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Islam Divides: The Sunni and the Shiite

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  • 0:01 Reason for Divide
  • 0:35 Ali & Shiites
  • 1:13 Abu Bakr & Sunnis
  • 2:16 Geographical Divide
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will seek to explain the divide between the Sunnis and Shiites of Islamic culture. In doing so, it will highlight the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, Abu Bakr, and the position of Islamic Caliph.

Reason for Divide

One of the conflicts that has at times crippled the lands of the Middle East is the Islamic Sunni/Shiite divide. In today's lesson, we're going to explore this history-altering split.

For starters, the original chasm between the Sunni and Shiite began very shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632 CE.

To really simplify it for our purposes, there was a disagreement between the followers of Islam, the faith based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, over who should be their new leader.

Ali & Shiites

With many of the Muslims, or followers of Islam, feeling that a new leader should be chosen by majority opinion, a fringe minority group felt that the successor should come directly from Muhammad's family. This fringe group came to be known as the Shiite. They believed Muhammad's son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib, known in many textbooks as simply Ali, should be their new leader. For our purposes, and to make this a bit more digestible, it'll help us to remember he was the Shiites' choice for leader by linking the 'I' in 'Ali' to the 'I' in 'Shiite.'

Abu Bakr & Sunnis

Unfortunately for the proponents of Ali, the majority of Muslims felt family ties to the Prophet Muhammad were not a prerequisite for leadership. On the contrary, the majority felt his replacement should be named by vote, not family lineage. This group that favored the majority opinion choosing Muhammad's successor were known as the Sunni, and like the Shiites they had their own man in mind. However, it was not Ali. It was Muhammad's close companion, a man named Abu Bakr, who the Sunnis wanted to see at the helm. Again, to keep the two straight in our more Western minds, I usually link the 'U' in 'Abu' to the 'U' in 'Sunni.'

Sadly for the minority Shiites, the Sunni won out and Abu Bakr became the leader of Islam, known as the Caliph. However, this did not settle the conflict in the mind of the Shiites and violence and war began to torment Islam. In fact, several of the first Caliphs met violent deaths at the hands of those who opposed their validity as leaders of Islam.

Geographical Divide

Ironically, Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the man the minority Shiites originally wanted as leader, did eventually become Caliph. However, he too was murdered, but this time one of his sons rose quickly to take his place. Although the position of Caliph would remain in Ali's line for many years, the violence between Sunni and Shiite was not over. In fact, tensions between the two groups hardened into a permanent divide within Islamic life and culture. Today, this divide is seen geographically, with the still-minority Shiites being mainly concentrated in Iran, Southern Iraq, and Southern Lebanon.

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