April 8, 2015

A History of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a

This 2004 PBS-related post captures some good history of Islam and its later division into two primary groups or tribes known as the Sunnis and Shi'a.  The map and percentage of polulation may have some changes in the past decade, but the history is helpful.

Islam, as described by Muhammad, was a straightforward faith, demanding of its adherents only that they acknowledge a set of basic beliefs: that there is only one God, and that God is Allah; that believers must submit completely to God; that God is revealed in the Qur’an; that Muhammad is Allah’s final prophet, and that all believers are equal before God. Beyond that, believers were called upon to observe “sharia” (the law as defined by the Qur’an), and to conform to the five “pillars” of the faith: public witnessing of one’s faith, daily prayer, charity, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muhammad established no church or institutional structure for Islam; indeed, the faith’s basic notion that all believers were equal before God seemed to rule out the notion of a priesthood. But Islam was a social and political movement as well as a religious one, and as it developed, a complex set of institutions grew with it, which over time took on an increasingly religious significance. And as the Arab empire expanded, Islam incorporated elements of the cultures it encountered, giving rise to varying schools of interpretation of the texts of Islamic belief: the Qur’an, the “sunnah” (the exemplary words and deeds of Muhammad) and the “hadith” (the records kept by Muhammad’s companions).
With the rise of religious institutions and the expansion of Islamic scholarship, doctrinal arguments developed, which led to the development of a number of sects and schools of thought. But the most important schism in Islam — the event that split the faith into the majority Sunni and minority Shia branches that persist to the present day — took place at the religion’s very beginnings.

It is important to remember that all major religious faiths have under-gone their own schisms and division over the years.  Judaism has its orthodox, reformed, conservative, and reconstructionist branches. (more information)  Christianity as described by Jesus, and later by Paul and early apostles, was also a straightforward faith.  Today we find Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox branches.  And within Protestant we find so-called Mainline, Evangelical, Fundamental, and numerous denominations.  Over the years the Christian faith was influenced by local culture and varying schools of translation and interpretation of the Bible.  Divisions within Islam should not be surprising for those whose experience is with Judaism or Christianity.