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Shi'ites and Sunnis

Sibling Rivalry in the Muslim Family

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Adult Study, Adult Study
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Although Christians are becoming more familiar with Islam in general, they still have relatively little knowledge about the differences between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam. To some extent, this parallels Muslim lack of knowledge about the differences between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed Christianity. The reasons for both are similar. When viewed from the outside, the differences between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam are small compared with what they have in common. Both believe the Qur'an to be the divine word of God, dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gibra'il (Gabriel). Both hold to the Five Pillars of Islam, and in their external practice of Islam they seem very similar, if not identical, to the outsider.

Recent events in Iran and Iraq have made people in the West more aware of, though not necessarily better informed about, Shi'ite Islam. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, have become familiar with the Shi'ite term ayatollah, although most tended to believe that Khomeini was the most important ayatollah or even the only ayatollah, neither of which were true. More recently the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayni al-Sistani has appeared in the news calling for calm in the Shi'ite southern half of Iraq.

The term (the) Shi'ah is often used by Shi'ites to describe themselves as the "people of the Shi'ah or Aly." The Arabic word shi'ah means a faction or a party, and Shi'ite Muslims see themselves as being among those Muslims who followed Aly ibn Abu Talib in the often-tragic controversies that followed the death of the prophet Muhammad.

This study provides information about the origins of Shi'ite Muslims and some of the tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in the past and today. While it can be studied in one session, it can also easily be extended to two sessions.

Elias D. Mallon has taught at American University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Washington in Seattle. He was also on the faculty at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Bossey, Switzerland. He has published several articles on Christian-Muslim relations and is the author of Neighbors: Muslims in North America and Islam: What Catholics Need to Know.

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