THE HISTORY OF THE MUSLIM RELIGION AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHIA AND SUNNI MUSLIMS
When referring to the Muslim religion today, we tend to generalise the real meaning of the religion and the intricate system hidden behind it.
The Muslim religion is actually divided into two different types; the Shia Muslims and the Sunni Muslims. These two types of the Muslim religion have developed conflicts overtime but we should remember that what we call the conflict between the Shia and the Sunni’s began not as a theological problem but as a political one, a political conflict over succession. The meaning of the world “Shia” actually refers to being member of a political party.
In the Muslim religion prophet Muhammad revealed his new religion to tribes that would now be known as Islam, and because he was a prophet, unlike Jesus, prophet Muhammad was revealing a new political message while at same time being a political leader who set up a new Muslim state. The conflict over succession referred to previously was regarding the question of would take over this new Muslim state once the prophet had died. As he was revealing God’s message to the tribes, a new position was created to denote his succession position, the position of a Caliph - meaning somebody who is a successor, who succeeds the prophet but is not the actual prophet.
The political party behind Ali, the son-in-law of prophet Muhammed said that Ali should have been first Caliph as he married the prophet’s daughter and gave Muhammad his grand children. Others, mainly the Sunni Muslims, thought that Abu Bakr, father- in-law of prophet Muhammad, should have been the heir. In the first three rounds the caliph was not an hereditary position, it was mainly voted upon as there was a general consensus that the caliph should either be Abu Bakr, Umar, or Uthman. Ali was therefore denied the chance to become the next caliph 3 times in a row but he was able to become the Muslim caliph after the third death of Uthman.
No political or religious difference between the Sunni’s and Shia’s was present at this point, it would evolve into a religious conflict only later on. Ali would have a son named Husayn, with caliph number 6 Muawiyah as his opposition in the succession race. Muawiyah would kill Husayn and deeply change the system. He would become the king and dictate that from then on only the heir could become the next caliph, meaning that only with direct succession the new caliph could be chosen. This would make his rule, and the caliphate, a dynasty from then on and not a democratic consensus anymore. This would allow for unqualified people becoming caliphs, as it was blood that would choose the next heir and not general consensus or a sort of voting system.
The Sunni’s would now use the term “caliph”, whereas the Shia would begin to use the therm “Imam”, meaning “in front of”, sort of saying that he was the first one who should have been in front the Muslim leadership. Until Ali’s death the Sunni’s and the Shia’s were the same, after his death things would change. The Sunni and Shia would split and the running conflict would soon become a religious one and not just a political one anymore. The Shia would soon become a majority in Iran, Iraq, and in Lebanon. As mentioned previously, the difference between Sunni and Shia at first was not that important. It became politically important around 1979 when a revolution in Iran occurred, upsetting the regional power dynamics and reintroducing the conflicts of this division between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. In 2003, during the Iraq war again, and in 2014 with rise of ISIS this conflict would rise agains between the two sects.
This deep understanding of the Muslim religion in today’s world is needed in order to avoid generalisation and to actually relate the structure of the intricate religion with the news we hear everyday and we read on our newspapers currently.