All the world’s major religions contain sects within it; some comingle with ease while others seem to share only mistrust and disdain. Much as Catholics and Protestants fought bloody battles for centuries, Sunni and Shiite Muslims are fighting territorial and political battles throughout the Middle East. This discussion will first address the similar history of all Muslims then the circumstances of the split. It will concentrate on Sunni, Shia, the Druze, a Shiite off-shoot belief and Wahhabism, a derivative of Sunni. The final section explores the contemporary conflicts of Islam’s two main sects.
The central belief of all Muslims is that the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 AD, was Allah’s (Arabic for God) messenger. His revelations are recorded in the Qur’an and are followed by Muslims of all descriptions who also look to sayings of Muhammad, hadith, for inspiration and guidance.
The concepts of justice, goodness and piety are essential to Islamic practices and belief system. Furthermore, all Muslims are directed to live their lives according to the five pillars of Islam: “(1) shahada—recital of the creed “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”; (2) salat—five obligatory prayers in a day; (3) zakat—giving alms to the poor; (4) sawm—fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan; and (5) hajj—making a pilgrimage to Mecca once during a lifetime if one is physically and financially able.” (Blanchard, 2009) The chief role of Muslim religious leaders is to interpret shari’a, or Islamic law. There are no strict codes or wording of laws such as westerners are accustomed. Rather, for both Shiite and Sunni Islam, shari’a allows for wider legal interpretations to fit the circumstance and greater flexibility for sentencing. The Sunni/Shiite split occurred near the beginnings of the Islamic religion. The main disagreement concerns the Prophet Muhammad’s successor and the type of leadership that would guide Muslim society. The long-standing and significant dispute centers on whether the leader(s) should be a direct descendant of the Prophet or could be a qualified, virtuous and devout person who would adhere to the customs of Islam. This issue was initially decided when Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet, was selected by community leaders to be the successor, or Caliph. While most Muslims accepted Bakr, a minority supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet’s and his son-in-law. Bakr was married to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. The term Shi’at Ali translates to “Ali’s helper.” Another important distinction that relates to modern times is the amount of reverence paid to the respective leaders of the two Islamic sects. Sunni Muslims give exalted status only to the prophets of the Quran and not to present day leaders. Shiites bestow imams with this lofty status. The Sunnis religious hierarchy is not adorned as elaborately, as highly esteemed and is not as politically powerful as the Shiite leadership. Because of this distinction, Sunnis tend to be more accommodating in permitting lay people to serve as spiritual leaders. Sunni religious leaders, as opposed to Shiites, have historically been subject to control by the state. Shiite leaders have enjoyed greater autonomy. (Blanchard, 2009) The Druze is a fairly populous yet little known yet sect of Islam because they want it that way. This mysterious group, numbering nearly one million in Syria alone, has endeavored for many centuries to shield their cultural lives from outsiders and keep their religious views secret. Druze prefers to live in isolation. They are