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The Sunni-Shia Divide
Recently, Heba Saleh had some of the following in the Financial Times as part of an explanation of the Sunni / Shia divide.
What caused the schism in Islam?
The schism that led Muslims to split into two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, dates from the 7th century – it is almost as old as the religion itself. It is based on a succession dispute that erupted in Medina, the capital of the first Islamic state in the Arabian peninsula, over who should lead the Muslims after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD.
The Shia support Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was initially passed over for the succession. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph and ruled from Medina for five turbulent years until he was killed in 661. During his reign, he faced a challenge from Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the founder of the Umayyad ruling dynasty, who succeeded him as caliph.
Shi’at Ali – or the partisans of Ali – are those who accepted that leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the prophet’s line and who subsequently supported the claims of Ali’s sons Hassan and Hussein – both of whom led failed rebellions against the Umayyads.
The Sunni are those who did not support Ali’s claim: they now make up the majority of the world’s Muslims.
Hussein, the great martyr hero of Shia Islam, was killed with his small band of supporters in the Battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680. Since then, Shia have regarded Sunni rulers as usurpers and recognize as religious and political leaders only their own imams who are descended from the prophet through Ali and Hussein.
What is the geographical distribution of Sunni and Shia?
Of the world’s more than 1.5bn Muslims, 10-15 percent are Shia, although there are no completely reliable figures. Iran is the world’s largest Shia nation: some 90 percent of its people are Shia. There are Shia majorities in Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. In Lebanon, they are a large and politically powerful minority, forming the largest single religious group. There are Shia minorities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria, where the Alawi sect of the ruling Assad family is Shia. In Yemen, Shia of the Zaydi sect make up about 45 percent of the population. The Houthis of Yemen, currently the target of a Saudi-led military campaign, are Zaydis. Indonesia is the largest Sunni nation in the world. Elsewhere in Asia, there are Shia minorities in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Sri lanka and Myanmar.
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