If there is anything we can learn from the history of religions, it is the truth behind Freud’s notion of the ‘narcissism of small differences.’ From Arius being exiled and (perhaps) poisoned in the fourth century for suggesting that the Son of God did not exist before Jesus’ birth, to the ‘Great Schism’ between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches over such things as a single word in the Nicene Creed and the use of leavened versus unleavened bread, we see this dogmatic obsession with small differences playing out in the Christian tradition all the time. In Islam, meanwhile, it is most clearly evident in the Sunni-Shi’a divide.
I do not mean to belittle the importance that this has in the lives of individuals, communities and countries worldwide. Obviously, what seem like petty quibbles to outsiders are in fact deeply meaningful issues, the conclusions of which having broad and significant ramifications. And once separated, communities continue to evolve and develop in their own ways, with many more differences coming to join the original one over time.
The root of the Sunni-Shi’ite problem is basically a leadership challenge. The Prophet Muhammad was more than just a prophet: he was also a political and military leader, and when he died in 632 CE, he left behind a fledgling Islamic state. Although he was pretty clear on the fact that he was the last prophet (although the Baha’is still put this to one side), there obviously needed to be a political successor, and unfortunately Muhammad was not 100 per cent clear on that point. Most people in the community saw the question as entirely political, and advocated for Abu Bakr, a close companion to the Prophet and father of his favourite wife Aisha, to take the lead. Others thought that the Prophet had appointed his son-in-law and cousin, Ali, as sole interpreter of Islam, and thus political leader as well. Both sides had evidence for these claims, however it came down (as ever in these matters) to a numbers game, and Abu Bakr became the ruler or Caliph.
Ali did eventually go on to become the fourth Caliph, however he was later assassinated while praying – by members of a third group opposing all potential Caliphs on the basis of a Qur’anic verse stating that only Allah can be the decider – and leadership returned to the followers of Abu Bakr. Discontent among the Shi’at Ali (the Party of Ali) continued in subsequent centuries, and as the regions of the Middle East, Asia and Europe under Islamic rule grew and eventually fragmented, certain areas came to be ruled by these ‘Shi’ites.’ The vast majority of Muslims continued to be followers of Abu Bakr, and came to be known as ‘Sunnis.’ The name is derived from the word sunnah – literally meaning a well-trodden road – referring to the commonly accepted practices of Islam as derived from the behaviour and teachings of the Prophet.
There are numerous theological differences between the sects today. For example, Sunnis believe that imams are merely human, and thus they continue to lead Sunni Muslims in prayer worldwide; while Shi’ites believe the line of imams, as infallible spiritual exemplars, paused in the ninth century when the current imam – the Mahdi – disappeared. For all Muslims, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who will return (Shi’a) or come for the first time (Sunni) with Christ at the end of time.
Geographically, Shi’ite majorities exist in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, however significant populations also reside in Pakistan, India and Turkey. Sunnis form the majority in all other Muslim countries and constitute approximately 80-90 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. Tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, along with other sects and religions, have taken on political meanings across the Islamic world, interacting with local demographics and politics in various ways. Bashar al-Assad, for example, is a Shi’ite, ruling a Syrian populace that is 74 per cent Sunni, and explicitly religious Sunni organisations have been among those involved in the opposition to his regime.
If you want more information on Sunnis and Shi’ites in the modern world, the relevant campus society is the Sydney University Muslim Students Association (http://www.sumsa.org.au/).