The rift between Sunni and Shia has historically been a cause of great tension. To an untrained eye, people like myself, one might look at the differences between Sunni and Shia as trivial when in fact they take on a great deal of importance within the development of the Islamic faith. Not only do Sunni and Shia and every other Islamic sect maintain their own inerpretation of the Quran and separate documentation of ancient custom, but they have also developed very different cultural practices from judicial systems to the act of praying itself. I hope to address some of these in later posts, but for now I will go over the significance of Ali and the role he plays in this division, as I have been learning about him in my Middle Eastern history class.
At the time of the prophet Mohammed’s death in 632, the future leadership of Muslims became a very divisive issue. Eventually it would be the Rashidun Caliphs that would rise to power, followed by the reign of the Umayyads and the Abbasids. In Sunni Islam, this leadership is regcognized as well anointed and just. According to the Sunni, though the caliphs did not possess any holy spiritual powers, they had been chosen under the current jurisdiction to uphold shari’ah law and maintain the Islamic society that prophet Mohammed had worked to create.
Unlike Sunnis, Shia muslims highly disputed this sentiment from the core of their beliefs. For them, it was only to be the blood line of Mohammed starting with his cousin Ali, that would hold legitimate power. Ali took on the Rashidun Caliphate from 656-661. When he was assassinated in 661, the dispute over rightful leadership divided the groups. The Shias did not acknowledge the leadership of the time, as they questioned the methods in which selection took place. When Ali was killed in 661, it brought to an end the leadership of the entirety of Islam through a direct connection to Mohammed’s blood line.
Later, it would be Ali’s son Hussein that would stage a mass rebellion against the very same empire claiming his legitimate role as ruler. Hussein’s death would devastate Shias all over, as he represented a kind of martyrdom. It is every year around this time in the month of Ashura, that Shias mourn Hussein’s death through daily services and even self-mutilation on the 10th of Muharram (falling this year on November 13th). Here in Oman, in recognition of Hussein’s martyrdom, some people will have blood drives during this time of year.
Fun fact! Sunnis observe this day as well, but for them it represents something entirely different, the day the Israelites were freed from the pharaoh.