The Split between Sunni and Shia

The Split between Sunni and Shia

As noted earlier, very early in the history of the religion, the Islamic elite had strong disagreements concerning grave issues affecting the umma. Among the most bitter, and certainly the longest lasting, was the rupture that occurred over the political succession to the Prophet. What came to be known as the Sunni-Shia split was a result of the different claims to the leadership of political Islam and developed over a period of decades; the rift took place for the most part in Iraq.

But the Sunni-Shia issue was not the only bone of contention among the nascent Muslim elite, for jealousy and resentment among those who had been the earliest converts and companions of the Prophet (al-sahaba) and those who had joined the faith much later on (mostly elders of the Quraysh tribe) threatened to tear apart the earlier consensus. The people of Medina looked askance at the inhabitants of Mecca, while movements of incipient rebellion stalked the new settlements in Iraq.

Without question, the most serious issue the young community had to face after the Prophet’s death was who to appoint as successor and on what basis was the succession to be guaranteed. One group believed that the Prophet had already designated a successor, and that man was Ali ibn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. According to this faction, a few weeks before his death, the Prophet had stopped at a place called Ghadir Khumm and uttered the momentous words “He for whom I was the master, should hence have Ali as his master” (Enayat 1982, 4).

Further, this same group reinforced their support for Ali by arguing that only the most knowledgeable should rule, and who was better versed and better informed of the true spirit and import of Qur’anic teachings than the Prophet’s closest relative? Finally, Ali’s partisans believed that only the persons who were intimately associated with the Prophet possessed the attribute of isma (infallibility and purity), a belief that was later to grant the imam Ali and his line neardivine status.

This party of Ali supporters was in the minority, however. The majority prevailed and came to be known as the Sunnis (because they adhered to the sunna, or prophetic tradition). This bloc believed that rather than attaching the offi ce to a certain family line, the community of Muslims should choose the person best suited as political leader.

The key for the Sunni party was ijma, or the consensus of the community, signifi ed by the baya, or oath of allegiance (sealed by the clasping of hands) to signify loyalty to the new leaders. While the overwhelming majority eventually followed what came to be known as the Sunni position, the strains introduced among the community by the fi rst public disagreement between fellow Muslims continued to rankle, especially among those people for whom Ali had become a political cause of the highest signifi cance.

But it was only after Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656) was proclaimed the third caliph, following Abu Bakr and Umar, that the simmering hostility between Ali’s supporters and the Umayyad branch of the Quraysh tribe came out in the open. Members of the Quraysh, although the Prophet’s tribe, were late converts to Islam and thus their sincerity to the Islamic cause was sometimes questioned by other Muslims.

Although Uthman was a member of the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh, he was one of the most fervent supporters of the Prophet’s mission and had become a Muslim early. Ultimately, it was not the strength of his conviction that brought him down but his nepotism and the corruption of his government. Uthman’s overdeveloped sense of family obligations and the promotion of his Umayyad relatives over more capable people, plus the liberal distribution of land grants to favorites, eventually brought upon him the wrath of his subjects and a group of rebels assassinated him in 656.

Ali ibn Abu Talib (r. 656–661), who had been passed over three times, fi nally succeeded to the caliphate, becoming the fourth and last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-rashidun), original companions of the Prophet named leaders of the community after his death. Almost immediately, Ali’s succession became a point of contention with Uthman’s very ambitious nephew Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor of Syria. The tribal code of justice, still honored by the Arab inhabitants of the newly settled regions of Iraq and Syria, required vengeance for Uthman’s death.

Because some of Ali’s supporters were implicated in Uthman’s murder, the responsibility was placed on Ali by Muawiya to fi nd and prosecute the killers (Morony 1984, 485). As a result, Ali was forced to rule fi rst in Medina and then in Kufa under the shadow of an unresolved murder, and even though he was able to defeat other mutinies to his rule (including one in which the Prophet’s last and favorite wife, Aisha, was an active participant), Muawiya’s challenge was too formidable to ignore.