leadership was correct believing the rule of Allah passed through a particular line. Ultimate in their beliefs is in the historic Imams. They are seen as being sinless in their very essence, with total authority coming from Allah. The historic Imam’s are venerated like saints and their tombs are venerated as shrines. Pilgrimage to these shrines is a very regular occurrence. This group did not look to the original three caliphs but to Imam Ali. He was both the Cousin and Son in Law of Mohamed. He was seen as the rightful heir of Mohamed and those who follow this tradition are the Shia. A great significance is based on the whole issue of linage to Imam Ali. Anybody in his line is called a Sayed (Sir) and to this day all the Imams of this lineage wear a black rather than white turban.

Shia Islam is not known about much in the West. They are often referred to as Shia Militia and known as the militants who control Iran and have carried out negative activity in Lebanon. The fact is that the majority of Shia are a peaceful and wonderful people. Our relationship to them is particularly very close. Shia Islam is very hierarchical, orders are passed down from the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani based in Najaf a very holy Shia town in Iraq where Imam Ali is buried and has his shrine. The grand Ayatollah is surrounded by the Majoria the other four Grand Ayatollah’s who are next in line to Ali Al Sistani.

When there was a particular onslaught against the Christians in Iraq the Shia offered the Christian sanctuary and protection. The general feeling amongst the Christians is that the Shia will protect them. Most of the recent attacks on Christians have been from a very small section of the Sunni.


Reconciliation between Shia and Sunni is key in Iraq. The extremists are in both groups. There divide dates back over 1000 years but it is greater than ever. Much of our work has been bringing these two strands of Islam that have been so much against each other because of their years of difference. It is the leaders of these groups that listened to each other over two years and became best friends with each other. It is this group that we have remained close friends of. They trust us and we love and give to them and at one level it is working.
The fact is that much if the violence is caused by the Sunni extremists. Many of these are linked to the Whabbi and Salafi movements that come out of Saudi Arabia. Included in this group is Al Qaida and those connected to them. At a previous meeting of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq after a major massacre of Christians a joint Fatwa (Religious injunction) was issued by both the Shia and Sunni together. This was a major sign of reconciliation and it was done to protect the minorities from murder. The Fatwa worked immediately and no Christian has been killed from that day. This is a wonderful example of how reconciliation saves lives.

I get very frustrated when I hear that what is simply needed is advocacy with governments, diplomats and foreign ministries. These people can do nothing about such crisis but they can put pressure on governments to support organizations like ours to fund their engagement on such work. We were very fortunate the Danish Government came up quickly with all the funds to support our engagement. Providing all the security in the world would not provide the security needed. What made the difference was that the very people we were dealing new the people committing the violence. They could put pressure on them to observe the Fatwa and stop their evil ways. What came out of this meeting was complex intelligence so I cannot share it all here but we then managed to have a very productive meeting between all the relevant coalition ambassadors and our delegates. One thing I can mention is how these terrorist cells were training and using children to be suicide bombers.

No comments: