The Basis of Shi’ah-Sunni Discord
By: Dr. Israr Ahmad
The following paragraphs about Shi’ah-Sunni differences are written from a Sunni perspective; Shi’ah Muslims may not agree with all of it.
The history of the Shi’ah-Sunni Conflict is almost as old as that of the Muslim Ummah. Only 25 years after the death of the Prophet (saw), internal discord and a series of civil wars started. This has been referred to in the history books as the “Al-Fitnatul Kubra” or the Great Discord. What was the cause of this internal conflict?
Every revolution is followed by counter-revolutionary movements, which seek to overthrow the new order and to revert back to the previous system. Many of these counter-revolutionary movements were dealt with by the first Caliph, Abu Bakr (raa). However, there were still two groups who openly resented both Islam and the Prophet of Islam, and these were the Jews of Arabia and the Persians. The Jews were angry because they were expecting the final prophet to be one of the Israelites, and they could never accept and reconcile themselves with the fact that he turned out to be someone from the Gentiles. (The envy of the Jews of Madinah is mentioned in Surah Al-Baqarah. It is also mentioned there that they refuse to believe in the Prophet even after recognizing him as the promised one, only because of their jealousy and arrogance). The other group that never accepted the ascendancy of Islam were the Persians, who developed a special hatred towards the second Caliph, Umar (raa), under whose era Iran was conquered. Indeed, it was a Persian man who killed Umar (raa).
During the later years of the Caliphate of Uthman (raa) an underground conspiracy was hatched, led by Abdullah Ibn Saba, a Jew who had outwardly converted to Islam, in order to produce political unrest. The conspiracy succeeded, mainly because a lack of proper communication facilities in those days made the spread of rumors against the Khalifah rather easy. This resulted in a rebellion against Uthman (raa) on various fabricated charges of nepotism, and he was martyred in the course of the rebellion. In this chaotic situation, Ali (raa) became the next Caliph. A disagreement arose among the Muslims about the killers of Uthman (raa). Some demanded that the killers, who were hiding among the supporters of Ali (raa), must be punished immediately. Ali (raa) was of the opinion that we need some sort of order and peace to return before we can do this. These two groups were known as the “Shi’ah of Uthman” and the “Shi’ah of Ali” meaning the pro-Uthman and the pro-Ali parties. As you can see, this was a purely political disagreement, not a religious one. The “Shi’ah of Uthman” later became known as the “Sunni” and the “Shi’ah of Ali” became just “Shi’ah.”
The Shi’ah community has four points of distinction as compared to the Sunni Muslims. The first is the school of jurisprudence they follow, which is Fiqh Jafari, and it is just like Fiqh Hanafi, or Maliki etc., except that “Muta’h” or temporary marriage is considered lawful by the Fiqh Jafari, whereas it is prohibited in all the Sunni schools. The second is the Shi’ah belief in the “infallible Immamate,” which means that only a genuine “Imam” who will be a direct descendent of Ali (raa) and Fatima (raa), can authentically lead the Muslims. The Sunnis believe, on the other hand, that the trait of “infallibility” no longer exists after the termination of Prophethood. There are a number of divisions among the Shi’ah, e.g., the “Twelvers” believe that the 12th Imam disappeared and went into seclusion somewhere 870 A.D., and that he will reappear to lead the Muslims (the promised “Mahdi”). The Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the promised “Mahdi” will be a normal human being, an Arab Muslim who will lead the struggle for the domination of Islam sometime in the future. Thirdly, whereas the Shi’ah community believes that the first three Caliphs, Abu Bakr (raa) and Umar (raa) and Uthman (raa), were usurpers, and that only Ali (raa) was the rightful successor of the Prophet, the Sunnis believe that all four of the “Khulafa” were rightfully chosen by the Muslims and none of them was a usurper. Fourthly, the Shi’ahs accept only those Ahadith (traditions of the Prophet (saw)) which are transmitted by the household of the Prophet (Ahl Al-Baiyt) by which they mean Ali (raa), Fatima (raa), and their two sons, Hasan (raa) and Husain (raa) and their descendants; they refuse to accept the traditions which are transmitted by most of the other Companions (Sahaba) of the Prophet (saw).
It may be noted that Sunni scholars have criticized the beliefs of the Shi’ahs for hundreds of years, and have written a very large number of books to refute the Shi’ah beliefs. Some scholars have even declared the Shi’ahs to be kafirs. However, there has been no consensus on this, i.e., there has been no collective verdict of apostasy (Kufr) against the Shi’ahs (as was given in the case of the Qadiyani community), and therefore the Shi’ahs too are considered Muslims, despite their having beliefs which are against those of mainstream Sunni Islam.
Finally, note that during the early centuries of Islam, Shi’ism was synonymous with an attitude of uprightness on the part of the descendants of Ali (raa) and Fatima (raa), and their courage to speak out against the rulers and to resist their unjust actions even in the face of oppression. The present sectarian version of Shi’ism is a later development which took shape especially during the rule of the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501-1732). The Safavids wanted to foster a distinct religious identity in Iran so as to maintain the population’s loyalty in the conflict against the powerful Sunni Ottoman Empire, and for this purpose they had imported Shi’ah Ulama from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and provided them with wealth and power. This distinction between the Alavid and the Safavid versions of Shi’ism was emphasized by Dr. Ali Shari’ati. According to some analysts, the Iranian revolution has revived the Alavid Shi’ism, and the Safavid Shi’ism is on the decline. According to them, the stress is now gradually shifting towards the dynamic teachings of Islam and the Muslim Ummah’s unity, rather than hairsplitting on historical, doctrinal, or juristic matters. If this happens, it would be very beneficial for the Muslim Ummah