Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, or an aide, Abu Bakr?


From: Philip Waring <>
Date: January 3, 2016

Note to my esteemed grandson,

Hey M!

I’m sure you probably know much about this already, — about the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, and that like me you probably find it hard to believe that so many thousands are today dying, especially in the Middle East, over whether Muhammad’s proper successor was a cousin, Ali, or an aide, Abu Bakr? Hard to believe, crazy, daft, ludicrous, isn’t it, that the blood feud between the Sunni and Shia (follower of  Ali) sects, begun at Muhammad’s death in 1632, some 1400 years ago, is still very much alive today.

And us, you and I, as we read today about all the horrible events, all the destruction and the killings, apparently based on what happened those 1374 years ago, and still taking place, as for example the recent Shia beheadings in Sunni Saudi Arabia, what are we doing?—well nothing at all, certainly nothing to stop it, the killing and all the rest. Rather, we’re into other things, more important things, as in my own case going to the Apple Store at the International Mall here in Tampa to get a close look at the new technological marvel and labor saving device, the iPad Pro, with a view to replacing my 2010 MacBookPro.

And you and your young friends, you who are right now in the business of entering the world for the first time, and searching and finding a place there for yourselves, you have to somehow make sense of it all, the absurdity of all that’s happening, don’t you, while it really doesn’t make any sense, does it?


Sunnis and Shiites praying together in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit Hassan Ammar/Associated Press


How do Sunni and Shia Islam differ?

by John Harney
in the New York Times, 1/3/16

Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr could escalate tensions in the Muslim world even further. In the Shiite theocracy Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, would face “divine vengeance” for the killing of the outspoken cleric, which was part of a mass execution of 47 men. Sheikh Nimr had advocated for greater political rights for Shiites in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries. Saudi Arabia had accused him of inciting violence against the state.
Here is a primer on the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.

What Caused the Split?

A schism emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. He died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community, and disputes arose over who should shepherd the new and rapidly growing faith.
Some believed that a new leader should be chosen by consensus; others thought that only the prophet’s descendants should become caliph. The title passed to a trusted aide, Abu Bakr, though some thought it should have gone to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali eventually did become caliph after Abu Bakr’s two successors were assassinated.
After Ali also was assassinated, with a poison-laced sword at the mosque in Kufa, in what is now Iraq, his sons Hasan and then Hussein claimed the title. But Hussein and many of his relatives were massacred in Karbala, Iraq, in 680. His martyrdom became a central tenet to those who believed that Ali should have succeeded the prophet (it is mourned every year during the month of Muharram). The followers became known as Shiites, a contraction of the phrase Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali.
The Sunnis, however, regard the first three caliphs before Ali as rightly guided and themselves as the true adherents to the Sunnah, or the prophet’s tradition. Sunni rulers embarked on sweeping conquests that extended the caliphate into North Africa and Europe. The last caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

How Do Their Beliefs Differ?

The Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam encompass a wide spectrum of doctrine, opinion and schools of thought. The branches are in agreement on many aspects of Islam, but there are considerable disagreements within each. Both branches include worshipers who run the gamut from secular to fundamentalist. Shiites consider Ali and the leaders who came after him as imams. The 12th imam, a boy, is believed to have vanished in the ninth century in Iraq after his father was murdered. Shiites known as Twelvers anticipate his return as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Because of the different paths the two sects took, Sunnis emphasize God’s power in the material world, sometimes including the public and political realm, while Shiites place great value in martyrdom and sacrifice.

Which Sect Is Larger, and Where Do They Live?

More than 85 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni. They live across the Arab world, as well in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are largely Shiite. The Saudi royal family, which practices an austere and conservative strand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, controls Islam’s holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. Karbala, Kufa and Najaf in Iraq are revered shrines for the Shiites.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shiite powers in the Middle East, often take opposing sides in regional conflicts. In Yemen, a Shiite movement from that country’s north, the Houthis, overthrew a Sunni-dominated government, leading to an invasion by a Saudi-led coalition. In Syria, which has a Sunni majority, the Alawite Shiite sect of President Bashar al-Assad, which has long dominated the government, clings to power amid a bloody civil war. And in Iraq, bitter resentments between the Shiite-led government and Sunni communities have contributed to victories by the Islamic State.

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