Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims

Click to enlarge the map

Many people, including American leaders, do not know the difference between Sunni an Shia Islam and do not know who is who.

Fortunately for all of us, TDAXP has a short, Complete Idiot's-style guide to understand what Sunni and Shia believe. To sum it up: Sunnis are like Congregationalist Baptists who want a Pope (Caliph) while Shiites are like Lutherans who believe their leader has been hiding for about 1,300 years.

Of course within Sunni and Shiite there are differences. These range from unaligned moderate Sunnis in Lebanon who live Western-style lives with Christian neighbors to "Jihad-now!" Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia. The Shia have their own divisions like the Twelvers and Ismailis but these groups differ on who were the rightful leaders in the past.

There are also some smaller groups which fall between the cracks. The Alawites in Syria have communion and a greater emphasis on Jesus (probably influenced by the cultural interaction from the Crusades). Also there is also Sufi Islam which is much more personal and mystical than Sunni or Shia. On the fringe are the Druze who can be considered the Muslim equivalent of Mormonism. This is to name only a few of the other denominations of Islam.


Daniel said...

Sunnis are like Congregationalist Baptists who want a Pope

This is the best line in either of our posts, and the saddest, too. For Sunnis, not only is the "seat vacant," but the entire administrative apparatus is as well. It is possible to imagine the 20th century going differently, and have the positions of the Catholics and the Sunnis reversed.

Ali said...

I don't think most Sunnis want a Caliph. Except for crazy extremists no one thinks about Caliphs. I mean for all intents and purposed there were only four legitimate Caliphs. The idea of the Caliph was revived in the very death throes of the Ottoman Empire.

I suspect Westerners like the idea of a desire for a Caliph because it is a simple narrative that can help them understand a gigantic chunk of the World (the "Muslim" World) without looking into or learning about the much more relevant specifics of local history and governance that are of actual meaning in places like Iran and Pakistan.

After the first four Caliphs the governance of the Muslim World became much more complex and variagated, sadly this is not illustrated in Western historiography, where, by attempting to draw parallels between the Christian world (especially the relationship between the Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire) we arrive at the common simplistic theories as to how Muslims govern themselves, have governed themselves and want to govern themselves.

To talk about the Caliphate when discussing the Muslim World is like studying Charlemagne's empire when making sense of the modern EU.

On a side note, the Alawites can not really be said to have a standard theology. If anything it is pre-monotheistic and Christian beliefs melded with Islam, but not in any organized fashion. There Christian tradition has everything to do with the fact that the Middle East was predominantly Christian for nearly a millenium and it was only after two or three centuries of Arab rule that the local populace began to convert to Islam in great numbers.

You once again show your interest in the Crusaders relations with the Middle East. I highly suggest you read more scholarly work on the subject as I think you might find it interesting. Most of what is understood about the Crusaders and Levantine Christians is grossly watered down, simplified and quite often just not true. But understandably we have a hard time divorcing ourselves from the more romantic historiographical creations of the 19th century.