The two major branches of Islam are the Sunni and the Shiite. The Sunni constitutes the majority of the world Muslim population. According to 21st century estimates there are 900 million Sunni adherents of Islam.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 BCE, he left no successor, all his sons having died before him. A majority of his followers elected from among the tribe of Muhammad a successor whom they considered fit. A small faction of followers disagreed and did not support the first three Caliphs. Caliph comes from Kalifah meaning successor of Muhammad.
The fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was the Prophets first cousin and close confidant. He was married to Fatimah, Muhammad’s daughter and was father of the Prophets grandsons Hasan and al Husayan. The dissenters accepted the fourth Caliph as the legitimate successor of the Prophet. They became the Shiites. They were originally a political faction, formed to support the Caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Talib. The name Shiite means ‘party of Ali’.
Ali was murdered in 680 BCE. The Shiites supported al Husayan as the next Caliph, but he and his small band of followers were mercilessly slaughtered at Karbala in 680 BCE. This created a rift – that has never healed- between the two factions, the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites.
The Sunnis hold that the theocratic state created by Muhammad, requires an earthly temporal leadership. The leader is determined by political considerations.
They recognize the first four Caliphs, and hold sacred the six books Hadith, that carry the spoken tradition handed down by the Prophet.
The Sunnis do not accept that their leader is divinely elected. They hold that the leader must be a member of the tribe of Muhammad but have developed a theory of election that permits allegiance to a de facto Caliph.
Sunni tradition incorporates the customs and views of the various communities that embraced Islam. Many Sunni traditions are not rooted in the Quran.
One tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shiite. They are in the minority everywhere except in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia they are a significant minority.
The Shiites flourished as a counter culture during the period of the development of the theological, philosophical and legal superstructure of the Sunnis.
Karbala, the place of the massacre of their Caliph designate, is an important pilgrimage destination for the Shiites. They do not accept the Sunni view that their leader should be from the tribe of Muhammad. They specify that the leader must be a male descendant of the union of Ali ibn Abu Talib and Fatimah.
The Sunnis believe that their leader is the political head of the state. The Shiites consider the leader to be a divinely appointed, Imam. The Imam is the sole authority on faith and law. Imams have superhuman knowledge and power. The Sunnis opposed this concept and the Imams were violently persecuted. Shiites believed that the suffering of their Imam was translated into divine grace for the followers.
Over the passage of time the Imam became a divine saviour who would deliver the faithful and punish the enemy.
Twelve Imams are revered by the Shiites. The 12th went into occultation and is expected to return as the Mahdi, before the Last Judgement. The Mahdi will restore justice on Earth.
The Shiite movement gained momentum among the Persians of Iran, the Arabs of Iraq and the Turks of Azerbaijan. In the 20th century Ruhollah Khomeini declared the Ulama, the religious scholars, to be the representatives of the Hidden Imam, and vested in them vast religious, administrative and legal powers.