Sunni and Shi’ah Islam (Islam 1.13)

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1.13 Sunni and Shi’ah Islam

The Sunnis

After the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) died, there were differences of opinion about how the Muslims should be led and who should be given the leadership and authority. The Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) agreed that only the Qur’aan and Sunnah had the authority to tell the people what to do. They decided after looking into the Sunnah that Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq (may Allah be pleased with him) should be their leader – and that he would rule over them in accordance to the Qur’aan and Sunnah. So he was the first Caliph. The second Caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattaab (may Allah be pleased with him) was appointed by Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him). The third Caliph, ‘Uthmaan Ibn ‘Affaan (may Allah be pleased with him) was chosen by a committee of the major disciples of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who were appointed by ‘Umar before he passed away. The fourth Caliph, ‘Ali Ibn Abee Taalib (may Allah be pleased with him) was appointed by the major Companions after the assassination of ‘Uthmaan. ‘Ali gave his pledge of allegiance to the previous three Caliphs and supported them fully. He even named his children after them.

There are 73 sects amongst the Muslims according to an authentic hadeeth – only one is recognized as being correct. That is the one who follows the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all). That sect is referred to as Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah (The People of Sunnah and the Main Body of the Companions), or Ahlul-Hadeeth (The People of Hadeeth) or the Salafis (The Followers of the Pious Predecessors).

There is much dispute amongst the Muslims as to who are truly the right sect. Sunnis (or Salafis) are those who follow the Sunnah. The Caliphs were not law makers rather they derived judgements from the revealed texts; they were leaders who ruled by the Qur’aan and Sunnah. The application of the Laws (Sharee’ah) was worked out by the Companions and jurists after them based upon their research into the Qur’aan and Sunnah – much of the Law they agreed upon, and some they differed over based upon their understanding of the Qur’aan and Sunnah – but all-in-all the principles and fundamentals were one and the same. Ahlus-Sunnah (i.e. the Sunnis) are very meticulous in acting upon the authentic hadeeth to the exclusion the inauthentic hadeeth. They keep away from innovated practices that are not based upon the Qur’aan and Sunnah.

The Shi’ah:

Decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), a minority sect appeared claiming that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had appointed ‘Ali Ibn Abee Taalib (may Allah be pleased with him) as his successor. They believed that the Companions were wrong in not appointing ‘Ali as the first Caliph. ‘Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. However, the Companions who were still present when the Shi’ah made their claims rejected their doctrines outright, including ‘Ali himself!

  • The Shi’ah believe that ‘Ali and his wife Faatimah (may Allah be pleased with her) continued to receive revelation after the Prophet passed away.
  • They believe that all the Companions proved to be treacherous heretics except a handful.
  • They believe that ‘Ali, Faatimah and their sons are divine, so they call upon them and supplicate to them for aid and rescue.
  • They also believe that there is a Chapter (Soorah) of the Qur’aan that was deliberately left out by the Companions called Soorat al-Wilaayah that appoints ‘Ali as the successor.
  • The book, Usool al-Kaafi by the leading Shi’ah scholar Al-Kulainee states all of these doctrines and many more.
  • They believe that their Imaams (leaders) have the right to be law makers alongside God.
  • The Shi’ah believe that each Imaam would appoint the next Imaam before his death.
  • The term Shi’ah means “faction”, and they believe that they are the “faction of ‘Ali”.
  • They only follow religious rulings that come through their Imaam or confirmed by their Imaams.
  • They reject outright the first three Caliphs and they reject the Hadeeth and chains of narrations reported by Bukhaaree, Muslim, Tirmidhee, Ahmad, Maalik, Abu Daawud, Ibn Maajah and so on.

Here is a list of the twelve Imaams the Shi’ah hold to be divine alongside God:

  1. ‘Ali (d. 40H)
  2. Hasan (d. 61H)
  3. Husayn (d. 69H)
  4. ‘Ali (d. 95H)
  5. Muhammad (d. 114H)
  6. Ja’far (d. 148H)
  7. Moosaa (d. 183H)
  8. ‘Ali (d. 203H)
  9. Muhammad (d. 220H)
  10. ‘Ali (d. 254H)
  11. Hasan (d. 260H)
  12. Muhammad al-Mahdee (the Hidden Imaam)

The Shi’ah believe that they are guided by the Hidden Imaam even today. They believe that by a miracle the Hidden Imaam went into hiding as a child under the earth many centuries ago and that he communicates with the Shi’ah religious clerics. In Iran Shi’ah pray for the return of the Hidden Imaam. Iranian religious leaders are called Ayatollahs and believed to be spokesmen for the Hidden Imaam.

The doctrine of leadership and worship amongst the people of Sunnah is very different to the Shi’ah doctrine. Though the term Imaam is used amongst the people of Sunnah, however the term is not connected to sainthood or divinity. It is used to describe any Muslim ruler or Scholar or one who leads the prayer. The people of Sunnah refer to the overall leader as a Caliph (Khaleefah). A lesser leader is referred to as a King, President, Ameer or Sultaan – the people of Sunnah hold these are legitimate rulers, even if they are sinful or oppressive and rebellion against these Muslim rulers is forbidden.

Sayings of the Shi’ah:

  • “To obey the [divine] Imaam is to obey God. To disobey the Imaam is to disobey God”
  • “He who dies not knowing the Imaam of his time dies as a Kaafir (Unbeliever)”
  • “The Imaams are all free of sin guided by God.”
  • “The Imaams have knowledge of the Universe.”
  • “The Imaams are perfect and sinless.”

Tasks and Questions:

  1. The concept of the Caliph in Sunni Islam is very different to concept of the Shi’ah Imaam. Make two columns, write “Caliph” in one and “Shi’ah Imaam” in the other. Under each heading, list the key points about each one: how they were chosen; what authority they had; source of how they ruled; whether they are divine and called upon after death as saints or buried as normal humans.
  2. List the first four Caliphs.
  3. List the twelve Imaams of the Shi’ah.


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