Introduction The history of the divide between Sunnis and Shias can be traced back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad which took place in A D 632 The differences are related more to historical events ideological heritage and issues of leadership As the times go by the conflict escalated dramatically The problem today is far beyond a simple ideological disagreement and the conflict is spilling out of Middle East and causing global unrest The first and central difference emerged after the death of Prophet Muhammad The issue was who would be the caliph the deputy of God in the absence of the prophet The majority of Muslims at that time chose Abu Bakr who was one of the Prophet Muhammad s closest companions They later became the Sunnis sect of Islam which comprises 80 percent of Muslims worldwide today A minority sided with Prophet Muhammad s son in law Ali The group held that Ali was the righteous political and spiritual leader of the Muslims
This group later became the Shia sect of Islam The tension had stayed mostly under control until the 1970s and was escalated by the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan War To date the problem has only worsened with the increasing number of attacks targeting civilians by extremists from both sides The centuries old religious conflict is now also being used as an instrument of policy which gives rise to increasing competition for influence and power between states especially between Iraq and Saudi Arabia Political and historical Abu Bakr became the first caliph and Ali who only ruled five years before being assasinated became the fourth caliph The shias became discontented after the murder of their leader in 661 They reject the authority of the caliphs during the Umayyad dynasty ruled by Sunni majority which rules over an expanding empire stretching from Pakistan through northern Africa to Spain Shias argued that the legitimate leaders of Islam must be the sons of Ali and Fatima Mohammed s daughter Husayn one of Ali s sons became the leader of Shias community The Shias and successors of Husayn who were known as Imams were being constantly persecuted by Umayyad and later Abbasid Dynasty Angered by the endless oppression Husayn eventually lead a revolt against Umayyad Empire from Kufa in modern day Iraq Yazid the Umayyad ruler dispatched an army to crush the Kufa revolt A battle in Karbala north of Kufa ends with the massacre of Husayn and many of his companions This battle for both Shias and Sunnis holds enormous historical and religious significance Husayn was killed and his forces defeated For the Shia community Husayn became a martyr
The day of the battle is commemorated every year on the Day of Ashura Since then the tension between Sunni and Shia eased gradually Shia established its dynasty in 969 and the next major conflict took place in 1639 when the Ottoman empire conquered the Safavid Dynasty Clearly differences between the Sunnis and Shias which began immediately following the Prophet Muhammad s death concerning his legitimate successor are real and cannot be denied However historically ordinary Sunnis and Shias have lived peacefully This has been partially due to the fact that the Shias lost early in the competition both for political power and for the allegiance of the majority of Muslims the Shias retreated essentially to a politically quietest position as advised by the sixth Shia Imam Ja afar Sadegh Therefore there is nothing parallel to the Thirty Years War between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism for Islamists The sectarian movement suddenly intensified in the modern age Iran s Islamic Revolution in 1979 gave Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the opportunity to implement his vision for an Islamic government ruled by the guardianship of the jurist a post
Age of Occultation theory in Shia Islam which holds that Islam gives a faqīh Islamic jurist custodianship over people It is a concept controversial among Shia scholars and widely opposed by Sunnis Khomeini tried to inspire further Islamic revival preaching Muslim unity but also supported groups that had specific Shia agendas Induced by the transformation of Iran into an overtly Shia power after the Islamic revolution Saudi Arabia accelerated the propagation of Wahhabism an offshoot of the Sunni Hanbali school that is antagonistic to Shia Islam Both countries revived a centuries old sectarian rivalry over the true interpretation of Islam Many of the groups responsible for sectarian violence that has occurred in the region and across the Muslim world since 1979 can be traced to Saudi and Iranian sources For example Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in the 1980 1988 war with Iran which was caused by a Sunni ruling over a majority Shia country who fears the spillover effects of the Iranian Revolution In addition to inter state rivalry the socially and economically disadvantaged position of the Shias in Sunni majority countries or countries where Shias are a majority but the rulers are Sunni as was the case in Iraq and now is in Bahrain has in recent decades contributed to the Shias sense of alienation and their quest for emancipation and legitimacy The Shia revival movement in Lebanon which began in the 1960s under the leadership of Ayatullah Musa Sadr is the best example of this Shia quest for equality and recognition
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