The Origins of the Sunni/Shia
by Hussein Abdulwaheed Amin,
Editor of IslamForToday.com
The Shia shahadah (declaration of faith) states:
"There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of
Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh, the Successor of the
Messenger of Alláh And his first Caliph."
If you are already familiar
with standard Sunni beliefs, you will immediately
notice the addition to the shahadah regarding Imam Ali (ra),
cousin of the Prophet (pbuh), husband of his daughter
Fatima, father of Hassan and Hussein and the first
person ever to embrace Islam.
The term Shia or Shi'ite derives from a shortening of
Shiat Ali or partisans of Ali.
Ali is the central figure at the origin of the Shia /
Sunni split which occurred in the decades immediately
following the death of the Prophet in 632.
Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the "rightly
guided caliphs" (successors to Mohammed (pbuh) as
leader of the Muslims) following on from Abu Bakr
632-634, Umar 634-644 and Uthman 644-656. Shias feel
that Ali should have been the first caliph and that the
caliphate should pass down only to direct descendants
of Mohammed (pbuh) via Ali and Fatima, They often refer
to themselves as ahl al bayt or "people of the house"
[of the prophet].
When Uthman was murdered, Ali finally succeeded to the
caliphate. Ali was, however, opposed by Aisha, wife of
the Prophet (pbuh) and daughter of Abu Bakr, who
accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to
justice. After Ali's army defeated Aisha's forces at
the Battle of the Camel in 656, she apologized to
Ali and was allowed to return to her home in Madinah
where she withdrew from public life.
However, Ali was not able to overcome the forces of
Mu'awiya Ummayad, Uthman's cousin and governor of Damascus, who also refused to recognize him
until Uthman's killers had been apprehended. At the
Battle of Suffin Mu'awiya's soldiers stuck verses of
the Quran onto the ends of their spears with the result
that Ali's pious supporters refused to fight them. Ali
was forced to seek a compromise with Mu'awiya. But this
he was struck down by a Ibn Muljam, a Kharjite in 661.
Mu'awiya declared himself
caliph. Ali's elder son Hassan agreed to not pursuing
his claim to the temporal caliphate. He died within a
year, allegedly poisoned. Ali's younger son Hussein
agreed to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until
Mu'awiya's death. However, when Mu'awiya finally died in
680, his son Yazid usurped the caliphate. Hussein
refused to accept him as caliph; he was hopelessly
outnumbered, he and his men were slaughtered at the
Battle of Karbala (in modern day Iraq). Hussein's
son, Ali, survived so the line continued.
Yazid formed the hereditary
Ummayad dynasty.The division between the Shia and what
came to be known as the Sunni was set.
An opportunity for Muslim
unity arose in the 750's CE. In 750 except for a few
who managed to flee to Spain, almost the entire Ummayad
aristocracy was wiped out following the Battle of Zab
in Egypt in a revolt led by Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah and
aided by considerable Shia support. It was envisaged
that the Shia spiritual leader Jafar As-Siddiq,
great-grandson of Hussein be installed as Caliph. But
when Abbass died in 754, this arrangement had not yet
been finalised and Abbas' son Al Mansur murdered Jafar,
seized the caliphate for himself and founded the
Baghdad-based Abbassid dynasty which prevailed until the
sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
Theological Differences and Attempts at promoting Unity
The line of Mohammed (pbuh) through Ali and Hussein
became extinct in 873CE when the last Shia Imam,
Al-Mehdi, who had no brothers disappeared within days of
inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shias
believe that he was merely "hidden" and would return.
When after several centuries this failed to happen,
spiritual power passed to the ulema, a council of
twelve scholars who elected a supreme Imam. The best
known modern example of the Shia supreme Imam is the
late Ayyatollah Khomeni, whose portrait hangs in many
Shia homes. The Shia Imam has come to be imbued with
Pope-like infallibility and the Shia religious hierarchy
is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to
that of the Catholic Church within Christianity.
