Explore our pages of knowledge, skills and advice.
Get informed and get active.
The historical disagreement and subsequent separation between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims began after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Its origin was a difference of opinion over who would succeed the Prophet (pbuh) in leading and guiding the community.
Sunnis believe that the Prophet (pbuh) did not designate a successor. In the grief and desolation immediately after the death of the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Bakr (caliph in 632-4) received consensual support to take over the social and political leadership of the community in a highly complex environment. He was succeeded, following a principle of consensus, by Umar ibn Al-Khattab (634-44), Uthman ibn Affan (644-656) and Ali ibn Abi Talib (656-61).
In the Sunni view, these are the four 'rightly-guided caliphs' or rashidun, the companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Because the Prophet (pbuh) was the last of the prophets, their leadership was not deemed to consist in spiritual or religious authority, although the first caliphs held religious importance for example in leading prayers in the community. Leadership is exercised rather in social, political, and where required military matters. It was felt therefore that it should be conferred by the selection of the most qualified person.
However, some of the young community believed that the Prophet (pbuh) before death had designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, his son-in-law and cousin, and the first Muslim convert after the Prophet's (pbuh) wife Khadija. In their view, the Prophet's (pbuh) will was that not only Ali but also his sons, the Prophet's (pbuh) grandsons, and subsequent descendents should bear the mantle of leadership, including its more spiritual aspects. Ali waited through the leadership of the first three Caliphs before taking on leadership. At this point conflict emerged over his leadership, which grew and hardened in time into the division of the Sunni and the Shi'a.
After the assasination of Ali, Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan took control and established the Ummayad Caliphate, basing it in Damascus where Mu'awiya had been governor. Ali's son Hassan did not press his claim to leadership of the now enlarged Muslim community. Mu'awiya, however, was succeeded by his son Yazid, widely considered corrupt; and at this point Ali's second son, Husayn, took a stand against his power. In the battle of Karbala (in present-day Iraq)Husayn and his followers were heavily outnumbered and were killed to a man, and the surviving women and children were forced to Damascus.
Shi'a take the martyrdom of Husayn as a defining moment in their history, identity and spirituality. Husayn's young sun survived, and in Shia eyes became the fourth Imam. The Shi'a therefore derived their leadership from the family of the Prophet (pbuh); they often refer to themselves as the People of [Muhammad's - pbuh] Household, the Ahl al-Bayt; whereas Sunnis often refer to themselves as the people of the Sunnah, the Ahl al-Sunnah.