Similarities and the Differences Between the Shi Tes and the Sunnis in Islam Term Paper

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Shi'a and Sunna Islam

The early origins and history of Islam as a religious organization is unified under the teachings and leadership of Muhammad, who was considered the Prophet of Allah, the God of the Muslims. When Muhammad died, the problem of handing over the leadership of Muhammad became a problem, since there are many Muslims who had claimed leadership of the Muslim religion, many factions were created. Upon Muhammad's death, the Umayyad Yazid ruled the Muslim religious organization. However, Husayn, son of Ali, and Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, had refused to accept Umayyad's rule on Islam, and they planned to "rally" against the Umayyads. However, their plans were foiled since their plan to rally reached Umayyad Yazid, who then organized an army to fight against Husayn and Fatima. When Husayn and Fatima died because of the Umayyad army's sudden attack, some Muslims who favor Husayn as the ruler of Islam considered him a 'martyr' because of the bravery that he had shown in expressing his disagreement over the rule of Umayyad Yazid (Dallal 2002). Because of this faction between the two groups, Umayyad Yazid's group became known as the Sunna Islam, wherein its members are called Sunnis, while Husayn's legacy led to the formation of Shi'a Islam, and its members are called Shi'ites.

Islam's history illustrates the dual character that the religious organization has, although these two groups are governed under the same set of teachings and belief. As time passed after Muhammad's death, these two groups have become disintegrated as a large group under the religion of Islam, and developed their own set of rules and principles as each group became more integrated with their own beliefs and faith about how the Islam religion is practiced. This paper will discuss how Shi'a and Sunna Islam developed into two major divisions of the Islam religion, and analyze the differences and similarities between these two divisions.

The first important distinction between the Shi'a and Sunna Islam is that they have different leadership characteristics: the Shi'ites believed in the leadership of the Imam, the "exalted leader" of the Shi'ites, while the Sunnis believed in the leadership of all Muslims under their group, this means that Sunnis function as a group in leading the Sunni Islam group ("Sectarianism" 2003). The primary reason why Shi'ites vested its group leadership upon the Imams is because in the Islamic culture, Imams are considered direct descendants of Muhammad, and because of their roots, Imams have the privilege of obtaining the leadership of the said group. The tradition that direct descendants of Muhammad, just like in the case of Husayn and Fatima, is perpetuated through this tradition that the Shi'a Islam had cultivated through the years. Shi'a Islam also divides its groups of Imams into various groups, making the leaders of their group diverse and numerous in number, as compared to the Sunnis, who subsisted to the norm of using the Caliphate leadership under the original foundation of Islam by Muhammad. Under the Sunna Islam, Sunnis follow the leadership of the Khalifa, which the Sunnis presume to the descendants of Umayyad Yazid, the ruler who formally organizes Sunna Islam as a branch of the Islam religion.

Another difference between these two groups is that the Shi'ites and Sunnis have varying interpretations of the Qur'an. The Shi'ites interprets the Qur'an in accordance to the Imams' interpretation of the text, which illustrates a subjective interpretation of Muhammad's writings and Allah's teachings (RSH 2003). On the other hand, Sunnis interpret the Qur'an according to the whole context of the text, that is, there is an objective interpretation of the Qur'an, which is in direct contrast to the Shi'a Islam. Thus, it becomes vital for Shi'ites to rely on the interpretations of the Imams in order to understand the teachings of Allah, and this creates a diversified interpretation of the Qur'an as a whole. Meanwhile, there is standardization in the method of the Sunnis because what was interpreted in the Qur'an is based on the already written interpretations of previous teachings of the Caliphs, thereby creating uniformity in their interpretations of the text (St. Martin's 2003). This implies that although they are unified under one religion, the Shi'ites and Sunnis have various understandings and comprehension of the Islam as a religion and way of life.

The third difference between the Sunnis and Shi'ites is their perception about life after death. For the Sunnis, life after death means that Sunnis will be able to see Allah in the paradise that Allah promised for them (the Sunni Muslims). Sunnis are somewhat similar to Christianity, wherein it was believed that people, after their death, will see God in Paradise, where He promised that there will be no injustice, inequality, and sorrow. In contrast to the belief of the Sunnis about Allah, the Shi'ites believe that at the end of the world, where everybody meets their death, the Shi'ites will meet and be saved by the Hidden Twelfth Imam, who promised that injustices in the world will be replaced with justice and equality (RSH 2003).

There are also differences on how the Holy Law of Islam as a social organization is followed by the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. The Shi'ites have their own Shi'a Law, which was interpreted and imposed by the Ulamah, which is interpreted as "the learned" in English language. The Shi'a Law is different from the laws of other Muslims in Islam, and Shi'ites does not follow laws that are made and implemented by non-Shi'ite Muslims. The Sunnis, meanwhile, conforms to the rule of the Shariah law and follows the teachings of the Sunnah prophet on the ways to salvation (St. Martin's 2003). It is evident that the study of law in Islam as a social organization is diverse, with the Shi'a Law being different from the original doctrine of the Sharia law. Although Shi'ites does not follow the laws of non-Shi'ite Muslims, they do follow laws that are implemented under the law of Islam when it was established by Muhammad.

It is also important to note that there are also differences in the social and political orientation of the Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. For the Shi'ites, the Imam/s is/are treated as the political leader/s of the Muslim community, while the Sunnis treat the community as the 'leader' of their group. The Sunnis believe that public sovereignty is important in the political organization of Islam because Islam is a religion for the people, a gift from Allah, and an individual does not have the right to govern over the people of Islam; rather, the caliph (chosen leader of the people) should serve the Sunnis in order to show his faith in belief in Islam. Thus, the political organization in Shi'a is hierarchical, while Sunni shows equality in its political 'landscape.'

Despite these differences, Shi'a and Sunna Islam also have its similarities in their practices and beliefs. One similarity that is evident in the study of these two religions is that they believe that the leaders that they must follow should be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and this is shown in their belief that the Shi'ites' Imams and the Sunnis' caliphs are chosen through their ascendancy, which must be traced as belonging to that of Umayyad Yazi (Sunna Islam) and Husayn (Shi'a Islam). This similarity proves that there is one element that defines all the branches of slam that exists today: the primary requirement to being an effective religious leader is that they belong to Muhammad's lineage and descendancy. This is an important attribute that leaders must have ion order for them to be considered rightful leaders of the Muslims and server of Allah, the Creator.

Another similarity is that even though Shi'ites and Sunnis follow different sets of laws and interpretation of the Qur'an, it is imperative for…[continue]

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