Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Leader Resource 3: Islam 2 Background

In the previous workshop, we discussed a number of aspects of Islam. One important thing we did not look at was its two main branches.

In our study of Christianity, we have learned [or, will learn] about a major split that happened about 1,500 years after Christianity began, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses of Contention to the Wittenberg church door and launched the Protestant Reformation. There are now thousands of Protestant denominations, with a billion adherents.

The split in Islam is very different. The division in Islam began as soon as Muhammad died, and it was not about corrupt individuals or even differences in beliefs; rather, it was about succession: Who should become caliph (kah-LEEF, meaning "successor" or "deputy") after Muhammad's death?

Here is what happened. Two men, Abu Bakr and Ali, were Muhammad's closest friends, advisors, and companions. Abu Bakr was the first male convert to Islam, and Ali was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, married to Muhammad's daughter Fatimah. When Muhammad died in 632 CE, his wishes for a successor were not clear enough to prevent a struggle. Advocates for both Ali and Abu Bakr asserted that Muhammad had chosen their favorite to be caliph. Ali's supporters contended that only blood relatives and descendents of Muhammad should be caliph, and bitterly opposed Abu Bakr.

When elders of the Muslim community elected Abu Bakr the first caliph, Ali's partisans did not accept Abu Bakr as a legitimate leader. Two more elected caliphs followed Abu Bakr, each time with Ali's supporters fervently asserting Ali's sole right to lead Islam. When the third caliph, Uthman, was murdered in 656 CE (24 years after Muhammad's death) and Ali finally became caliph, the conflict became war. Five years later, Ali himself was assassinated and the caliphate passed to another elected leader instead of to one of Ali's sons (grandchildren of Muhammad).

The disagreement has never been resolved. The branches are Sunni and Shia. Sunni means "people of custom and community." This is the group which believed in leaders chosen by the community. Shia means "partisans of Ali"—the group which believed the caliph should be a descendant of Muhammad). Worldwide, the Shiites make up only ten percent of Muslims. However, most Shiites live In the Middle East, where they are the majority. Iran's population is 93 percent Shiite. The fact that Iran's leadership was Shiite and Iraq was controlled by Sunnis for many years contributed to the war that raged for ten years between those two countries and in which millions were killed in both nations.

The Sunni and Shia branches differ in forms of leadership, the physical forms of prayer, and many other aspects. One theological difference has been described in this way:

... Shiites believe Allah commands something because it is a good thing (and does not command something because it is bad). Sunnis think that because Allah orders it, it makes it good. (from "Sunni and Shiite Branches of Islam" on the Hyper History website)


What do youth think about this? The difference seems subtle, but could make big difference in the way people think about God. If we substitute a parent for Allah, the difference is a little easier to see. One youth says, "I don't always agree with my mom, but when she tells me to do something, I know it's because she thinks it's a good thing." Another youth responds, "Well, if my mom tells me to do something that makes it a good thing!" Ask the youth which mom seems more authoritarian? Or maybe the moms are the same! Could the difference be in the way the youth receive what mom says? In other words, might the second youth just be more committed to accepting, or submitting to, the mom's judgment?

Interestingly, the Shiites have a very strong hierarchy, with layers of authority within the faith. The top layer is the ayatollahs, whom Shiites consider the supreme religious authority until the return of the last descendant of Muhammad. By comparison, Sunnis have no official clergy. There is nonprofessional religious leadership, though. Trained volunteers lead prayers, and frequently are financially supported by the communities they serve.


Tell the youth you would like to conduct an experiment. Then ask, "If someone asks you what religion you are, or, 'What's your church?' what do you answer?" Accept all answers. Then continue, "Great; thank you. Okay, next question: When other people are asked what religion they are, or what church they go to, what are some answers they might give?" Write responses on posted newsprint.

Together, look at the list; most will be Christian denominations. Note that when Christians are asked what their religion is, usually they will answer with their denomination: for example, "Church of Christ," "Baptist," "Mormon," "Methodist," etc. When adherents of Islam are asked the same question, they answer, "Muslim," never "Sunni" or "Shiite." Disagreement arises when a Sunni is asked if a Shia is a Muslim, or a Shia is asked if a Sunni is Muslim. Then, the answer is often "no."

Even though Shiites and Sunnis have differences deep enough to fight wars and kill millions of each others' people over, members of each group say they are Muslim, and each believes its sect to be faithful to the deepest truths of Islam. Do youth think this feeling of having irreconcilable differences but being in the same family, so to speak, would serve to ease tension or intensify it?