Sunnis and Shias: Two Irreconcilable Factions of Islam


Sunnis and Shias: Two Irreconcilable Factions in Islam

By Saeed Qureshi

The succession issue of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) after his demise in 632 A.D., is the most crucial and paramount irreconcilable dispute in Islam. The Muslims were exposed to the dilemma as to who would succeed Prophet Muhammad to lead the nascent Islamic fraternity or the nation. Primarily it was a tussle or conflict between the two powerful tribes namely Ommyads and Banu-Hashim. Their tribal rivalry was in fact a spillover from their mutual conflict even before the advent of Islam and carried forward after the declaration of Prophet Muhammad to be the appointed Prophet of God. The Ommyads was one of the most prominent and powerful tribes in Mecca.

When Hazrat Muhammad declared his being the divinely ordained Prophet, the Ommyads were the leading among the other desert tribes to oppose this claim tooth and nail. The Umayyads were led by Abu Sufiyan who was one of the most noted and prominent tribal chiefs. His clan that he lorded over was not only materially well-off but was the custodian of the most reverend and respected shrine of house of God in Mecca (Baitullah).

That house had the white stone (later became black) that was believed to be brought on earth by Adam, the first human being and the prophet sent by God to earth. Their rivalry was so intense and vigorous that under the threat to his life and termination of his divine mission, that Prophet Muhammad had to clandestinely migrate to the city of Madian where the enjoyed enormous goodwill in absentia. He was accompanied by his closest companion Hazrat Abu Bakr who later turned to be his father-in-law and first successor of the Caliphate.

The city of Mecca was considered as a sacred place for a variety of reasons. But the most compelling reason was that it had idols that were worshipped by the people in the Arab peninsula. It was also associated with prophet Abraham and his son Ismael and their stay and emergence of water fountain by angel Gabriel. There were reported to be 360 idols ascribed with various powers. There used to be a yearly assemblage when the people from adjoining cities and village would throng to Mecca and celebrate a festival for several days.

But not only that Mecca city was a spiritually rallying place for the Bedouins and city dwellers but it was also a junction for the trade caravans and the travelers from the South to North and vice versa. The Banu Ommyads being the controllers and administrators of this most sacred stopover in the heart of desert would make all the arrangements for the stay of the travelers and visitors that would include from food, residence and other socio-cultural festivities. Thus, they would reap huge financial benefits besides enjoying a cultural clout and ascendency and prominence.

With the declaration of Prophet Muhammad to believe in one God and abandon idolatry the rivalry turned into enmity and thus the Prophet had to secretly leave Mecca for Medina where he had quite a sizable number of the followers who were ready to host him and support him both by way of spreading his faith which was named Islam and also to stand by him.

The Prophet was quite safe in Madina. Islam started spreading and the number of new Muslims increased rapidly. Thereafter with a large army of volunteers and the fighters he marched towards Mecca and conquered it. The Ommyads were dislodged, defeated and subdued but they were not demoralized. They waited for an opportune time to take the leadership of Muslims and to rule the lands conquered by the Islamic army.

After Prophet Muhammad’s demise, the rivalry for his succession became the main issue of contention between the clans of Ommyad and Banu Hashim to which the Prophet belonged. The Prophet had obliquely hinted many a time Ali’s brotherhood and closeness to him.  Those utterances gave Hazrat Ali and his wife Fatima (the daughter of prophet) the indication that Ali being Prophets’ cousin brother and closer to him since childhood would be the Caliph after him.

It didn’t happen and the three Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet one after other were all out of Prophets’ blood family. Ali assumed the Caliphate after the murder of the fourth Caliph Usman who was the most prominent scion and leader of Banu Ommyad clan. The second caliph was Hazrat Umar.

Ali was proclaimed the fourth Caliph in 656 AD. But his nomination was challenged by Amir Muawiyya, the son of Abu Sufiyan and the governor of Syria who also claimed to be the Caliph. Muawiyya was appointed governor of Syria by Usman, the third caliph. Amir Muawiyya was also a relative of caliph Usman and a prominent scion of the Ommyad clan. The conflict between these two stalwarts of Islam namely Muawiyya and Ali entailed battles for six years. Finally, it was decided to hold a kind of referendum of the prominent members and notable Muslims, in a mosque, to vote for one or the other claimant.

The verdict though called a ruse and deception by the pro-Ali Muslims went in favor of Amir Muawiyya. Thus, the conflict for imamate between the Umayyads and Banu Hashim further intensified. Later Ali was also killed by an assassin in 661 AD.  and this conflict for the Caliphate continued that entailed the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussain, the two sons of Hazrat Ali.

In 750 A.D. the Abbasids replaced Ommyads and ruled for about 110 years. They killed all the royal members of the Ommyad family. But one of them a young boy Abdur Rehman managed to escape and after great deal of hardships reached Morocco.  In subsequent time, he established a magnificent Ommyad empire in Spain that remained in place from 756 -1002 AD.

