What are the differences—historically, culturally, and theologically—between Sunni and Shia Islam? In light of current events in the Middle East, why is it important to recognize these differences today?

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The differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims center on who was supposed to lead the Islamic community after Muhammad’s death. It is important to recognize these differences because ignoring them can exacerbate the situation. The United States didn’t seem to grasp the dynamic, and their war in Iraq made things worse for Sunnis and Shi’ites.

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The divide between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam relates to the death of Muhammad. Once the Arab prophet and founder of Islam died, the Muslim community clashed over who should lead them. Sunnis thought that distinguished members of the community would be fit to lead them. Shi’ites believed that only someone from Muhammad’s family—a person who shared his blood—should lead the Islamic community.

The theological clashes have led to a history of real-world violence, with Sunnis and Shi’ites battling over money, land, political power, and the legacy of Muhammad.

It is important to realize these differences because not understanding the volatile relationship has arguably made it worse. In 2003, the United States did not have an accurate grasp on the dynamic between Sunnis and Shi’ites before it invaded Iraq, overthrew Iraq's Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, and replaced his administration with a Shi’ite government. The war and regime change exacerbated tensions between the two sects, with the new Shi’ite government targeting Sunnis, and Sunni militia groups attacking Shi’ite.

The Shi’ite government also faced hostility from other Shi’ite. A Shi’ite named Muqtada al-Sadr expressed his disapproval of the American-backed Shi’ite government and ignited a movement that waged war against Sunnis and the Shi’ite government.

In light of current events, like fires in Iraqi hospitals, the failure to consider the stark differences between Sunnis and Shi’ite has been catastrophic. It has exacerbated the violence and suffering in Iraq and further destabilized the Middle East at large.

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What are the differences historically, culturally, and theologically between Sunni and Shi'a Islam? In light of current events in the Middle East, why is it important to recognize these differences today?

Sunni and Shi'a Islam are the two largest denominations of the Islamic religion. Both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims believe in the core principles of Islam and agree with the holy book of Islam, the Quran.

The most notable difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam has to do with the rightful succession of the Prophet Muhammad and the leadership of the Islamic faith. The disagreement between the two denominations dates back to the seventh century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who didn't have a male heir.

Sunni Muslims argued that the Prophet's successor should be chosen by the other important and prominent members of the Islamic community, who agreed that Muhammad's closest friend and companion, Abu Bakr, should be the one to succeed the Prophet after his death.

On the other hand, Shi'a Muslims argued for someone from Muhammad's family; they believed that Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib should be chosen as the Prophet's successor and leader of Islam (hence the name Shi'a, or Shiat Ali, which translates to "Party of Ali").

The Sunni Muslims won, and Abu Bakr was chosen as Muhammad's heir and the first Caliph, but this difference in opinion is prevalent to this very day, and it is essentially what separates the two Islamic denominations both historically and culturally.

Another difference is in the leadership of the Islamic community. Since the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1920, the Sunni Muslims have no main spiritual leader; the leader of the mosque is known as the imam. The Mujtahids or the Grand Ayatollahs are the main religious leaders of the Shi'a Islamic community; the Imams are also recognized as leaders of ummah.

It's noteworthy to mention that despite the fact that these communities have coexisted together for centuries, there is still a lot of tension and hostility between the two groups, which was and still is the cause for several violent conflicts.

You can find more information about the differences between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims here.

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