Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrines of the weak. ~ Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 –1899)
Why do the Sunni and the Shia hate each other? And why has this hatred arisen today when, for many of the centuries since the schism, they rubbed along quite comfortably? It is just another example of the depressingly frequent tactic used by community leaders, to exploit differences between peoples for political advantage. They exaggerate these differences; foster a climate of mutual distrust; and before long, people set about abusing and killing each other.
The original split – election or dynasty
The split between Sunni and Shia goes back to the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632 CE. It was about the succession. Some Muslims were democratic in their approach and thought the leader of Islam should be elected from among the learned and devout. They chose Abu Bakr, a close friend and companion of the Prophet, who became first Caliph, secular leader of the Islamic nation. His followers claimed the title of "Sunni," or followers of the tradition of the Prophet.
Other Muslims believed in a hereditary solution and chose to follow Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. They became known as Shia, or party of Ali, or people of the Prophet's household. Their leaders were known as Imams and they followed a line of succession appointed by Muhammed. This dynastic approach has some similarities with the Christian ideas of the divine right of kings and the apostolic succession in the Catholic and Anglican churches, and it continues to characterise Shia practice today. It is no longer dynastic but it does confer a sort-of infallibility on its leaders.
The schism is therefore between the Sunni belief that Islam confers no hereditary privilege or sainthood, and the Shia belief that its leaders are infallible, without sin, appointed by God.
Political rather than spiritual differences
From the beginning, the schism had a political rather than religious nature. The two sides supported their claims to legitimacy with selective readings of both the Koran and the Prophet's actions and sayings towards the end of his life. Ali, the Prophet's cousin, acknowledged his failure to win popular acclaim by accepting Abu Bakr's caliphate a few months after the Prophet's death. He later became the fourth Caliph (following the murder of the third Caliph by dissidents). The Prophet's wife opposed Ali's appointment as Caliph but she was defeated in battle. And although she was later reconciled with Ali, she had succeeded in establishing an opposition.
Ali was assassinated in 661 CE. His son Hussein led a doomed rebellion against the new Caliph and was killed on the battlefield at Karbala in 680 CE. It was his martyrdom which consolidated the separation of the Shia, and it is commemorated in a Shia festival and pilgrimage to Karbala (known as the Ashura). The celebration of the Ashura is a major difference in the rites followed by the two sects, and is a focus for the persecution of Shia by Sunni governments at times when the two sects are at odds with each other. And from time to time, it has provoked the same level of hostility and distrust as the Orange marches in Northern Ireland.
The dominance of the Sunni
In the past, the Shia had limited political success, in sharp contrast to the Sunni whose leaders spawned a succession of dynasties culminating in the Ottoman and Mughal empires. From the early days, the Sunni Caliphs viewed the Shia with suspicion and had to put down several revolts. The Shia claim to a higher truth through connection with the family of the Prophet was a threat to the Sunni; the best way to counter it was to brand Shia theology as heresy. So Sunni political success was accompanied by the development of schools of Islamic law and custom which grew up within a separate religious hierarchy.
Shia Imams and Ayatollahs
After Hussein's death at Karbala, the Shia leaders styled themselves as Imams. In the late 9th century, it was believed that the twelfth Imam had disappeared but not died. Some Shia sects still await his return (a Second Coming) and the idea remains a potent focus for Shia identity.
Eventually, the Shia changed to the Sunni system of using an Ulema (council) to select their supreme leader. The Ulema is made up of senior clerics with a high level of religious education. There is a sort-of parallel here with representative democracy in the West, where power is notionally vested in the people, but in practice it resides in elected representatives who operate independently in the name of the electorate. Membership of the Ulema is earned by religious knowledge and wisdom (rather than by election) but authority is exercised in the name of the Ummah, the community of Muslims. The Shia Ulema appoints a leader, known as an Ayatollah (Sign of Allah), a man who has great religious authority.
With the establishment of the Islamic republic in Iran, the Ulema became even more important among the Shia because it is now at the centre of Iranian government, the ultimate fusion of religion and state. But it is not monolithic. There is a waxing and waning of influence between various religious leaders which depends to a large extent on their ability to attract followers and funds. This is why it is not always clear who calls the shots in Iran.
In some Sunni countries, the Ulema exercise authority by acting as council to the King. And in both Sunni and Shia communities, the councils act as arbiters of Islamic (Sharia) law, in some countries, they also act as judges. This is why Muslims in Western countries find it easy to propose the notion that Sharia law could run parallel with civil law.
Religious education is at the core of both spiritual leadership and ordinary life for Sunni and Shia. Madrasahs, the religious schools for ordinary Muslims, are growing in importance teaching the Koran to young children. Some madrasahs, however, have been established by fundamentalist groups to recruit and indoctrinate young people in an extreme interpretation of Islam. The first political success of this movement was achieved by Sunni madrasahs which fostered the Taliban.
Madrasahs are of particular importance in Pakistan where they fill a gap left by inadequate government funding. It is not known what proportion of these schools are in the hands of extremists.
Belief and practice
Distinctions between Sunni and Shia in terms of belief are few. They both adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam (the creed, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage). The most visible difference is the Shia adherence to the Ashura. Other differences are concerned mainly with ritual. For example, Sunni pray five times a day while Shia (amalgamating some of the prayer times) pray three times a day. The two sects also use the prayer mat differently.
However, even these differences are fluid. Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia fundamentalist, has discouraged the celebration of the Ashura in Iran and he surprised the Shia of Pakistan by his disdain for their traditions.
Current divisions and the impact of Ayatollah Khomeini
After the early disputes, Sunni belief and practice consolidated its dominance. The separate Shia hierarchy no longer posed a threat and the two sects rubbed along for many centuries, with little to distinguish their understanding of Islam.
Khomeini, in bringing fundamentalism back into Shia belief and practice, reopened the divide. He abandoned the outward differences by going back to the Koran, which should have made common cause with the fundamentalist practice of the Sunni. Instead, the racial and political differences between the two sects were exposed.
The Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, and their leadership of the Shia world is resented. So Arab Sunnis, however fundamentalist their ideas, would rather side with a dissolute Saudi royal family than with an Iranian Ayatollah, however pious he might be. Khomeini's establishment of an Islamic State was a cause for jealousy, not admiration.
Meanwhile the Shia of Iraq are, to a large extent, descended from Persians who moved to Iraq and adopted the Arabic language and identity in the 16th century. With renewed tension between Sunni and Shia, they are seen as the lackeys of Iran.
So Sunni and Shia rivalry is muddled up with Arab/non-Arab Muslim tension.
The threat to Sunni dominance
Politically, the dominance of the Sunni arose from their success in conquest during the early centuries of Islam. They were seen as the group which carried Islam into the world. The tables are now being turned.
The Shia have demonstrated an ability to humble Israel, a feat which eluded the Sunni. It was the Shia group Hezbollah, fighting from Lebanon with Iranian aid, which achieved this breakthrough. This too has generated jealousy amongst the Sunni and aggravated tension between the two sects. Sunni extremists are inspired to regain their status as champions of Islam by using their fashionable weapon: the suicide bomb.
What we are seeing in the Middle East is nothing new. We only have to think back to the torture and bloodshed which characterised the split between Catholics and the protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. And the many other conflicts waged in the name of religious or racial or ideological differences.