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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What is the difference between Sunni and Shii Muslims?

Sunni and Shii Muslims represent the two largest institutional divisions within the Muslim community. Today, Sunni constitute approximately 85 percent of Muslims and Shii make up 15 percent. The Shii have significant numbers in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon. The differences that led to the formation of these two groups centered on disagreements about who should be the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

In the early Muslim community, Muhammad provided immediate and authoritative answers. Muhammad's death in 632 was a traumatic event for the Muslim community, marking not only the end of direct, personal contact with and guidance from the Prophet but also the end of direct revelation from God. The Companions of the Prophet moved quickly to steady and reassure community members. Abu Bakr, the man whom Muhammad had appointed to lead the Friday communal prayer in his absence, announced the death of the Prophet in this way: “Muslims! If any of you has worshipped Muhammad, let me tell you that Muhammad is dead. But if you worship God, then know that God is living and will never die!”

The majority of Muslims, who came to be called Sunni, or followers of the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet, believed that Muhammad had died without establishing a system for selecting a successor or designating a replacement. After an initial period of uncertainty, the elders or leaders of Medina selected Abu Bakr to be the caliph (successor, deputy). An early convert who had been Muhammad's close companion and trusted adviser as well as his father-in-law, Abu Bakr was respected for his sagacity and piety. Thus Sunni Muslims adopted the belief that leadership should pass to the most qualified person, not through hereditary succession.

As caliph, Abu Bakr became the political and military leader of the community. Although he was not a prophet—the Quran had declared Muhammad to be the last of the prophets—the caliph had religious prestige as head of the community of believers (ummah). This was symbolized in later history by the caliph's right to lead the Friday prayer and the inclusion of the caliph's name in the community's prayers.

A minority of the Muslim community, the Shii, or Party of Ali, opposed the selection of Abu Bakr as caliph, believing that succession should be hereditary. Since Muhammad had no sons who survived infancy, this minority believed that succession should pass through Muhammad's daughter Fatima and that her husband Ali, Muhammad's first cousin and closest living male relative, should be the leader (called Imam) of the Islamic community. Shii took strong exception to the fact that Ali was passed over for the position of caliph three times, finally gaining his rightful place after thirty-five years only to be assassinated a few short years later. To make matters worse, Ali's charismatic son Hussein, who had been persuaded to lead a rebellion against the caliph Yazid, was overwhelmed and massacred along with his small band of followers.

Muslims point out that the differences between Sunni and Shii do not have to do with dogma but rather are political, having to do with the qualifications for the head of the Muslim community. Their shared beliefs and practices notwithstanding, however, they also developed different views about the meaning of history.

Historically, Sunni have almost always ruled over Shii. Because Shii existed as an oppressed and disinherited minority, they understood history to be a test of the righteous community's perseverance in the struggle to restore God's rule on earth. Realization of a just social order led by their Imam became the dream of Shii throughout the centuries. While Sunni history looked to the glorious and victorious history of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs and then the development of imperial Islam under the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Ottomans, Shii history was the theater for the struggle of the oppressed and disinherited. Thus, while Sunni can claim a golden age when they were a great world power and civilization, which they believe is evidence of God's favor upon them and a historic validation of Muslim beliefs, Shii see in these same developments the illegitimate usurpation of power by Sunni rulers at the expense of a just society. Shii view history more as a paradigm of the suffering, disinheritance, and oppression of a righteous minority community who must constantly struggle to restore God's rule on earth under His divinely appointed Imam.

In the twentieth century, Shii history was reinterpreted as a paradigm providing inspiration and mobilization to actively fight against injustice, rather than passively accept it. This reinterpretation has had the most significant impact among the Shii in Lebanon, who struggled to achieve greater social, educational, and economic opportunities during the 1970s and 1980s, and in Iran, where the Shah was equated with Yazid, and Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers with Hussein, during the Islamic revolution of 1978–79. Thus the victory of the Islamic revolution was declared the victory of the righteous against illegitimate usurpers of power.

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