The schism between the two forms of Islam was in the process of forming upon the death of the Prophet Mohammad pbuh. Different branches of the same religion are the exception more than the rule, and they have had a profound impact upon history. Soon afterwards the death of Prophet Muhammad pbuh, those who believed in a special place for the role of the Prophet’s family became the Shias, while those who believed that all Muslims were equally capable of ruling became Sunnis.
The Muslims have continued to debate this matter; the Prophet and the Quran are ambivalent about it. On the one hand, there is a firm assertion of the equality of all Muslims. On the other hand, there are a number of hadith that the Shia holds up to support their claims about Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s special status as the heir of the Prophet Mohammad. The most significant one is the event of Ghadeer Khumm. On 18 Zil al-Hijrah 10 AH, while returning from his Farewell Pilgrimage, Prophet stopped at Ghadir Khumm to make an announcement to the pilgrims. Prophet Muhammad gave the famous proclamation “Anyone who has me as his Mawla, has Ali as his Mawla”.
Ultimately, upon Prophet Mohammad’s death, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, subsequently Umer Bin Khattab second, Usman Ibn Affan third and Ali Ibn Abi Talib fourth Caliph. After the death of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, his son Hassan Ibn Ali was declared Caliph. Meanwhile, Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufiyan pushed hard, bringing first Egypt and then larger areas of Arabia under his dominion. Muawiyah broke from the traditions of the Rashidun by not simply declaring himself Caliph, but the position would be passed down within his family. After Muawiyah’s death, Yazid became Caliph and at the refusal of allegiance to his Caliphate by Hussain Ibn Ali, his army killed Hussain Ibn Ali along with his family and companions at Karbala. The use of force by Umayyads, first against Ali Ibn Abi Talib when he was Caliph, then against Hassan ibn Ali and then the barbaric use of force against Hussain Ibn Ali at Karbala fuelled the unending divide and hatred between Umayyads and the House of Prophet pbuh.
The Umayyad dynasty lasted for only 89 years, but during this time, they held the single Muslim Caliphate together as a political entity and extended its borders into Spain, Portugal, Maghreb in Northern Africa, Sindh, and the Caucasus Mountains, making it one of the largest empires the world had ever seen
The Umayyad dynasty lasted for only 89 years, but during this time, they held the single Muslim Caliphate together as a political entity and extended its borders into Spain, Portugal, Maghreb in Northern Africa, Sindh, and the Caucasus Mountains, making it one of the largest empires the world had ever seen. But the Berber Revolt opened a full point of increasing instability and weakness, leading to increased taxes, declining central control, and finally the Abbasid Revolution of 750.
At its pinnacle, the powerful Shia Fatimid Dynasty was the only true challenger to the Sunni political domination of the Islamic world after the death of Ali. The Fatimid reached their peak in 1069, when they held all of North Africa, the Sudan, the Levant, and the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and within this region, they held a remarkable level of religious tolerance, including allowing Sunnis to rise to political office. The Fatimid established the mosque and madrasa of Al-Azhar in Cairo. This essence of learning drew upon not only Muslim traditions, but also Greek Christian scholars from Alexandria and eventually Jewish scholars as well. It became the most important centre of learning, but after Saladin Ayubi’s conquest of the city, it was converted over to Sunnism. Nevertheless, the Fatimid power was weakened by the betrayal of the Berbers to the Abbasids, the Crusades, and Turkic invasions of the Levant. They ultimately fell to the Sunni Sultan Saladin Ayubi in 1174, and Saladin recognized the Abbasid’s religious authority.
For the Abbasids, the Shia Imams always presented an existential threat, but unlike the Umayyad, who justified their rule based upon military victory, the Abbasids relied upon the Shia argument that their stock within the clan of the Prophet Muhammad and direct descent from his uncle Abbas gave them special authority to rule. At the same time, it was undeniable that the Shia Imams held the better claim to rule by being descended directly from the Prophet via his favourite daughter Fatimah and his beloved, pious and gallant son-in-law and cousin, Ali. Therefore, by arguing for their own legitimacy, the Abbasids also made a strong case for the legitimacy of the Imams.
The Sunni-Shia conflicts that characterized this period ended abruptly in 1258, the year the Mongols invaded the Abbasid Caliphate and conquered the city of Baghdad. The previous collapse of the Fatimid Dynasty meant that in that location was no powerful Shia political force to move into the vacuum. This invasion shook the Sunnis in particular to the nucleus, as it was the first time that their Empire was seriously threatened by a non-Muslim force and the first time that they could not point to the military successes of the Islamic Empire as evidence of God’s grace.
In the far north of the Islamic world, in the city of Ardabil near the Caspian Sea, a semi-secret order of mystical Sufis called the Safaviyya had existed since the late 13th C. The Safaviyya Order grew in prominence throughout the region and slowly transformed from promoting Sufism to Twelver Shi’ism. In the 1400s, the Order gained a militant aspect and set about to build a territorial base for itself, and in 1501, Ismail the leader of the Order which had been an inherited position for centuries eventually declared himself Shah. His new empire was Twelver Shia in character, and the resulting dynasty was called the Safavids.
The Safavids went about recreating the territory of the ancient Persian Empire that had been conquered by the early Rashidun Caliphate, and at their peak, they controlled all of today’s Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as large areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Georgia, parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. After centuries of Arab political control, the Persians enthusiastically embraced the new identity and, after a time, were willing to fuse their ethnicity with the Shia religion.
As the Safavid dynasty emerged, the Ottoman Empire as the standard bearer of Sunni Islam. The Ottomans reached the status of world power in 1453 when they seized the city of Constantinople and set themselves up in the heartland of the old Byzantine Empire. This situation was reinforced in 1517 when the Ottomans conquered Egypt, deposed the Abbasid Caliphs, and claimed the Caliphate and control of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem for themselves. Their first real war was fought from 1532-1555, and they continued to spar regularly until the early 19th century, when European colonialism forced them both onto the defensive.
The most significant development in the differences between the Sunni and the Shia in modern history has been the development of a new school of thought in Sunni religiosity: Salafi or Wahhabi Islam. The Wahhabis date their history back to the mid-18th century. The Wahhabi Saudi troops took advantage of the pandemonium of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I to seize control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Shia, Sunni, or Wahhabiagrees on the basic principles of Islam, such as believing in one God, Prophet, and the Holy Quran. They pray five times, fast during the month of Ramzan, perform Hajj and Umrah, and celebrate Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Azha, but choosing Ali or Abu Bakr after the Prophet pbuh doesn’t make one non-Muslim. You may concur or disagree with me, but in my views the divide between Muslims is more political than religious.
The writer is a traveller and freelance writer based in UK