THE PORT RAIL: Sunnis and Shias: Islam's Long Struggle

By Clayton, Larry | The Tuscaloosa News, June 30, 2014 | Go to article overview

THE PORT RAIL: Sunnis and Shias: Islam's Long Struggle


Clayton, Larry, The Tuscaloosa News


This is intended to be a brief overview of why Sunnis and Shias fight in modern Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Shias and Sunnis are the two major denominations of the

Muslim world. It's kind of like Catholics and Protestants in

Christianity. They too fought, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. Think heretics, witches, torture and burnings at the stake for starters, lest you Christians get too smug as you read about Islam's divisions.

Shias and Sunnis have been at each other's throats -- off and on - - since the prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D. They basically split over who was to rule as caliph, or leader, after Muhammad. The Shias followed a relative of Muhammad's named Ali bin Abu Talib, while the Sunnis were followers of an elected leader named Abu Bakr.

Even Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary over much of the old Turkish Empire that collapsed at the end of World War I, got confused.

When drawing borders in 1921 -- and thereby creating modern Iraq - - Churchill asked an aide for a brief resume of the leader he planned to install in Bagdad.

"Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih [older spellings] with Sunni sympathies?" Churchill asked, adding, "I always get mixed up between these two."

For those of you interested in the real origins of modern Iraq, skip all the quickie, recent -- and mostly shallow and self-serving - - books and blogs by political pundits and politicians and pick up Christopher Catherwood's "Churchill's Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq."

Sunnis make up a majority-- about 85 percent -- of all Muslims in the world today. The rest are largely Shia, who controlled Iraq and Iran in the last few generations, with some notable exceptions.

Shia and Sunni differences do not obscure that both share the main articles of Islamic belief. Most refer themselves as "Muslims," rather than Shias (Shiites another form) or Sunnis.

Shia Muslims (remember those descended from Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law) tend to revere its leader, the Imam, as

sinless by nature and infallible in

authority.

Sunnis do not follow the rule of a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders like the Shias. They believe leadership comes from a trust that is earned and which comes from the people, and is not a birthright.

From the beginning, the followers of Muhammad argued over who was to rule after the Prophet. …

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