Islam: Sunni and Shia

It is important to note that words like Imam vary in their meaning, i.e. Imam can mean anything from the leader of a Sunni Mosque to a leading Shia academic.

Muslims believe that their faith, Islam (submission to the will of God), the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity, with 1.6 billion adherents, (1.6 million, or 2.7% of total population of UK) has always existed and was progressively revealed through Abraham, Moses and Jesus, culminating in the revelations of the Angel Jibreel to The Prophet Muhammad, who was born in Mecca in 570, fled to Medina with his followers in 622 (the Hejira, from which the Islamic calendar is dated) and died in 632 in mecca which he had re-conquered. The revelations, which began in 610 and lasted throughout the Prophet's life, were gathered into the Qur'an, the Holy Book, supplemented by the Sunnah, a record of the practical example of The Prophet.

All Muslims adhere to the five basic pillars of Islam:

AT his death Muhammad left an Islamic community of approximately 100,000 on the Arabian Peninsula, the majority of whom - Sunni - chose Abu Bakr, his father-in-law and one of his trusted companions, as Caliph, as a political but not a spiritual leader, but a minority - Shia (abbreviation of Shiat Ali, followers of Ali) - chose Ali, the prophet's son-in-law and cousin, believing him to be the sole successor and interpreter in matters spiritual and political, personally designated by Muhammad.

Ali demurred but then accepted the authority of Abu Bakr. He later became the Fourth Caliph but was opposed by Aisha, the Prophet's favourite wife and daughter of Abu Bakr. Hussein, Ali's youngest son from his marriage to Fatima, one of Muhammad’s daughters, the third Shia Imam, was killed by the Sunni monarch-Caliph of Syria, Yazid, at Karbala, accounting for the Shia tendency to martyrdom. Both Shia and Sunni accept the legitimacy of the first four Caliphs. Thereafter, Sunni religious and political leadership merged but Shia followed a subsequent twelve Imams, descendants of Ali, before the twelfth is believed to have disappeared.

Whereas the Shia give marked precedence to those interpretations of the Hadith and Sunnah from the Prophet's family, Sunnis give equal weight to all interpretations from the 12,000 Companions and from their four major centres of learning. Both branches have their own Sects: the Wahabi are Sunni and the Sufi Shia. There is generally a high degree of tolerance between the two branches but the most extreme elements of one sect might regard the other - Wahabis vis a vis Shia worshipping at shrines - as heretical.

Shia believe that their Ayatollahs (signs of God) are earthly reflections of God. Shia believe that the twelfth and final Imam will be re-manifested as the Mahdi (Messiah), after a period of occultation, and restore the faith. There is, therefore, a sense of forward projection in the Shia branch lacking in the Sunni.

Until recently, Sunni polities were nominally theocratic with state-supported Islamic institutions while Shia polities separated civic from spiritual governance but the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. Since that event there has been increasing friction between the Sunni and Shia but whether religion is a critical factor or a proxy issue is difficult to determine. What is beyond doubt is that the emergence of Sunni fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia (Wahabism, leading in turn to Al Qaeda) and Shia politicisation in Iran (extending to Hezbollah in Lebanon) has led to a proxy war between the two countries.

The Sunni-Shiite Divide

CountrySunnisShiites & Offshoots
Afghanistan 84% 15%
Bahrain 30% 70%
Egypt 90% 1%
Iran 10% 89%
Iraq 32-37% 60-65%
Kuwait 60% 25%
Lebanon 23% 38%
Pakistan 77% 20%
Saudi Arabia 90% 10%
Syria 74% 16% (Alawites)
Turkey 83-93% 7-17%
United Arab Emirates 81% 15%
Yemen 70% 30%

Source: Congressional Research Service