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Last updated: April 12, 2019

The Islam is the religion preached by Muhammad (probably c.

570–632), the adherent of which is called a Muslim. The central dogmas of Islam are the absolute unity of God (Allah) and the prophethood of Muhammad. There are two main branches of Islam: Sunnis Muslims and Shii Muslims.

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The Sunnis Muslims (sunna from Arabic is “tradition”) are the largest branch of the Muslim community, at least 85 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Shii Muslims (Shiites from Arabic is ‘sectarians’) are the minority division within Islam, which consists of about one-fifth of all Muslims.

The name of the Sunnis Muslims is derived from the Sunnah, which means the exemplary behavior of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims follow the sunna, a code of practice based on the hadith collected in the Sihah Satta, six authentic Books of Tradition, sayings and deeds of Muhammad. The Sunna means whatever Muhammad, by positive example or implicit approval, demonstrated as the ideal behavior for a Muslim to follow. It therefore complements the Koran as a source of legal and ethical guidance. All Muslims are guided by the Sunnah, but Sunnis stress it, as well as consensus. Another branch of Islam, the Shiis, is guided as well by the wisdom of Muhammad’s descendants, but through his son-in-law Ali.Sunnis around the world share some common points: acceptance of the legitimacy of the first caliph (caliph from Arabic, “successor”; successors of Muhammad) Abu Bakr, and his successor: Umar, Uthman, and Ali.

(Caliph is the spiritual head and temporal ruler of the Islamic state.) Sunnis Muslims recognize these first four, or Rashidun (the rightly guided), caliphs. Sunnis accept the right to rule the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties (661–1258) after first four caliphs too.Shiites believe that Muhammad’s religious leadership, spiritual authority, and divine guidance were passed on to his descendants, beginning with his son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, his daughter, Fatimah, and their sons, Hasan and Husayn. Shi‘i Muslims believe that the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, fourth of the rightly guided caliphs, was chosen by Muhammad as his successor as Imam, or leader, of the community and that Ali’s descendants should rightfully have been at the head of the umma. (Shi‘i refers to being the “party of Ali”.) So, Shiites recognize Ali as the first caliph, while they consider the first three Sunnis caliphs as usurpers. The most fundamental point of difference between Shiites and Sunnis lays in the part assigned to imams.

Imams are the authentic interpreters of the sunna. In legal writings the term is applied to the leader of the congregational prayers in the mosque. Shiites differ from Sunni Muslims in the importance they attach to the continuing authority of the imams. Sunni Muslims use the title for their prominent jurists, who are also regarded as the founders of their legal schools, such as Abu Hanifah and Shafii. In Shii Islam the imam is the divinely appointed successor of Muhammad and is regarded as infallible, with the ability to make binding decisions in all areas of human activity.The majority Shi‘i view is that the twelfth imam in line from Ali became “hidden” (he vanished in 873 C.E.

) and that he will finally return to establish justice on earth. They particularly venerate Ali and one of his sons, the Imam Husayn, who in 681 was killed at the battle of Kerbela in Iraq. His martyrdom is ritually remembered every year and becomes a powerful political symbol of the unjustly persecuted Shi‘i in times of crisis.Sunni life is guided by four schools of legal thought—Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali — each of which strives to develop practical applications of revelation and the Prophet’s example.

Sunni Islam comprises a variety of theological and legal schools, attitudes, and outlooks conditioned by historical setting, locale, and culture. Sunni believe that other Islamic branches, which they believe to be only sects, have introduced innovations, departing from majority belief.There are hundreds of different Shiite sects: the main ones are the Zaydis, Ismailis, and Ithna Ashariya (or Twelvers, who await the return of the hidden twelfth imam).

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