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  • The Origins of the Sunnite-Shi'ite Divide and the Emergence of the Ta'ziyeh Tradition
  • Kamran Scot Aghaie (bio)

Islam, like most other religions, has always been characterized by a number of internal divisions. The major division in Islam is between the Sunnites and the Shi'ites. Today, Sunnites make up approximately 85 to 90 percent of Muslims in the world, while Shi'ites constitute approximately 10 to 15 percent. Approximately half of the Shi'ites live in Iran with smaller concentrations found in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan, and parts of South Asia. In most of these countries the Shi'ites have little or no influence in the government. The only explicitly Shi'ite government is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was established during the revolutionary upheaval in 1978/79. However, a small Alawi Shi'ite minority also dominates the Syrian government, and Zaydi Shi'ites are included in the Yemeni state as well. The largest group of Shi'ites is the so-called Twelvers (Ithna Asharis, or Imamis), whose name derives from their belief that there were 12 imams, the last of whom has existed in a supernatural or metaphysical state of occultation from 874 C.E. to the present. Since we are primarily concerned here with the ta'ziyeh tradition, which is associated mainly with the Twelver Shi'ites of Iran, I will focus on this strain of Shi'ism.1

The roots of the Sunnite-Shi'ite schism are found in the crisis of succession that occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. One of the key distinctions between the two factions is the Sunnite belief in the caliphate, as opposed to the Shi'ite belief in the imamate. Shi'ites have traditionally believed that there was a chain of pious descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, beginning with his son-in-law Ali (d. 661), who were meant to succeed him, one after the other, following his death. Shi'ites consider these imams to be infallible religious guides for humanity, although not prophets. Shi'ites believe that devotion to the imams brings them closer to God.2

Sunnites, on the other hand, have traditionally held that the caliphs were the legitimate successors to the Prophet Muhammad. The caliphs were selected according to political processes, rather than being explicitly selected by the Prophet himself. Shi'ites consider the caliphs to be usurpers of the authority of the imams. This fundamental disagreement was compounded by later political divisions, which [End Page 42] encouraged further divergence in political and legal systems, ritual practices, and theological doctrines. Despite their differing views, the relations between Sunnites and Shi'ites have varied dramatically throughout history, ranging from open conflict or hostility, to acceptance and rapprochement.3

The disputes surrounding the succession to the Prophet Muhammad precipitated the fundamental schism between Sunnites and Shi'ites. When the Prophet died in 632, the community was relatively unprepared to deal with the consequences. During this time of crisis Umar raised Abu Bakr's hand in a public gathering and declared him Muhammad's successor. Those present accepted this and thus the institution of the caliphate came into being.4 In 634, shortly before Abu Bakr passed away, he appointed Umar as the second caliph, and Umar in turn appointed a committee of notables to select the third caliph. They selected Uthman, who was killed in 656 by a disgruntled mob unhappy with his policies. Upon his death Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, assumed the position of caliph. Many of Ali's supporters asserted that the Prophet had left instructions that Ali should succeed him following his death. One typical example is said to have occurred at a place on the way from Mecca to Medina called Ghadir Khum, following Muhammad's final pilgrimage to Mecca, a few months before his death. According to numerous accounts:

And then he [Muhammad] took Ali by the hand and said to the people: "Do you not acknowledge that I have a greater claim on each of the believers than they have on themselves?" and they replied: "Yes!" And he took Ali's hand...


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