People reading this blog will frequently come across the words Sunni and Shi’ite (or Shi'a), in reference to Islamic dynasties, mosques etc. Because of the continued war in Iraq and the political logjam in Lebanon, most people will be familiar with the terms if not their meaning, so below is a very brief outline of the where, the when, and the how, and what it means to today’s Islamic world and beyond.
When the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 he did not leave instructions regarding the succession, and the adherents quickly divided into 2 groups; those who felt the successor should be of the Prophet’s family and those who felt the succession should go to the worthiest member of the community. The former would eventually became known as the Shi’ite [shiah-i-Ali] or party of Ali, while the latter became the Sunni, meaning ‘the way, or path’. The first three Caliphs, or successors, chosen were contemporaries of the Prophet and respected members of the community. When the 3rd Caliph, Othman, was assassinated in 656, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was appointed as 4th Caliph thus ‘satisfying’ those who felt that as a member of the Prophet’s family he should have been the first Caliph.