Sunni Islam, in contrast,
more closely resembles the myriad independent churches
of American Protestantism. Sunnis do not have a formal
clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer
non-binding opinions. Shias believe that their supreme
Imam is a fully spiritual guide, inheriting some of
Muhammad's inspiration ("light") . Their imams are
believed to be inerrant interpreters of law and
tradition. Shia theology is distinguished by its
glorification of Ali. In Shia Islam there is a strong
theme of martyrdom and suffering, focusing on deaths of
Ali and, particularly, Hussein plus other important
figures in the Shia succession. Shi`ism attracted other
dissenting groups, especially representatives of older
non-Arab (Mawali) civilizations (Persian,
Indian, etc.) that felt they had not been treated fairly
by the Arab Muslims.
Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam
- the Five Pillars - and recognize each others as
Muslims. In 1959 Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the
School of Theology at Al Azhar university in Cairo, the
most august seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the
oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (ruling)
recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari School of Law
to which most Shias belong. As a point of interest, the Jafari School is named after its founder Imam
Jafaf Sidiq who was a direct descendent through two
different lines of the Sunni Caliph Abu Bakr. And Al
Azhar University, though now Sunni, was actually
founded by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in 969CE. However,
there remain significant differences between the two
forms of Islam and these are what tend to be
emphasized. Many Sunni's would contend that Shias seem
to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted,
shunting them into the background and dwelling on the
martyrdoms of Ali and Hussein. This is best illustrated
at Ashura when each evening over a period of ten days
the Shias commemorate the Battle of Karbala, with a
wailing Imam whipping the congregation up into a frenzy
of tears and chest beating. It is alleged that instead
of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shia harbor a
deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam and prefer to
devote their attention to winning over other Muslims to
their group. There is ongoing violent strife between
Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. On the
other hand, in recent years there has been
signification co-operation between the two groups in
the Lebanon. And some of the most
dynamic developments in Islam today are taking place in
Practical Differences .....
On a practical daily level, Shias have a different call
to prayer, they perform wudu and salat. They also tend
to combine prayers, sometimes worshipping three times
per day instead of five. The Shias also have some
different ahadith and prefer those narrated by Ali and
Fatima to those related by other companions of the
Prophet (pbuh). Because of her opposition to Ali, those
narrated by Aisha count among the least favored. Shia
Islam also permits muttah - fixed-term temporary
marriage - which is now banned by the Sunnis. Muttah was
originally permitted at the time of the Prophet (pbuh)
and is now being promoted in Iran.
Shias Today .....
overwhelmingly Shia. Shias also form a majority of the
Yemen and Azerbaijan and 40 to 50% of the population of
Iraq. There are also sizeable Shia
communities in Bahrain,
the east coast of Saudi
and in the Lebanon. The well known guerilla
organization Hizbollah, which forced the Israelis out
Lebanon in 2000, is Shia. Worldwide,
Shias constitute ten to fifteen percent of the overall
Within Shia Islam there are different sects. Most Shias
are "Twelve's", i.e. they recognize the 12 Imams. There
are also Sevener and Fiver Shias who don't recognize
the later Imams.
There have been various attempts throughout the years to
foster Sunni/Shia unity, one of the latest being a
website called www.oneummah.net.
Please find below a commentary from a Shia encyclopedia
concerning Sheikh Shaltoot's fatwa plus the English
translation of the fatwa itself. Both were originally
posted on the One Ummah site where the original Arabic
version of the fatwa is also available.
At the very bottom of this
page, you will find what I understand to be a complete
statement of Shia beliefs.
Al-Azhar Verdict on the Shia .....
What follows is the Fatwa
(religious verdict/ruling) of one of the Sunni world's
most revered scholars, Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot
with regard to the Shia.
