Islam: the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite

I realized today while studying for a Christian Missions exam that I couldn’t explain the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. I found a helpful description in the book World Religions: A Historical Approach by S. A. Nigosian. This in not meant to be a scholarly or profound post; I just though my readers might benefit from a refresher on the topic. Nigosian writes:

Although there are numerous groups within Islam, the major division is between the Sunni and the Shi’ite groups. The term Sunni derives from sunna, meaning “tradition,” community,” or “consensus.” The term Shi’ite (or Shi’ah) means “partisan.” The Sunni are in the majority; the Shi’ite comprise not more than fifteen percent of the total Muslim population. The Shi’ite and their various subsects are found mainly in Iran and to some extent in India. […]
The Sunni and the Shi’ite differ on two fundamental points: line of succession and religious authority. The Sunni follow a line of succession originated among the friends of Muhammad, beginning with Abu Bakr. The Shi’ite hold that succession in the leadership of Islam follows through the family of Muhammad; consequently, they consider that ‘Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, was the Prophet’s rightful successor. In the matter of religious authority, the Sunni maintain that the Qur’an, as interpreted by sunna (tradition) and the ijma’ (agreements among scholars), is the only authoritative basis for Islam. The Shi’ite insist that all Islamic religious authority is vested in an imam, who is infallible in all pronouncements regarding matters of doctrine and practice. All members of the Shi’ite group must recognize and submit to the authority of the imam. Most Shi’ite assert that there have been twelve imams since the death of Muhammad and that one more, who will herald the end of this world, is still to come.

Another helpful summary is the following, which I found here:

The Review asked nearly a dozen experts, from William R. Polk, author of “Understanding Iraq,” to Paul R. Pillar, the C.I.A. official who coordinated intelligence on the Middle East until he retired last year, to explain the region. Here, a quick distillation.

What caused the original divide?

The groups first diverged after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and his followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.

The group now known as Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shiites favored Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. After the 11th imam died in 874, and his young son was said to have disappeared from the funeral, Shiites in particular came to see the child as a Messiah who had been hidden from the public by God.

The largest sect of Shiites, known as “twelvers,” have been preparing for his return ever since.

How did the violence start?

In 656, Ali’s supporters killed the third caliph. Soon after, the Sunnis killed Ali’s son Husain.

Fighting continued but Sunnis emerged victorious over the Shiites and came to revere the caliphate for its strength and piety.

Shiites focused on developing their religious beliefs, through their imams.

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