Schisms in Islam and Christianityby Rit Nosotro
Analyze the Islamic theological divisions (Sunni versus Shiite) with the divisions within Christianity. Were Christians faced with similar causes for disunity as those faced by the Muslims?
The two largest religions of this world, Christianity and Islam, have both undergone a major split. For instance, since Mohammed left no specific instructions about who was to succeed him as the leader of the Muslims, the controversy eventually split the Muslims into two groups. In the early Christian church, questions about the nature of Christ and the Trinity caused groups of people to leave the Roman Catholic Church. The Muslims and the Catholics dealt with these problems using different means.
The disputes in the Catholic Church concerned whether Christ was actually the son of God or just a remarkably good man. There were other problems as well. One of these was a debate about whether Christ had one nature or two.
One idea, Sabbellianism, said that Jesus was a good man so filled with the Holy Spirit that he became God. Arius proposed a second idea: Christ was a person created by God at the beginning of time to save people. Arius was excommunicated, but a sufficient number of the clergy agreed with him that Constantine intervened. He called a counsel of all the bishops at Nicea in 325. Arianism and Sabellianism were declared heresies and the Nicene Creed, which stated the Trinitarian beliefs, was produced. However, Arianism continued to be popular, probably because it was much easier to understand than the idea of the Trinity. It continued to cause grief and consternation to the Catholic Church until the end of the 4th century.
Once the church got rid of Arianism, a new debate arose: Did Christ have only one divine nature or did he have two personalities in one body? The Church took the position that he had two separate but mingling natures and declared the other ideas heretical in 431 and 451.
The basic solution seems to have been getting rid of the trouble makers, either by murder or excommunication. Their problematic ideas, when all who openly believed in them were excommunicated, died out in a short time. The two methods both appear to have been reasonably successful.
Although Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox split in 1054, the greatest split in the Christian Church occurred during the reformation of Martin Luther in the 16th century. There were several movements in the medieval church, which anticipated the Reformation by opposing the corruption in the church and criticising the Catholic teachings not found in scripture. The Catholic-Protestant split was different than the Sunni-Shiite split. The Protestants felt that they had to reform the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Sunni-Shiite split was rather due to a power struggle and question of political (i.e., spiritual) leadership.
The Muslim controversy was about who would be the caliph (religious leader) after Umar, the second caliph following Mohammed. Being caliph at that time was an extremely powerful position: Mohammed had wished to conquer the earth, and those succeeding him vigorously pursued this end. The first caliph after Umar, Uthman, was murdered after 12 years. Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, became the next caliph, but met with wide-spread opposition, including that of his mother-in-law. Five years later, after several wars with other Muslims he too was murdered. The next caliph, Muawiya, started a dynasty which lasted 15 generations: the Umayyad Caliphate. This caused the Muslims to split because one group, the Shiites, wanted Ali’s son Hussein to be the next caliph, while the majority, known as Sunnis, were in favor of the Umayyad caliph.
The line of Mohammed through Ali and Hussein became extinct in 873 AD when the last Shiite Iman, Al-Askari, who had no brothers, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. However, the Shiites did not want to accept that he died; instead they believed that he was merely “hidden” and would soon return. After several centuries, this still did not happen and spiritual power was passed down to a council called the Ulema, which consisted of twelve scholars who elected a supreme Imam. The best example of a Shiite Imam was probably Ayyatollah Khomeni, whose portrait still hangs in a lot of Shiite homes. The Shiite Imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility and the Shiite religious hierarchy is quite similar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church within Christianity.
Sunni Islam, on the other hand, more closely compares to the myriad independent churches of American Protestantism. No one person is appointed as head of the religion. Sunnis have scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions; however, they don’t have a formal clergy. For the Shiites, their Imams are fully spiritual guides, who have inherited some of Mohammad’s inspiration. Their Imams are thought to be inerrant interpreters of law and tradition. Shiite theology is distinguished by its glorification of Ali. In Shiite Islam there is an extremely strong theme of martyrdom and suffering, particularly focusing on Ali and Hussein, plus other important figures in the Shiite history.
Even though there are great differences between Sunnis and Shiites, they do agree on some aspects. Both agree on the core fundamentals of Islam, the Five Pillars. Similarly, most Catholics and Protestants agree on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, such as the inerrancy of the Bible and the basic doctrine of salvation through the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Most Shiites and Sunnis also recognize each other as Muslims just like most Protestants and Catholics recognize each other as Christians.
However, there remain significant differences between the two forms of Islam. Many Sunnis would contend that Shiites seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, more or less ignoring them and putting martyrdom into the spotlight. The best example of that is the Ashura, when each evening over a period of ten days the Shiites relive the battle of Karbala, with whipping the congregation up into a frenzy of tears and chest beating. Instead of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shiites devote more attention in winning over other Muslims to their side. Just like the forms of Islam, the two major groups of Christianity also have some great differences. Catholics for example, pray to Saints such as the Mother Mary. This is one aspect the Protestants disagree with. The Protestants believe that after death one goes to Hell or Heaven. The Catholics believe in an idea of the doctrine of purgatory, which gives one a second chance to go to heaven after death.
There is ongoing violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan, just like there is a violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, there has been a very good co-operation between the two Muslim groups in Lebanon. And some of the most dynamic developments today are taking place in Shiite-dominated Iran. A similar co-operation, known as the ecumenical movement also exists within Christianity.
It is interesting to see that the differences between the two branches of the greatest religions of this world are actually faced with quite similar problems. Both religions have conflicts and major differences within themselves. On the other hand, both religions are attempting to unite on certain issues. As long as man is involved in organising and promoting religion, there will always be divisions and disunity.
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