compassion, collaboration & cooperation iN transistion
The words "caliph" and "caliphate" derive from the Arabic "khalifa," the word used to refer to a successor
or deputy in the Quran and the Hadith, collections of sayings and incidents from the life of Muhammad.
Deciding who should take over for Muhammad after his death was a particularly sensitive matter for the
early Islamic community. Not only did the Prophet not leave behind an incontrovertible designation of
who should take his place, but Muhammad actually played two roles for the community: he was both the
messenger of God and their political leader. Muhammad's immediate successors would occupy similar
roles, although the nature of the caliph's religious leadership would become a matter of dispute.
According to Sunni teaching, Muhammad left the process of determining who would succeed him to the
Muslim community to decide by consensus. The community chose the Prophet's close companion Abu Bakr,
a man known for his devotion and discernment. The next three caliphs were also former companions of the
Prophet. Because of their direct connection to Muhammad and his teaching, Sunni Muslims call his first
successors the "rightly guided" caliphs. After the passing of the fourth caliph, Muhammad's son-in-law Ali,
the caliphate's authority became more political than religious.
Shiite belief disputes the validity of the first three caliphs, and the lines of authority diverge after the
passing of the fourth, Ali. This stance is what gives this branch of Islam its name, from "Shiat Ali," the
faction or partisans of Ali. According to Shiite teaching, the proper line of succession went through
Muhammad's family, not community consensus. In this view, the first legitimate successor was Ali,
whom they regard as the first in the line of infallible and sinless successors referred to as imams.
The martyrdom of the third imam, Muhammad's grandson Husayn, continues to be commemorated
by Shiite Muslims on the holiday of Ashura, a period of fasting and reflection previously established
John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than
20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise,
tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.
The words Sunni and Shi'a appear regularly in stories about the Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shi'a beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world.
The division between Sunnis and Shi'as is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam.
They both agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book (The Qur'an), but there are differences mostly derived from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition.
These differences originate from the question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the emerging Muslim community after his death. To understand them, we need to know a bit about the Prophet's life and political and spiritual legacy.
When the Prophet died in the early 7th century he left not only the religion of Islam but also a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organised as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide.
The larger group of Muslims chose Abu Bakr, a close Companion of the Prophet, as the Caliph (politico-social leader) and he was accepted as such by much of the community which saw the succession in political and not spiritual terms. However another smaller group, which also included some of the senior Companions, believed that the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be Caliph. They understood that the Prophet had appointed him as the sole interpreter of his legacy, in both political and spiritual terms. In the end Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph.
Both Shi'as and Sunnis have good evidence to support their understanding of the succession. Sunnis argue that the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, thus suggesting that the Prophet was naming Abu Bakr as the next leader. The Shi'as' evidence is that Muhammad stood up in front of his Companions on the way back from his last Hajj, and proclaimed Ali the spiritual guide and master of all believers. Shi'a reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali.
Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should have been the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni Muslims. Those who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shi'a Muslims. It was only later that these terms came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunnah' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shi'a is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning 'partisans of Ali'.
The use of the word "successor" should not be confused to mean that those leaders that came after the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shi'a and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet.
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