Sunni and Shiites

Sunni and Shiites - Order Code RS21745 CRS Report for...

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Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress CRS Report for Congress Received through the CRS Web Order Code RS21745 February 23, 2004 Islam: Sunnis and Shiites Febe Armanios Analyst in Middle East Religions and Cultures Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division Summary The majority of the world’s Muslim population follows the Sunni branch of Islam, and approximately 10-15% of all Muslims follow the Shiite (Shi‘ite, Shi‘a, Shia) branch. Shiite populations live in a number of countries, but they constitute a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. There are also significant Shiite populations in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Sunnis and Shiites share most basic religious tenets. However, their differences sometimes have served as the basis for religious intolerance, political infighting, and violent confrontations. This report includes a historical background of the Sunni-Shiite split and the differences in religious beliefs and practices between and within each Islamic sect as well as their similarities. This report will not be updated. Related CRS products include CRS Report RS21432 and CRS Report RS21695. Historical Background The differences between the Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects are rooted in disagreements over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 AD, and over the nature of political leadership in the Muslim community. The historic debate centered on whether to award leadership to a qualified and pious individual who would lead by following the customs of the Prophet or to preserve the leadership exclusively through the Prophet’s bloodline. The question was settled initially when community leaders elected a close companion of the Prophet’s named Abu Bakr to become the first Caliph (Arabic for “successor”). Although most Muslims accepted this decision, some supported the candidacy of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. Ali had played a prominent role during the Prophet’s lifetime, but he lacked seniority within the Arabian tribal system and was bypassed as the immediate successor. This situation was unacceptable to some of Ali’s followers who considered Abu Bakr and the two succeeding caliphs (Umar and Uthman) to be illegitimate. Ali’s followers believed that the Prophet Muhammad himself had named Ali as successor and that the status quo was a violation of divine order. A few of Ali’s partisans orchestrated the murder of the third Caliph Uthman in 656 AD, and Ali was named Caliph. Ali, in
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CRS-2 turn, was assassinated in 661 AD, and his sons Hassan (ca. 670 AD) and Hussein (680 AD) died in battle against forces of the Sunni caliph. Those who supported Ali’s ascendancy became later known as “Shi‘a,” a word stemming from the term “ shi‘at Ali,” meaning “supporters” or “helpers of Ali.” There were others who respected and accepted the legitimacy of his caliphate but opposed political succession based on bloodline to the
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Sunni and Shiites - Order Code RS21745 CRS Report for...

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