Sunday , December 10 2023

How succession politics divided Islam into Sunni-Shia denominations

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By Charles Igbinidu

The struggle for the release of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky who has been detained since December 2015 has in recent times led to many protests especially in Abuja by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) who belong to the Shia sect.

Although there has been many skirmishes with the law enforcement agencies during which some Shiites lost their lives but members of the sect have refused to relent. has decided to look into the genesis of the big schism in Islam for the benefit of our readers.

Origin of the Split

Shia and Sunni Islam are the two major denominations of Islam. The original split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 632.

There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession, who is the rightful successor to the prophet?”

The majority believed that his rightful successor was his father-in-law and close friend, Abu Bakr, but a small group believed the Prophet Muhammad’s successor should be Ali, his cousin, who was married to Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah and father of his grandchildren.

The Shiites believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet. Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split.

The Sunni majority got their way, as Abu Bakr became the first Muslim caliph and successor of the prophet. Although the divide was at first mostly political, as the minority group was a faction supporting the power of Ali, over time, the divide evolved into a religious movement.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are historic foes.

Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, but not before violent conflict broke out. Two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. War erupted when Ali became caliph, and he too was killed in fighting in the year 661 near the town of Kufa, now in present-day Iraq.

The violence and war split the small community of Muslims into two branches that would never reunite.

The war continued with Ali’s son, Hussein, leading the Shiites. Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time. He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.

Hussein was decapitated and his head carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.

It is the symbolism of Hussein’s death that holds so much spiritual power for Shiites. One of the most important dates for Shia Muslims is the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar). Shia Muslims celebrate the anniversary of the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali.

The occasion of “collective atonement through lamentation and self-flagellation” is called Ashoura. This practice is particular to the Shiites and often draws criticism and protests from Sunnis who do not celebrate that day nor view it as important.

Both groups, however, agree that Muhammad is God’s messenger and follow the five ritualistic pillars of Islam, which include fasting during Ramadan, five daily prayers, and the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

They also both share the holy book of the Quran. The primary difference in practice comes in that Sunni Muslims mainly rely on the Sunnah, a record of the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to guide their actions while the Shiites more heavily on their ayatollahs, whom they see as a sign of God on earth.

Although many Shia and Sunni Muslims cohabit peacefully, a Pew Research Center survey from 2012 shows that 40% of Sunni Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa do not accept Shias as fellow Muslims.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are also show a divide between the two, as many Sunni men have joined rebel groups, while men from the Shia community are most often fighting for or with government forces, the BBC reports.

The vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are Sunni, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research center.

Between 10% and 13% are Shia Muslims, and 87% to 90% are Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims are also present in more countries and regions throughout the world, whereas most of Shia Muslims live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq.

Shia Islam in Nigeria

Although most of the Nigerian Muslim population is Sunni, there is a significant Shia minority. Shia Islam was “almost unknown” in Nigeria until the 1980s, when Ibrahim Zakzaky introduced Shia Islam. Zakzaky’s gained a following among those disenchanted with the political and religious establishment.

About Charles Igbinidu

Charles Igbinidu is a Public Relations practitioner in Lagos, Nigeria

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