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Shi'ites, Sunnis ...

Confused about Shi'ites and Sunnis? We hear a lot about them in Iraq today but there seldom seems to be any explanation of who they are or what the main differences between them are. So here is a brief summary; it's taken from my on-line book on the Assassins (Isma'ilis), who were a sect within Shi'ism; see The Assassins of Alamut.

Historical summary

After the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 CE Islam was ruled in succession by four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the last of whom was 'Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law (he had married the Prophet's daughter Fatima). 'Ali found himself embroiled in bitter struggles concerning the succession and eventually he was murdered at the door of the mosque in Kufa; not long after this his son Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, was killed at the battle of Kerbela in which he was enormously outnumbered. This led to the great schism in Islam between the Shi'a (which means Party of 'Ali) and the Sunni. The Shi'ites are still utterly devoted to Husayn's memory and Passion Plays to commemorate his martyrdom are performed annually in Iran. Today, Iran is Shi'ite, but in the eleventh century it was officially Sunni.

All the Shi'ites regard 'Ali as the First Imam. The Imam is a spiritual authority of enormous prestige; indeed, within some of the Shi'ite sects he takes on quasi-divine status. The Imamate is passed on from father to son, but the succession of Visible Imams became broken at some point in the past and the Imam is now said to be Hidden. There are two main sects within Shi'ism, the Twelvers and the Seveners, who differ concerning the exact point at which the succession became broken. All agree until we come to the sixth Imam, Ja'afar as-Sadiq ("The Truthful"), who died in 765 CE, but this is where the dispute begins. Ja'afar originally nominated his eldest son Isma'il to succeed him, but later, perhaps because Isma'il was discovered to have drunk wine in secret, he revoked the nomination and chose instead another son, Musa.

The Twelvers, the division to which most Shi'ites today belong, accepted this revised line of succession. For them the Imamate was transmitted via Musa and his descendants to the twelfth Imam, Imam Mahdi, who disappeared at Samarra in 873/4 CE. He is supposed to return at the end of time to fill the Earth with justice. There seems to be a survival here of Zoroastrian ideas of the final victory of good over evil. (The "Mahdi" who led the "Fuzziwuzzies" encountered by General Gordon in the Sudan was supposed to be the Imam Mahdi reborn.)

The Seveners, in contrast, regard Isma'il as the seventh and last Visible Imam. Isma'il was said to have died during his father's lifetime, and indeed his body was shown publicly to prevent rumours that he was still alive. But some of the Shi'a refused to accept the reassignment of the Imamate to Musa. They said that the nomination could not be withdrawn, and that even if Isma'il had drunk wine this was done deliberately, to show that the "wine" forbidden by the Prophet was to be understood allegorically as meaning pride or something similar. And some continued to believe that Isma'il was really still alive or would return, or that the Imamate had passed to his son Muhammad -- who, according to some views, either was identical with his father or was a reincarnation of him.

This schism within Shi'ism occurred before the foundation of Cairo, which was accomplished early in the tenth century by the Fatimids. They claimed descent from Fatima via Isma'il though there is debate about the authenticity of this claim. Thus by the end of the tenth century there was established in Egypt a reborn Isma'ili Imamate. Egypt was brought back within Sunnism by Saladin in the thirteenth century.

Differences between Shi'a and Sunni today

I am not concerned here with abstract theological or doctrinal differences but with the way that religion is expressed at a popular level. In a Shi'ite country such as Iran you frequently see pictures of 'Ali, Hussain and other "saints" in taxis and elsewhere which are curiously reminiscent of Greek icons and Catholic saints' pictures. It would of course be wrong to push these resemblances too far, yet it is difficult not to notice the similarities in "feel". Putting it crudely, one could say that Shi'ism relates to Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, Sunnism to Protestentism.


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