The quote “Religion is never the problem; it’s the people who use it to gain power” rightly sums up the significance of crusades in our historical medieval period. It is been believed since ages that religious intolerance and wars have played an increasingly significant role in the conflicts across nations. The Middle East is one of the nations which has always been controversial for its strategic location and also for its religious conflicts.  The two major powers ruling in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, an Arab nation ruled by Sunnis majority and Iran, a Persian population controlled by the Shia majority. These two groups have been at odds for centuries and the split has fostered enmity between the two Islamic sects and created tension in the whole region. But the question arises that what lead to the split of Islamic religion into the two rivalries.

Sunni and Shia are the two major sects of Islam which share the most fundamental beliefs and doctrines of the Islamic religion. They do differ however, this difference stemmed initially, not from spiritual distinctions but from political ones. Over the years, these political contradictions have given birth to varying practices and actions which have come to carry religious significance. The great divide dates back to the death of Prophet Muhammad during the 7th Century. This dreadful event raised a question of who would take up the leadership in his place. It also created the institution of Caliphate where the leader of the community became the successor of the Prophet.

A large group of people belonging to the Islamic community believed that there is no rightful heir to Prophet and therefore the most capable one for the job should be elected for the throne. This large group came to be known as Sunni- the word Sunn in Arabic means one who follows the tradition of the Prophet who now constitute more than 85% of the Muslim population and thus dominate the community. Sunni Muslims agreed with many of Prophet’s companions and wanted his close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, to become the first caliph of the Islamic nation. On the contrary, a hand full of orthodox and traditional Muslims believed that the leadership should remain within the Prophet’s family and therefore should be directly passed to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali Bin Abu Talib. They came to be known as Shia Muslims which make up only 10% of the entire population. Shiites believed that the Imam has been directly appointed by the Prophet or God himself and hence followed their teachings. They had no faith in the elected Muslim leaders since they didn’t always have the direct bloodline to Muhammad.
As the tension emerged during this period, the two sects started disliking each other’s beliefs. But the violence between the two sects became intense when eventually Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph. Two of the earlier caliphs were murdered and a war erupted after Ali’s succession. The fourth caliph was killed in a fight near a town in Iraq. But the war didn’t end with this death and was continued by his son Hussein. Hussein rejected the rule and stood up against the caliph’s army. Finally, Hussein’s death divided the two branches of the Muslim community never to be united again. The martyred held a spiritual power for Shiites and his death is commemorated as Ashoura.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims all over the world. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are predominantly Sunni. Significant Shia populations are concentrated in Iraq and Iran. Large Shiite minority groups are also located in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Stemming from the initial question of political leadership, the two groups differ in their spiritual lives as well. In this sense, many communities compare the two denominations with Catholics and Protestants as they share common teachings but practice them in a different fashion. Shiites believe that Imam is sinless by nature and his teachings are infallible since they come from God himself. They esteem Imam as the only legitimate interpreter of the Quran and still believe that the 12th Imam who went into occultation was taken by God and will come back at the end of the time. They believe him to be their Messiah. This sect gives importance to hierarchy and the clergy stems from the bloodline of Muhammad. Sunnis however, allow government intervention and for them appointing leaders is a big community process as they have no faith in the Shiite belief. Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for the hereditary class of spiritual leaders and certainly no basis for Imam and regarded them more like saints. They argued that leadership is not a birthright, rather a trust that is earned and given or taken away by the people.

Based on their different beliefs, their praying practices also differed in a sense that when Sunnis prayed five times a day, Shias condensed the five prayers into three sessions. Sunnis regarded praying at the graves as a sin and were equivalent to asking somebody for help other than Allah. Shiites rather promoted and encouraged giving pilgrimages at the restricted area as they believed that the fellow Shiite who has passed away is still of the way of Allah and it’s the same as asking somebody else to pray on your behalf. Both the sub-divisions considered the five pillars of Islam as providing a structure or framework for a Muslim’s life just as pillars do for buildings.

This greatest split which took its roots in the 7th century has branched out in this 21st century and hence come down to politics and ravaged violence in most parts of the Middle East. The division has been creating tension in the area since ages and has damaged other neighboring nations with its heat of war. Shia-Sunni conflicts are emerging in Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Iraq and thus the divide is growing deeper across the Muslim world which has taken polarization and sectarianism to a new level. Though both the sects emerge from the same religion yet there are large religious distinctions between the two and that’s what makes religion so fascinating and pure.

(Written by Megha Mital for The Connectere)

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