My partner and I recently travelled through the Middle East. One of our tour guides, a devout Sunni Muslim tried to describe the difference between the two sects of the World’s second largest religion. In his own misguided way, I am sure he felt he was being unbiased in his explanation, but as many of us ignorant about Islam know all too well; the schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims has a turbulent and well documented past. It would take hundreds of pages to recount the history of the struggle between the two; therefore, I will limit this article to simply describing the semantic differences rather than the historical struggle.
After the Prophet Mohammed died, Caliphs became the recognized head of the Islamic faith. It was how these first Caliphs were chosen and recognized that marks the original divide between Sunnis and Shias. Sunni Muslims recognize Abu Bakr as the first Caliph or ruler after Mohammed’s death, of whereas, Shia Muslims follow Ali as the first Caliph. Now; what is a Caliph?
A Caliphate is roughly equivalent to a dynasty and is conceptually, the geopolitical region that encompasses everyone in the Muslim faith. A Caliph rules over the Caliphate and is the Islamic religious/political equivalent of a king and is said to be a direct successor to the prophet Mohammed.
Sunnis believe that a Caliph should be elected; whereas Shia believe a Caliph should be an Imam appointed by “the Family of the House” of Mohammed’s direct descendants. The Shia recognize Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law and cousin and believe it was Mohammed’s and through him, god’s wish that, after his death, Ali should rule the Caliphate.
The schism between the Shia and the Sunni began not long after Mohammed died and has continued for centuries. It is estimated that Shia Muslims comprise between 10 and 20% of the World’s Muslim population, but exact figures are hard to obtain because countries that have smaller communities of Shia, but are predominantly Sunni are identified overall as Sunni. The Shia have been badly persecuted under specific regimes; especially during Saddam Hussein’s 30 year rule, and have been declared a deviant sect as recently as 2011 in Malaysia.
Sunni Muslims make up well over 50% of most Muslim counties except Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain.