Sunni and Shiite branches of Islamby Rit Nosotro
Compare/contrast the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam in their theology and culture, and review its effect on History.
Although there have been other splits among large religions, such as the Great Schism between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthadox, no split has led to as much bloodshed as that between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with over one billion followers, and growing at a rate of about 20% per year.1The religion has two major branches: the Sunnis, with 940 million believers, and Shiites, with 120 million. These two sects also each have their own branches and divisions, including the well-known Wahhabi sect of the Sunnis. The major groups have some very important distinctions that continue to affect the history of the world.
The split between the Muslims was formed over the years when attempting to select caliphs. The third caliph was murdered after twelve years in power. Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, became the next caliph, although with much opposition, including that of one of Mohammed's wives, and he was also murdered five years later. Next, Muawiya came to power in 661, beginning the dynasty known as the Umayyad Caliphate. By now the Shiites had fostered the belief that caliphs should only be from the line of Mohammed, while it simply did not matter to the Sunnis. Around 680 AD, the division officially occurred. Although the two parties agree on the basic tenets, they each eventually developed their own way of thinking and living.
One of the things they agree on is that Allah is one. God is the only god. Both also believe that Mohammed was the last prophet. They agree that one day Allah will resurrect all humans and question (not judge) their beliefs and actions. They believe that all of the "famous" sins such as murder, adultery, stealing, etc. are sins. Finally, they both agree on the five pillars of Islam. Otherwise they wouldn't be Muslims, would they? But there are quite a few more disagreements with the two branches than agreements.
According to the Sunnis, Allah has a body, although it is not exactly human. They interpret parts of the Quran literally where it talks about his leg, face, and hand. The Shiites say Allah does not have a body. Shiites say that Allah will never be seen, and the Sunnis believe Allah can be seen, on earth and in the afterlife. Another theological difference is the Shiites believe Allah commands something because it is a good thing (and does not command something because it is bad). Sunnis think that because Allah orders it, it makes it good. So, according to the Sunnis, if Allah orders you to murder someone it is not a sin. Shiites believe that Allah does not do anything that does not have a purpose, while their counterparts say Allah does some things aimlessly. Another important item is that the Shiites say Allah knows what we will do but does not make us do it. Sunnis say he creates all our acts. Shiites also believe that all prophets are sinless. Sunnis are split: Are they sinless their whole life or just since the beginning of their ministry? Do all sins count, or only infidelity? Does he have to sin intentionally or can it be unintentionally? These are major theological differences, but there are also differences in culture.
One of the things Shiites do differently from Sunnis is that during prayer they put their head on a piece of hard clay instead of the mat. Also, they combine prayers so sometimes they only pray three times a day as opposed to five. Shiites are also permitted "fixed-term temporary marriages", which is banned by the Sunnis even though it was allowed during Mohammed's age.
Logic dictates that God has and had a divine plan that included the Muslim division in 680 A.D. If the Muslims had all been united under one cause, would they not have been more powerful? Would they not have done more and more damage to the Jews and Christians? Would the Jews have even been capable of setting up their own nation in 1948 in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy? In these ways we can see God's perfect will through history. And He is not finished. The differences between Sunnis and Shiites still affect the world today. It is interesting that the Middle Eastern descendents of Ishmael continue to plot destruction against Israel as they have done for at least 3000 years.
"Come," they say, "let us destroy them as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more." With one mind they plot together; they form an alliance against you- the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, of Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal, [a] Ammon and Amalek, Philistia, with the people of Tyre. Even Assyria has joined them to lend strength to the descendants of Lot.
Obviously, the most profound impact is now felt in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Shiite population is about fifty-five percent. Sunni population is forty percent, and non-Muslims make up five percent. The 2005 elections revealed that no one group could run the country without the other. In Iran, almost any Muslim (actually ninety-three percent) is a Shiite.2 Despite being the minority, Sunnis dominated Iraqi politics while Hussein was in power which is what partly led to the decade long war between the two countries begining in the eighties. Millions were killed on both sides. Although the war has ended, Sunnis and Shiites are still fighting for power and pride today.
Splits in Christianity contrast with divisions in Islam. Yet the Christian Bible teaches that it is in God's nation of Israel where He will establish His kingdom. Because this region is dominated by Islam, the differences between the two branches will certainly continue to have an impact in the re-gathering of Israel, "that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth--in Him."3
up1Adherents.com. "Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents." World History. 6 Sep. 2002 <http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html>
The source for Sunni and Allah's body is: http://www.al-islam.org/encyclopedia/chapter9/2.html
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