The Split between Sunnis and Shiites

When Prophet Muhammad died in 632 the Muslims had a dispute: who should be his successor in leading the Umma? According to one Hadith – which is only acknowledged by the Shiites – Muhammad said on his last pilgrimage shortly before he died “He whose leader I am, Ali is his leader”[1].

Disputes for the leadership of the Umma

Directly after Muhammad’s death people didn’t know where they should burry him and who should lead the funeral procession. The one who’d lead it would also be Muhammad’s successor. Thus the Prophet’s corpse was lying in his mud hat for hours. One of his fathers-in-law, Abu Bark, then said that he heard Muhammad say that Prophets should be buried where they die. Nobody wanted to argue with him in this situation. Thus Muhammad was buried in his hat[2].

Many Arab tribes, Jews and Christians, who pledged allegiance to Muhammad before his death, became renegades. Not just few tribal leaders claimed to be the successor. During the tempered discussions Abu Bakr was able to remain calm. He said that Muhammad once said that only people from the Banu Quraysh (the tribal federation to which Muhammad also belonged to) could lead the Umma. A leader of the tribe of the Aus from Medina then said that Abu Bakr should become Caliph and thus Muhammad’s successor. The people in the streets of Mecca started to demand Abu Bakr, too. The idea became consensus and Abu Bakr became the successor[3].

His first official acts were pacifying all Muslims and to send troops to renegade tribes so that they could be reintegrated into the Umma. Further did the Muslims beat the Byzantines in what is today Palestine. In the same year Abu Bakr died and another father-in-law, Umar, of the Prophet became Caliph. He ruled until 644 and the Islamic Empire kept on expanding rapidly from Egypt to Persia. After his death Uthman was designated as the next Caliph and ruled until 656 when got killed, just like Umar before him[4].

Development of the “Shiat Ali”

The resistance of many of followers of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, became stronger under Uthman. Ali was married to Fatima, a daughter of Muhammad. It was the lineage of Muhammad’s descendants, which the Shiites call and worship as ‘Imams’. Uthman meanwhile tried to establish a dynastic rule. Yet the followers of Ali claimed that he was the legitimate successor of Muhammad and was ignored in this regard. Both sides started fighting each other[5].

His striving for a dynasty that should lead the Umma, combined with self-enrichment, ultimately lead the killing of Uthman by Egyptian delegates. The majority of the Muslims now demanded Ali to become Caliph. Influential military and tribal leaders were against Ali. It was the beginning of a bloody civil war. Syria’s governor Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan, a descendant of Uthman, was too strong for Ali. He couldn’t win over Muawiya in the battle of Siffin in 657. Both reached a deal then. Some of Ali’s followers were angry with this deal and finally killed Ali in 661. Those who were still loyal to Ali were called “Shiat Ali” (party of Ali) and constituted the Shiites today[6].

Formation of the Shia

In 680 the Shiites of Kerbela (in modern Iraq) invited al-Hussayn, one of Ali’s sons, to Kerbela so that he could become Caliph with their support. On 10 October 680 (10 Muharram 61 in the Islamic calendar) al-Hussayn was killed on his way to Kerbela by Muawiya’s troops. They killed all male companions except al-Hussayn’s sick son. Yet al-Hussayn went to Kerbela although he knew he might not survive this trip. This made him the first martyr for the Shiites. Even today the concept of martyrdom is highly important for all Shiites[7].

Al-Hussayn’s followers in Kerbela struggled since they felt they left their leader die. Having considered a collective suicide one of their members said that this is not possible since the Quran prohibits suicide as well as killing other Muslims. Yet another way was found: several gatherings took place in the house of the group’s leader Sulaiman ibn Surad. In there collective repentance helped them, which let to many rituals that are still distinctive for the Shiites today[8].

Each year on the 10th of the Islamic month Muharram, the day of al-Hussayn’s death, Shiites commemorate the Ashura-ritual. On this day the Shiites slash themselves in order to show that – if they would have the chance – they would have fought for al-Hussayn. According to the researcher Heinz Halm the Shia could only prevail through history by ritualizing the repentance. What happened with al-Hussayn is not an original sin, but is still a big flaw for the Shiites[9].

Out of political separation, theological distinctions developed

The separation at this time was solely political. Through their introduction of rituals the Shiites also started to distinguish themselves from their Sunni counterparts. Today Shiites consider the sayings of Muhammad (Hadith), Fatima’s, of all Imams and the Quran as the source of law (as for the Sunnis they only acknowledge Hadith and the Quran). Since they see all Imams as martyrs, the Shiites also consider them as intermediates between humans and God[10]. This is still a reason for many disputes between Sunnis and Shiites. Some Shiites even equalize God with Ali: today’s Alawites to whom Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad also belongs to. In the Shia are also different groups that all acknowledge another Imam as the last one: 5-Shia, 7-Shia and 12-Shia.

In Iran the 12-Shia is prevalent. On 25 December 873 or 01 January 874 the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari died. The 12-Shiites believe that he had a son named Muhammad. Since al-Askari was afraid that his enemies might kill his son, he tried to protect him by hiding him. After al-Askari’s death Muhammad is said to having seek refuge in a cave and is still living today, but is ‘lost in reverie’[11]. According to the 12-Shiites the proof for this claim is that the world still exists. If the last Imam would already be dead the world would cease to exist[12].

The Islamic Republic of Iran represents – according to its constitution – the empire of the 12th Imam and ceases to exist as soon as he returns and with a sword in his hand leads his followers to victory[13].

[1] Faath, Sigfried (Hrsg.) (Januar 2010): Rivalitäten und Konflikt zwischen Sunniten und Schiiten in Nahost (Berlin: Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.), S.28

[2] Konzelmann, Gerhard (1980): Mohammed – Allahs Prophet und Feldherr (Köln: Lingen Verlag), S.293-294

[3] Ibid., S.294-297

[4] Pieper, Dietmar und Rainer Traub (Hrsg.) (2011): Der Islam (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt), S.50

[5] Konzelmann (1980), S.306-307

[6] Pieper und Traub (2011), S.60-61

[7] Faath (Januar 2010), S.30

[8] Halm, Heinz (1994): Der schiitische Islam (München: C.H. Beck Verlag), S.29-31

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., S.43-44

[11] Faath (Januar 2010), S.33

[12] Halm (1994), S.45


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