Of these two denominations, the Sunnis comprise 85% and the Shiites comprise 15% of the world’s Muslims. The Sunni consider themselves to be the orthodox form of Islam. They follow the actual words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Shiites and other denominations of Islam, they follow the Qur’an; a holy book that contains the oral accounts of the guidance and direction Muhammad received from Allah. There are many revered prophets in Islam, with Muhammad being the most important, but some of the others are the same prophets in Christianity and Judaism, such as Adam, the first prophet. From the seventh century until the 1920’s the Sunni Muslims were led by a Caliph; a central leader recognized by all Sunnis from many countries. In 1924, Ataturk, a Turkish leader who sought to introduce Western thought into Turkey, abolished the role of Caliph. Since then, the Sunni people look to religious scholars to provide them with guidance and interpretation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is not a chronicled history of events, but rather a collection of examples to illustrate moral lessons.
Fiqh is the application of the Qur’an into Islamic Law. The scholars who are experts at Fiqh are called Ulema. In the Sunni denomination, there are four different approaches to interpreting Sharia; Islamic Religious Law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I and Hanbali. These four “courts” reach different conclusions about various Hadiths: oral traditions directly attributed to Muhammad.
Shiites still follow a central spiritual leader called an Imam. They believe that all Imams are descendant from Muhammad’s cousin Ali, whom Muhammad appointed to be his successor. Here is where the initial division lies. Both factions acknowledge that Muhammad had four companions. The Sunni believe that the historical Caliphs were direct descendants of Abu Bakr; the true successor; the one they believe was actually appointed by Muhammad. The Sunnis believe that the Caliph, descended from Abu Bakr, is more of a political leader than a spiritual leader. They have separate Fiqh scholars to interpret Islamic Law. The Shiites believe that their Imam is the role of Caliph and is more of a spiritual leader; descended from Ali.
There has been a push by the Muslims to reinstate the role of Caliph in order to unite the entire Muslim world; some through political action (Hizb ut-Tahrir) and some though force (al Qaeda). There are many different groups attempting to re establish the Caliphate, with much disagreement between them.