Later the Caliphate in Kufa was snatched by Abbasid who inflicted heavy losses on the scions of Ommyad family to the extent that even the last child of that family was killed. Only one person was able to flee to Morocco where he founded a magnificent islamic empire though under the nomenclature of Caliphate. The conflict between the pro Ali and Banu Hashim clan and that of Ommyad resulted into two bitterly rival Caliphates: one in Hijaz and the other in Iraq, Syria and even Persia. The Abbasid caliphate disintegrated in 861 AD. The Kharijites and Shias and Persians brought the Abbasids in power.

Unfortunately, that religious and power tussle continues to this day. Iran is the citadel of the followers of the Shia’ism or the Banu Hashim. The other regimes in the middle east are partly the Sunnis and partly run by the Shias. Apart from the regional conflict between Iran(Shia) and Saudi Arabia(Sunni) this conflict is spread to other countries such as Pakistan where their doctrinal rivalry continues and their mutual hatred caused unabated clashes and casualties. As such the Islamic fraternity is dived into two rival relgions that stand no hope to reconcile. There cannot be a compromise and give and take in matter of faith between the Sunnis and Shias for all time to come.

Ali the son of Abu Talib (the Prophet’s uncle) and the son-in-law of Prophet who was also his cousin brother had been, under the firm impression that since Prophet had been throwing hints about his extraordinary kinship and closeness, he was the best one and the most competent to don the noble mantle of Caliph after the demise of the Prophet of Islam.

Hazrat Abu Bakar or the first Caliph was not from the clan of Prophet Muhammad although he was very pious and also having the exalted status of being Prophet’s father-in-law. Ali was not pleased with the appointment of Abu Bakar. Thus, Ali remained indignant with this decision and didn’t take the oath of fealty to the new Caliph for a few months. He was again by-passed when Abu Bakar died and the second Caliph Hazrat Umar was chosen. Upon Umar’s tragic death at the hands of an assassin, Usman was chosen who was also from the Umayyad clan.

Finally, upon the death of the third Caliph, Ali also became Caliph but it was too late and by that time the Islamic fraternity living in Arab peninsula had been markedly divided into two groups: one with the Hashemite tribe or the so called the blood family of the Prophet comprising Prophet Muhammad, Ali the son-in-law and cousin brother of Prophet Muhammad, Ali’s wife Fatima and daughter of the Prophet and two sons Hasan and Hussein.

Politically and regionally Saudi Arabia professes Sunni brand of Islam based upon the Wahabi faith. On the contrary majority of Iranian population and the government follow the Shia creed. For several centuries, Saudi Arabia has been and still is the spiritual and religious center for the Sunnis while Iran is for the Shias. They are regional foes politically and also by virtue of unbridgeable religious discord.

The third Caliph Usman had appointed many of his kinsmen and relatives to prominent positions including the governors in various conquered territories. The proclaiming of Ali as the fourth Caliph, brought one of Othman’s relative Muawiyya, the governor of Syria in open revolt. The fighting between Muawiyya who also laid claim to be the Caliphate continued for 6 six years. Finally, it was decided to place this claim to an arbitration by a group of pious people to decide who enjoys more support by the notable Muslims. Ali agreed. But it was a trick by Muawiyya to deflate the heightening position of Ali as the probable Caliph.

By a ruse through a preconceived arbitration in the Shirjeel mosque, the legality of Ali was nullified against Muawiyya. Ali was deposed and Amir Muawiyya the governor of Syria was proclaimed as the Caliph of the Muslims.

The contrived pro-Muawiyya verdict was tremendously resented by the followers of Ali and supporters of the Hashemite tribe. The supporters of Ali were named as Kharijites. So, while Ali and his supporters didn’t accept that verdict, Muawiyya the governor of Syria became the elected Caliph of the Muslims. As such there were two Caliphs simultaneously of the Muslims.

The murder of Hazrat Ali by a Kharijite in 661, led to the end of the period of the orthodoxy and a peaceful transition of the successors of Prophet Muhammad. Thereafter the eligibility on the basis of good conduct and Islamic fervor, was set aside in nomination or the selection of the Islamic successor or the founder of Islam Prophet Muhammad. Instead from Muawiyya onwards the system of hereditary succession was established. As such Yazid the son of Muawiyya became the Caliph after his father’s death.

After Ali’s death two attempts were made by his two sons Hasan and Hussain to recapture the Caliphate from Ommyads. First attempt was made by Hasan the elder son of Ali against Muawiyya. Muawiyya routed the small contingent of Hasan and later through an offer of solicitation sent Hasan back to Medina with the offer of big monetary stipend where he led a life luxury until he died at the age of 41 because of the poisoning.

The second attempt of insurgency or rebellion was made by Ali’s second son Hussain who marched to Kufa with his family members and a contingent of around 200 fighters or supporters. At that time the Umayyads” Caliph was Yazid the son of Muawiyya. In the field of Karbala near Kufa, Hussain and his male supporters were brutally massacred. Thus, the Ommyad dynasty was firmed up and remained in power from 661-750 AD.

The Ommyads dynasty came to its end when Abbasids under the banner of a scion of the Hashemite clan Abul-al-Abbas captured the capitol Kufa in 749 AD. Abbasids took a barbaric revenge from the Ommyads. Abu Abbas, the leader of the Shiites was proclaimed the Caliph in 749 AD. The last ruler of the Ommyad dynasty Marwan 2nd was beheaded in Egypt outside a church in Egypt. Kufa situated on the Persian border became the center of power of the Shiites which it still is for these centuries.

