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The death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) was a great loss to the Muslim community of the day. 

Here was a man who had led through extreme hardship, exile, and personal loss, to create a community of people who would go on and spread the word of Islam throughout the world.


The mantle of leadership would fall heavy on the next leader and so it is perhaps not surprising that there would be conflict and disagreement about who would lead after the prophet's death.


The main division within the Islamic community dates back to the time of Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) death, in 632 CE, when his followers were faced with the decision of who would be his immediate successor (caliph).


It is important to note that despite their political differences, both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims share the same core beliefs and practices, which include belief in one God (Tawhid), the belief in the Quran as a divine revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the belief in the five pillars of Islam.


Sunni Muslims believed that the leadership of the Muslim community (caliphate) needed to be filled by someone qualified and pious who would uphold the customs (Sunnah) of the prophet.


As a result Abu Bakr, a close friend and companion (Sahaba) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was elected from Medina, in Saudi Arabia, as the first caliph to lead the newly formed Muslim community in 632 CE.


Shi'ites, however, believed that after Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) death, the caliphate should have passed to a member of the Prophet's family.


For this group the first caliph should have been the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) cousin and son-in law, Ali, who was married to the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. The role of leader would then pass down to their sons, Hasan and Hussain.


Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, followed by Uthman as the third caliph, and finally Ali, who was appointed the fourth caliph in 656 CE. These four leaders are known as ‘The Rightly Guided Caliphs,' ruling between 632- 661 CE.



Uthman's political leadership had been criticised by some for "a lack of cooperation with the younger members of the electoral committee," [2] whilst others charged him with nepotism. He was eventually killed by Egyptian rebels in his home.


It was during this period of instability that Ali took on the role of the fourth caliph.


Ali subsequently moved his capital to Iraq, as the Meccan region in Saudi Arabia became volatile. Despite the geographical distance, Ali's authority was challenged by a movement headed by the Prophet Muhammad's widow, Aisha, who was also the daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph.


In a conflict with Aisha's army, referred to as 'The Battle of the Camel,' Aisha and her supporters advanced as far as Basra, Iraq, until her army was defeated. Aisha was taken as a prisoner, but later apologised to Ali and returned to Medina. [3]


Ali's leadership was then challenged by the Governor of Syria, Muawiyiah of the Umayyad clan, also a relative of Uthman's. Muawiyiah "refused to step down and accept Ali's appointment." [4]


Karen Armstrong writes that "Muhammad's mission had been to promote unity among Muslims and to integrate the ummah (community) so that it reflected the unity of God." [5] 

In this spirit and to prevent further bloodshed, Ali and Muawiyiah's Syrian army agreed that the battle be settled by means of arbitration under the guidance of the Quran.


Some writers have commented that the arbitration itself "proved inconclusive"[6] or that the process favoured Ali less. [7] Nevertheless, some of Ali's supporters felt that he was compromising his divinely influenced authority.


It has been argued that "Ali lost support of a large part of his following," [8] who broke away to form a group called the Kharijites, meaning 'those who walked out.'


The division amongst Ali's followers would prove fatal, as the Kharijites plotted their revenge, murdering Ali while he prayed at a mosque in Kufa in 661 CE.. He is buried in Najaf, Iraq, in the Imam Ali mosque.


Shi'a Muslims came to glorify Ali as the first Imam and consider him and his descendants as the rightful successors to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).


After Ali's death, the caliphate passed to Muawiyiah of the Ummayyad dynasty, who ruled as caliph from 661-680. During his rule Muawiyiah moved his capital to Damascus, in Syria, establishing the Umayyad dynasty. His leadership marked the end of the rule of The Rightly Guided Caliphs.


There was a strong belief among Ali's followers, that following their leader's death, the caliphate should have passed to his sons, Hassan and Hussain.


Under Muawiyiah's caliphate, Ali's elder son Hassan, revered by the Shi'a as the second Imam, "agreed to renounce his claim ... and retired to live quietly in Medina." [11] His brother, Hussain, regarded as the Third Imam by Shi'ites, also lived in Medina. He lived there "until Muawiyiah was succeeded by his son Yazid," [12] in 680 CE. [13] At this point, Hussain and his small army travelled form Mecca and "set off to raise a rebellion in Iraq" [14] to oppose Yazid's caliphate.


Hussain's army was defeated leading to his death in Karbala, Iraq, in 680 CE (61 AH). 

Shi'ites regard Hussain's death as an act of martyrdom, sacrificing himself for Shi'a Islam. John Esposito writes that "this act of martyrdom has provided the paradigm of suffering and protest that has guided and inspired Shi'a Islam." [15] This event is commemorated today as Ashura, where millions of pilgrims still visit the Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala, Iraq.



After Hussain's death, although Iraq was formally governed by the Umayyad caliphate, the Shi'ites continued to exist as a separate Islamic community. This community did not recognise the authority of the Umayyad caliphs. "Rather, they recognised only the successors to Ali as authorities and they gave these successors the title Imam." [16]


Shi'ites believe that these Imams are descendents from the line of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Sunnis "revere them as leading religious authorities;"[17] but Shi'ites also consider them divine. According to the largest branch of Shi'a Islam there were twelve Imams beginning with Imam Ali, and ending with Imam Al-Mahdi. This group, known as the 'Twelvers,' believe that, as a young boy, Al-Mahdi disappeared in Samarra, Iraq, but is prophesised to return at a significant time in the future.


For Sunnis, there is a direct relationship between God and human beings, and as such caliphs or leaders are mere human beings who do not have a divine role in the Muslim community.


For Shi'ites, the imam is seen as a spiritual and political leader, who, Esposito says "although not a prophet is the divinely inspired, sinless leader of the community." [18] In communities such as in Iran, Ayatollahs (translated as ‘man of God') are clerics who specialise in Islamic studies, philosophy, ethics and jurisprudence and play a crucial role in the Shi'ite community.


"In hindsight," writes Armstrong, "Ali was regarded as a decent, pious man who had been defeated by the logic of practical politics." [19]


For some, Ali's fate came to symbolise the "inherent injustice of life," [20] whilst for others, "the murderous divisons that had torn the ummah apart", had served to raise the concept of unity as "a more crucial value in Islam than ever."[21]


[1] Karen Armstong, Islam A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.36. 
[2] Phillip Stewart Unfolding Islam, Second Edition, forthcoming. 
[3] Heinz Halm Shi'ism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p.9. 
[4] John. L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p.40. 
[5] Karen Armstong Islam: A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.34. 
[6] John. L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p.40. 
[7] Karen Armstong Islam: A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.35. 
[8] Phillip Stewart Unfolding Islam, Second Edition, forthcoming. 
[9] John. L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p.39. 
[10] Ibid, p.40. 
[11] Phillip Stewart Unfolding Islam, Second Edition, forthcoming. 
[12] Ibid. 
[13] Albert Hourani A History of the Arab Peoples, London: Faber and Faber, 2005. 
[14] Phillip Stewart Unfolding Islam, Second Edition, forthcoming. 
[15] John. L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p.45. 
[16] Richard Hooker The Caliphate, World Civilisations, Pullman, WA: WSU, 1996. 
[17] Karen Armstong Islam: A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.36. 
[18] John. L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p.45. 
[19] Karen Armstong Islam: A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.36. 
[20] Ibid. 
[21] Ibid.

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