Shaikh Shaltoot was the head of the renowned al-Azhar
Theological school in Egypt, one of the main centers of
Sunni scholarship in the world. It should be of
interest to know that a few decades ago, a group of
Sunni and Shia scholars formed a center at al-Azhar by
the name of "Dar al-Taqreeb al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah"
which translates into "Center for bringing together the
various Islamic schools of thought". The aim of the
effort, as the name of the center indicates, was to
bridge the gap between the various schools of thought,
and bring about a mutual respect, understanding and
appreciation of each school's contributions to the
development of Islamic Jurisprudence, among the scholars
of the different schools, so that they may in turn
guide their followers toward the ultimate goal of
unity, and of clinging to one rope, as the well-known
Qur'anic verse, "Hold fast to the Rope of Allah and do
not diverge" clearly demands of Muslims.
This massive effort finally
bore its major fruit when Sheikh Shaltoot made the
declaration whose translation is appended below. It
should be made unequivocally clear as well, that al-Azhar's
official position, vis a vis the propriety of following
any of the Madhaahib (schools of law), including the
Shi'ite Imami school, has remained unchanged since
Shaikh Shaltoot's declaration.
For the readership's
reference the phrase "al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna 'Ashariyyah"
means the Twelver Imami Shi'ite School of thought which
comprises the overwhelming majority of Shi'ites today.
The phrase "Tw15elver Shi'ites" is used interchangeably
with "Ja'fari Shi'ites" and "Imami Shi'ites" in various
literature. They are merely different names for the same
school of thought.
"al-Shia al-Zaidiyyah" are a
minority among the Shi'ites, concentrated mainly in Yemen located in the Eastern part of Arabian peninsula. For a more detailed description of the
Zaidis vs. the Twelver Shi'ites, please refer to the
book, "Shi'ite Islam" written by the great Shi'ite
scholar, Allamah Tabataba'i, and translated by Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, and published by the State University of
New York Press (SUNY).
And as for Shaikh
Shaltoot's declaration ...
Fatwa (ruling) of Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot
Head Office of al-Azhar University:
"IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, THE BENEFICENT, THE MERCIFUL Text
of the Verdict
(Fatwa) Issued by His Excellency Shaikh al-Akbar Mahmood
Shaltoot, Head of the
al-Azhar University, on Permissibility of Following
"al-Shia al-Imamiyyah" School of Thought
His Excellency was asked:
Some believe that, for a Muslim to have religiously
correct worship and dealing, it is necessary to follow
one of the four known schools of thought, whereas,
"al-Shia al-Imamiyyah" school of thought is not one of
them nor "al-Shia al-Zaidiyyah." Do your Excellency
agree with this opinion, and prohibit following
"al-Shia al-Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" school of
thought, for example?
His Excellency replied:
1) Islam does not require a Muslim to follow a
particular Madh'hab (school of thought). Rather, we
say: every Muslim has the right to follow one of the
schools of thought which has been correctly narrated and
its verdicts have been compiled in its books. And,
everyone who is following such Madhahib [schools of
thought] can transfer to another school, and there shall
be no crime on him for doing so.
2) The Ja'fari school of thought, which is also
known as "al-Shia al- Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah"
(i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi'ites) is a school of
thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship
as are other Sunni schools of thought. Muslims must
know this, and ought to refrain from unjust prejudice
to any particular school of thought, since the religion
of Allah and His
Divine Law (Shari'ah) was never restricted to a
particular school of thought. Their jurists (Mujtahidoon)
are accepted by Almighty Allah, and it is permissible
to the "non-Mujtahid" to follow them and to accord with
their teaching whether in worship (Ibadaat) or
transactions (Mu'amilaat). "
Signed, Mahmood Shaltoot.
The above Fatwa was announced on July 6, 1959 from the
Head of al-Azhar University, and was subsequently
published in many publications in the Middle East which
include, but are not limited to: al-Sha'ab newspaper (Egypt), issue of July 7, 1959. al-Kifah
newspaper (Lebanon), issue of July 8, 1959.
