The split between the two main sects within Islam goes back some 1,400 years.
- SARAH PRUITT UPDATED:JAN 10, 2022ORIGINAL:JUL 31, 2019
Though the two main sects within Islam, Sunni and Shia, agree on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam, a bitter split between the two goes back some 14 centuries. The divide originated with a dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic faith he introduced.
Today, about 85 percent of the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are Sunni, while 15 percent are Shia, according to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations. While Shia represent the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and a plurality in Lebanon, Sunnis are the majority in more than 40 other countries, from Morocco to Indonesia.
Despite their differences, Sunni and Shia have lived alongside each other in relative peace for most of history. But starting in the late 20th century, the schism deepened, exploding into violence in many parts of the Middle East as extreme brands of Sunni and Shia Islam battle for both religious and political supremacy.
The Aftermath of Muhammad’s Death
The roots of the Sunni-Shia divide can be traced all the way back to the seventh century, soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632. While most of Muhammad’s followers thought that the other elite members of the Islamic community should choose his successor, a smaller group believed only someone from Muhammad’s family—namely his cousin and son-in-law, Ali—should succeed him. This group became known as the followers of Ali; in Arabic the Shiat Ali, or simply Shia.
“The essence of the problem is that Muhammad died without a male heir, and he never clearly stated who he would want to be his successor,” says Lesley Hazleton, author of After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Sunni-Shia Split in Islam. “This was important, because by the time he died, he had basically brought all the tribes of Arabia together into a kind of confederation that became the ummah—the people or nation of Islam.”
Eventually the Sunni majority (named for sunna, or tradition) won out, and chose Muhammad’s close friend Abu Bakr to become the first caliph, or leader, of the Islamic community. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph (or Imam, as Shiites call their leaders), but only after the two that preceded him had both been assassinated.