With the movement of the Islamic capitol from Madina to Kufa, the influence of the Persians mostly fire worshippers turned Muslims grew dominant. Although these Persians embraced Islam but their ritualistic culture started influencing the Islamic polity. However, the reign of Ommyads marked the end of the Arab dominated period. Under the Abbasids, the image and contours of the Islamic Caliphate assumed an international character rather than remaining confined to Arab nationalism. However initially it was supported by Kharjis and Shias.

Saudi Arabia and most of the Arabian states profess the Sunni brand of Islam. On the contrary Iran is the spiritual center of the Shias around the world and looked upon as the second spiritual and religious center after Saudi Arabia. The discord between Shias and Sunnis is almost 1400 years old.  Besides the global friction between the Sunnis and Shias, the regional rivalry between these two Islamic states has divided the Middle East into two powerful rival colliding blocks within the fold of Islam.

The Shia and Sunnis ratio in number is roughly counted to be ten per cent of the Shias and 90 per cent of the Sunnis. The Shia’s main spiritual center is Iran. They follow the Shia theology and discard a great portion of the Sunni Islamic teachings and theology. Ali after his death in the mosque of Kufa was proclaimed as incarnated manifestation of God and an embodiment of Mysticism and divinity. Ali’s followers came to be known as the Shiites. The Shias still hold on to that belief and Ali is believed by a section of Shias to be a kind of an incarnate God. Shias believe that Ali is divine and his divinity is shared by his two sons.


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  1. Isn’t there a third sect? The exact opposite of the Whabis if I recall correctly. Very fun loving, musical, etc. The history of these sects sounds a lot like the “christian” sects.

    • When any religion is installed within a society, it will break into groups and disperse according to idiosyncratic applications of rules and versions of history. This guy, your guy , my guy their guy.
      Every culture claims to be the first, and they all believe they will be the last. Way more commonalities than differences in religions. Most disagreements between factions, are petty and nonsensical.
      Those people are crazy, WE only eat fish on Tuesday !! Special Hats !!

    • You may be thinking of Sufism, which is an interpretation of Islam (and beyond), not a sect.

  2. @Raja, a half-baked piece full of white-washing and inaccuracies. “Ana madinatul ilm wa Aliyyun babuha”. This plus many other clear sayings of our Prophet pbuh make it abundantly clear for those who do not have a veil over their hearts/minds who the righteous successor chosen by Allah was to be. Go peddle this trash elsewhere. Ya Ali.

  3. This graph does not reflect the ratio of alawi/bektasi/tahtaci/caferi (pro Chaliph Ali) people in Turkey correctly. Local sources mentions there are still over 15-20million alewi/bektasi/tahtaci people in Turkey which corresponds to 20-25%. Government in muslim countries try not to show their actual population and acknowledge their rights.
    They have faced several massacres / genocides in ottoman times, and still living under tough conditions in many parts of the world. Many who cold not resist these pressure may have converted to other sects… This is the main reason that the pro shia or affiliate sect shows much less ration than sunni sect in the world. After the profid Muhamed and 4rth Chaliph, the actual ratio was estimated to be 50 / 50. Their ratio (alawi and pro shia) was said to be up to 70 % before ottomans started their massacres in Turkey / Anatolia (1200-1400 AD).

  4. The greatest catastrophe to peace and the greatest mistake is to separate the spiritually connected persons. To keep those persons from each other for political reasons or for tradition sake is harmful. They have an innate pressure to travel, and to share knowledge and move about without bias. When this natural tendency is interrupted by politics, it causes these divisions. Ask them, and they will tell you, the connection begs to find commonality. The connection yearns for companionship amongst peers that are from other groups.
    So much knowledge has been lost by these separations and so much history has been distorted, that it now must be cured by a gathering. A thing not seen in thousands of years. That is what must be done. If only so much energy was put into that as other things. It is almost time. It will not be easy, but it will be very much better than what we are doing now. Something beautiful is going to happen, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. And everyone can feel it. There is no where else to go.

  5. Time and territory has an influence on religion and belief. 1400 years is not a long time. 3,000 years is not a long time. 10,000 years is not a long time. True origins are lost and spiritual leaders adhere to what their society and country needs. But, the spiritual connected people recognize each other regardless. Details of rules and laws and heredity come second to connection.
    So, I look for what all these have in common. 360 is not necessarily a polytheistic notion, but the segments of the solar year in time immemorial. The circle around the sun and the various influences those positions have on humans. This does not suppose polytheism but a central idea with various components. Politics and heredity and place are unique, but the universal is observation and connection. This is the anchor of all humanity to spirit. The Dirvish, the Imam, The elder of China, and the elders of the west agree,. the flavors and preferences change according to place and people, but the central connection is one energy. That is agreed. The confusion of polytheism is politics, and nothing more. The energies change each day and that is observable and trackable. It does not mean 360 gods, but perhaps 360 captains. That would be valuable information, No ?

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