" The above segment can also be found in the book
"Inquiries about Islam",
by Muhammad Jawad Chirri, Director of the Islamic Center
of America, 1986
FUNDAMENTALS OF FAITH OF THE SHI'Í IMAMÍ ITHNA ASHARÍ
Compiled by Ilyás Islám
THE SHAHADAH: THE DECLARATION OF FAITH
La iláha il Alláh, Muhammadan Rasúl Alláh, Alíyun
Rasulillah, wa Khalífa tuhu bila fasl. There is no god but
Alláh, Muhammad is the
Messenger of Alláh, 'Alí is the Friend of Alláh. The
Successor of the Messenger of
Alláh And his first Caliph.
USUL AL-DÍN: THE FUNDAMENTALS OF ISLAM
1) Tawhíd (The Oneness of Alláh)
2) 'Adl (Divine Justice)
3) Nubuwwah (The Prophethood)
4) Imámah (The Imamate)
5) Qiyámah (The Day of Judgment)
FURU AL-DIN: THE MAIN BRANCHES OF ISLAM
1) Salat (Prayer)
2) Sawm (Fasting)
3) Zakát (Poor-due of 2.5%)
4) Hajj (Pilgrimage to Makkah)
5) Khums (The Charity of 20%)
6) Jihad (To Struggle in the Path of Alláh)
7) Amr bil ma'ruf (To Promote the Good)
8) Nahy 'an al-munkar (To Forbid the Wrong)
9) Tawalla (Loving the Prophet's Family)
10) Tabarra (Shunning the Enemies of the Prophet's
THE PROPHETS OF ALLÁH (mentioned in the Holy Qur'án)
3) Núh (Noah)
6) Ibráhím (Abraham)
7) Ismá'íl (Ishmael)
8) Isháq (Isaac)
9) Lút (Lot)
10) Ya'qúb (Jacob)
11) Yúsuf (Joseph)
14) Músa (Moses)
15) Hárún (Aaron)
16) Dhu l-kifl (Ezzekiel)
17) Dawúd (David)
19) Ilyás (Elijah)
20) al-Yasa' (Elisha)
21) Yúnus (Jonas)
22) Zakaríya (Zakariyah)
23) Yahyá (John the Baptist)
24) 'Ísa (Jesus)
In a famous hadith (prophetic tradition), the number of
prophets given was 124 000. May the blessings of Alláh
be upon them all. Prophethood ended with Muhammad
(peace be upon him and his progeny). Then, Alláh deputed
Imams to guide us.
THE LAW-BRINGING PROPHETS
THE BOOKS OF ALLÁH
1) Sahífa (scroll revealed to Nuh)
2) Sahífa (scroll revealed to Ibráhím)
3) Taurat (the book revealed to Músa)
4) Zabúr (the psalms revealed to Dawúd)
5) Injíl (the gospel revealed to 'Isa)
6) Qur'án (the Koran revealed to Muhammad)
THE PANJATAN: THE FIVE HOLY ONES
Muhammad, Fátima al-Zahra, 'Alí, Hasan, Husayn
THE FOURTEEN MASUMIN: THE RIGHTLY-GUIDED
Muhammad, Fátima al-Zahra and the Twelve Imams
THE TWELVE IMAMS
1) Imam 'Alí ibn Abu Talib al-Murtadha (The Satisfied
2) Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtabah (The Chosen One)
3) Imam al-Husayn Sayyid al-Shuhudah (The Lord of the
4) Imam 'Alí Zayn al-Ábidín (The Jewel of the Believers)
5) Imam Muhammad al-Báqir (The Spreader of Knowledge)
6) Imam Ja'far al-Sádiq (The Truthful One)
7) Imam Músa al-Kazim (The Patient One)
8) Imam 'Alí al-Ridhá (The Accepted One)
9) Imam Muhammad al-Taqí (The Pious One)
10) Imam 'Alí al-Naqí (The Pure One)
11) Imam Hasan al-Askarí (The One with an Army)
12) Imam Muhammad al-Mahdí (The Rightlyl-Guided One)
The Twelth Imam is still alive. He is in a state of
occultation. He will reappear at a moment determined by
Alláh. He is the Awaited One who will spread justice
throughout the world.
