Sunnis and Shiites

Islam     Session Nineteen

Item #5, bullet #1 of outline:  Sunnis and Shiites

We all know there are Sunni and Shiite Muslims.  Is there a real controversy between them?  If so, what is it all about and when did it start?

Yes, there is a controversy between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and it started with the death of Muhammad.  Muhammad made no provision for how his successor as leader of the Muslim movement would be determined.  The faction that came to be known as Sunnis believed that any Muslim could be the successor and that he should be elected by the Muslim community.  The faction that became known as Shiites (frequently referred to as Shia or Shias in the literature) believed that the successor to Muhammad had to be in Muhammad’s hereditary line.  At the time of Muhammad’s death the only person who qualified was Ali ibn Abi Talib (“Ali”), Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law (he married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima).

The Sunnis controlled the succession process and the first three successors, three of the four “Rightly Guided Caliphs”, were not in Muhammad’s hereditary line.  The fourth was Ali whom the Shiites consider to be the first Imam – the first divinely appointed Caliph (more about Imams later).

Over the centuries, in addition to the “proper successor to Muhammad” controversy, other differences in religious practice, traditions and customs developed.  The controversy is real, hot and at times lethal.

Some factions of the Sunnis such as the Salafists (a movement within Sunni Islam which takes a fundamentalist approach to Islam; similar to Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia) consider the Shiites to be a greater enemy of Islam than the Jews.  To quote Mohammed al-Barrak, a Muslim professor and member of the Muslim Scholars Association of Saudi Arabia:  “The damage inflicted by the Shiites on the Muslims is more than that inflicted by the Jews.”  He further stated: “Shiites are the Muslims’ worst enemy because they are polytheists in terms of belief and religion . . .  .” (al; 2/11/15)

Historically, the Sunni/Shiite controversy has been manifested by warlike conflicts between the two groups, and even conflicts between Sunni and Sunni, and Shiite and Shiite.  Most notably, the eight-year (1980-1988) war between Iraq and Iran was Shiite versus Shiite, although Sadam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq was a nominal Sunni.  This continual rancor within Islam is one factor in the lack of overall unity in the world of Islam.

Today, about 85% of Muslims in the world are Sunni and about 14% are Shiite (1% are neither Sunni nor Shiite).  Iran and Iraq have the highest percentage of Shiites with about 95% and 70%, respectively.  The only other countries with Shiite majorities are Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

Caliphates, Caliphs ,Sultans, Mullahs, Imams, Ayatollahs

There is no formal hierarchy in the religious element of Islam.  However, there are political leaders and religious leaders.  The authority, duties, responsibilities, structure, etc. of these leaders and their organizations have evolved over 14 centuries.  Below are some brief comments on Caliphates, Caliphs, Sultans, Mullahs, Imams and Ayatollahs:

  • Caliphate.  Caliphate is the name given to the Islamic Empires after Muhammad.  There have been two recognized caliphates – The first began at Muhammad’s death with Abu Bakr being the first Caliph and ended in 1258 when Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who executed the last Abbasid caliph.

The second Caliphate was the Ottoman Empire which reigned from 1299 to 1924 when the Caliphate was abolished after World War I (See session 16 for a more detailed discussion of the Ottoman Empire).

  • Caliph.  The ruler of the Caliphate.  During the first empire there were also some “would-be” caliphs who carved out their own lesser “caliphates” and emirates such as :  the caliphate of Cordoba (Spain), the Fatimid caliphate of northeast coastal Africa and, at times, all of the coastal areas of North Africa, the Idrisid Caliphate of the area of modern Morocco the Aghlabid Emirate of Tunisia, the Samarid Emirate of Central Asia, the Saffarid Emirate of Persia, the Umayyad Emirate of Spain and others.
  • Sultan.  The Sultans were the rulers of the Ottoman Empire.  The first Sultan was Osman I of the House of Osman and all succeeding Sultans were of the House of Osman.
  • Mullahs.  A Muslim educated in Islamic theology and the sacred law (Koran, hadith and sharia).  In some areas of the Muslim world it is the name given to mosque leaders.
  • Imams.  Sunni and Shiite Muslims both have imams, but they are viewed differently, and this difference is a major source of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.                                                                                                                                  
    • Sunni imams: The imam for Sunni Muslims is the one who leads Islamic formal prayers.  The term is also used for a religious scholar or authority in Islam.  They are not divinely appointed and the twelfth imam is not the Mahdi (see explanation of the Mahdi in discussion of the “Twelvers” below).
    • Shiite imams: The imam for Shiite Muslims is a figure of absolute religious authority, divinely appointed and sinless.  They are leaders who must be followed since they are appointed by Allah.


The largest branch of Shiite Muslims is known as the “Twelvers.”  The Twelvers believe there have been twelve imams, ordained by Allah, to be successors to Muhammad.  The first eleven have all died, but number twelve is alive and in a transcendental state (since 873 AD) waiting to be called by Allah .  This twelfth imam is the “Mahdi”.  According to Twelver theology, the Mahdi will return in the end times to bring justice to the world.  His return will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ who will assist the Mahdi. Please note that Islam’s concept of Jesus is radically different from the Jesus of Christianity.  A Muslim believes Jesus

– was/is not God,

– was not crucified,

– was the last prophet to Israel,

– was/is a Muslim.

  •  Ayatollahs.  Ayatollah (“Sign of Allah”) is the highest ranking title given to a Shiite Twelver.  They are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, ethics and philosophy and usually teach in Islamic seminaries.  Probably the most well- known Ayatollah was Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran who helped overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979 and thereafter became Iran’s “Supreme Leader”.

Next session we will begin an examination of the Muslim Culture.