Understanding Islam – Part 1 (Sunni v. Shiite)


Not a Muslim, my primary source comes from reading and discussions.  My opinions may be tainted as I am admittedly a Christian (author:  Wake Up! Wake Up! The Testimony of a Layman).  However I will make every attempt to be objective.

For some facts may I refer the reader to the website, http://www.ErgunCaner.com.  Ergun and his brother are the authors of Unveiling Islam, an authoritative book by two converted Sunni Muslims, now Christians.  From a review of their book (by M. D. Roberts),  “Islam, as the authors of this book declare, is often obscured by a veil of unfamiliar beliefs, customs and practices. The book `Unveiling Islam’ is a very sympathetic yet uncompromising presentation of the entire scope and field of Islam, including it’s practices, ethics and beliefs. Not least, it deals with in detail the primary differences between Christianity and Islam.  Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, were both raised as Sunni Muslims by a leader in a Mosque and have lived the Muslim life to the full. This crucial book by the Caner brothers, both esteemed and learned Professors in their own right, is a phenomenal work. The work shows extensive research and knowledge and is articulate and authoritative, with a deep understanding and comprehension of Islamic politics, theology, beliefs and mindset.”

Another resource is What’s Right with Islam, by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf – a review: “Rauf is Imam of a Mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site and has been passionately involved in the aftermath of that tragedy, interfaith understanding, and the place of Islam in the United States.  His essay is a useful source to stimulate thinking even on matters with which one can not entirely agree. Most contemporary and major historical and social questions about Islam are addressed in a manner and from a perspective that is unique with comparisons to American values and practices and just enough history to provide context.”  Some claim the Imam is soft of many of the more controversial issues such as treatment of women and jihad, but it is from the perspective of one living in the USA – which may have tempered his thinking, even his personal vision of Islam.

Other resources will be provided as we proceed.  First for the two major sects – Sunni and Shite.

Upon his death Muhammad had not established or decreed a line of succession.  That was left to the people.

Sunni – 90% of all Muslims are Sunni.  Caliphs are the head of the Sunni’s, selected by the consensus of the people, and follow in succession from the prophet Muhammad from the Quraish tribe to which he belonged.    The (male) leader is to govern following the Quran and the tradition of the prophet as interpreted by the community (“umma”).  Abu Bakr was the 1st Caliph – 632 C.E.  “The caliphate was disbanded in 1924 (from What You Need to Know About Islam & Muslims, by George W. Braswell Jr.-pg. 62) in 1924 when the Ottoman Empire fell.”

For the Shiites, Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad (and cousin) is their focus.  “What Aaron was to Moses was what Ali was to Muhammad”, according to Braswell (pg. 62)  He was married to Muhammad’s daughter – Fatima.  He was the 4th Caliph.  He was assassinated and replaced by a dynasty, a succession from family – the Umayyad dynasty – 661.  They believed Ali was the true first Caliph – and justified maintaining succession in the family – like a monarchy.  This sect was opposed to that of the Sunni’s – the opposition called the Shia – resulting in a revolt – 680 – where Ali’s younger son – Husayn  (also spelled Husain, became a martyr) – was killed (in Karbala, Iraq).   His tomb at Karbala has become a Shiite shrine.   The split (the first) occurred after that battle and political struggle defining the two divisions.  The Caliph was negated and the Shiite leader became the Imam.  “The Imam is believed to be a fully spiritual guide, inheriting some of Muhammad’s inspiration, and not merely a contractually elected administrator like the Sunni caliph.” (Caner-pg. 164) .  For the Shiite Sharia law is a governmental absolute.  An Ayatollah may rule in the place of an Imam.

Sunni – Caliph – Administrator

Shiite – Imam – Spiritual guide – Iran leading nation of Shiites

Some other sects to be mentioned in future Blogs –  Sufi Mystics and Wahhabism and the Nation of Islam.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Islam – Part 1 (Sunni v. Shiite)

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