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH OF THE TWELVER SHI'I
I bear witness that there is no god but Alláh and that
Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His servant and
Messenger, and that 'Alí, the Commander of the
Faithful, and the Chief of the Deputies of Alláh, is the
Imam whose obedience has been made incumbent by Alláh
on all people; and that Hasan and Husayn, 'Alí ibn
al-Husayn, Muhammad ibn 'Alí, Ja'far ibn Muhammad, Musa
ibn Ja'far, 'Alí ibn Musa, Muhammad ibn 'Alí, 'Alí ibn
Muhammad, Hasan ibn 'Alí, and the Living
One, the Mahdí (the blessings of Alláh be upon them
all), all the Imams of the believers and the Proofs of
Alláh for the whole of creation are my Imams, the
rightly-guiding and the pious. I bear witness that:
Alláh is my God, Muhammad is my Prophet, Islam is my
religion, the Qur'án is my scripture, the Ka'aba is my
qibla, 'Alí ibn Abú Tálib is my Imam, Hasan ibn 'Alí is
my Imam, Husayn, the Martyr of Karbala, son of 'Alí, is
my Imam, 'Alí Zayn al-'Ábadín is my Imam, Muhammad
al-Báqir is my Imam, Ja'far al-Sádiq is my Imam, Musa
al-Kádhim is my Imam, 'Alí al-Ridhá is my Imam,
Muhammad al-Taqí is my Imam, 'Alí al-Naqí is my Imam,
Hasan al-Askarí is my Imam, and al-Huja al-Muntazar is
my Imam. They, upon whom be peace, are my Imáms,
Masters and Intercessors before Alláh. I love them, all
of them, and shun their enemies in this life and the
I bear witness that: Alláh, the Almighty, the Exalted,
is the best Lord; that Muhammad, the blessings of Alláh
be upon him and his Family, is the best Prophet; and
that the Commander of the Faithful, 'Alí ibn Abú Tálib,
and his offspring, are the best Imams; and that the
message Muhammad brought from Alláh is true, death is
true, the questioning in the grave by Munkar and Nakír
is true, the Resurrection of the dead is true, the
appearance before Alláh is true, the Bridge (al-sirát)
is true, the Divine Scales are true, the dissemination
of the book of one's deeds at Doomsday is true,
paradise is true, and hell is true; and that there is
no doubt about the coming of the inevitable Hour of
Reckoning; and that the rising of the dead from their
graves is true.
THE POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES OF ALLÁH
1) Qadím: Alláh is eternal. He has neither a beginning
nor an end.
2) Qadir: Alláh is omnipotent. He has power over all
3) 'Alim: Alláh is omniscient. He is all-knowing.
4) Hai: Alláh is living. He is alive and will remain
5) Muríd: Alláh has his own discretion is all affairs.
He does not do anything out of compulsion.
6) Mudrik: Alláh is all-perceiving. He is all-hearing,
all-seeing, and is omnipresent. Alláh sees and hears
everything though he has neither eyes nor ears.
7) Mutakalim: Alláh is the Lord of the Worlds. He can
create speech in anything: the burning bush for Musa
and the curtain of light for Muhammad.
8) Sadiq: Alláh is truthful. His words and promises are
THE NEGATIVE ATTRIBUTES OF ALLÁH
1) Sharík: Alláh has no partners.
2) Murakab: Alláh is neither made, nor composed, of any
3) Makán: Alláh is not confined to any place and has no
4) Hulúl: Alláh does not incarnate into anything or
5) Mahale hawadith: Alláh is not subject to changes.
Alláh cannot change.
6) Marí: Alláh is not visible. He has not been seen, is
not seen, and will never be seen, because he has no
form or body.
7) Ihtiyaj: Alláh is not dependant. Alláh is not
deficient, so he does not have any needs.
8) Sifate zayed: Alláh does not have added
qualifications. The attributes of Alláh are not
separate from His being.