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Ads Answer: Improve The fundamentals of the Islamic faith are agreed upon by all Muslims. These fundamentals include the belief in the oneness of God, the role of the Prophet Muhammad as his final messenger, prayer, the requirement to perform Hajj once in one's lifetime, and the requirement to give to charity. Sunnis and Shi'is do not disagree on these issues. The rift between the two, rather, developed along historical and political lines, on the question of who was to be the legitimate leader of the Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. The passing on of Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. thrust the nascent Muslim community into a protracted debate over who would be their next leader. Some companions felt that the Prophet had designated his nephew and beloved son-in-law 'Ali as his political and religious successor, and thus the Imam (leader) of the Muslim community. The majority, however, opted for the procedure of choosing from among a group of elders, and thus an old friend of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, was elected as the first Caliph. The group that historically held to the view that 'Ali and the descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima (who was also 'Ali's wife) are the legitimate successors of the Prophet's mantle of leadership are referred to as Shi'ati 'Ali (the supporters of 'Ali). This issue has led to the development of the largest institutional division within the Muslim community, without any drastic variation in fundamental beliefs or practices. Political machinations often deepened the wounds of division, and the historical Sunni-Shi'a differences are still passionately employed by people with vested interests for political or "religious" hegemony. Groups with extremist beliefs have emerged from both sides. Among those who claim to be Sunni Muslims are the Qadianies, who believe that a person by the name of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed appeared in the Indo-Pak subcontinent over a hundred years ago, and that he was a prophet of Allah who received divine revelation. Among the Shi'a there are the Abadiyyahs, who believe that 'Ali was partly divine; the 'Alawies, who consider 'Ali virtually a prophet; and the Druze, who consider an 11th-century descendant of 'Ali, al-Hakim, to have been the embodiment of God. All groups that hold such views are diametrically opposed to the agreed-upon fundamentals of Islam and are not considered within the fold of Islam by the mainstream Shi'as and Sunnis who constitute more than 90% of those who claim to be Muslim. Answer History of the Shi'ites
The Islamic religion was founded by Muhammed in the seventh century. In 622 he founded the first Islamic state, a theocracy in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia located north of Mecca. There are two major branches of the religion he founded. The largest group, called the Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs--Muhammed's successors-rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War. The smaller of the major groups are the Shi'ites. There are a number of subdivisions under the 'umbrella' of 'Shi'a' and although they differ in the details all of them believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Muhammed. The Shi'ites call these successors Imams. Shi'ites do not accept that the Imam is to be only a political leader but they believe that they are literally 'manifestations of God', they are sinless, infallible and the bringers of true understanding to all humanity. They are referred to within the Shi'ite tradition as being masum, that is, free from error or sin. The last Imam, the Mahdi, is believed not to have died but to be in hiding and Shi'ites believe that he will appear at the end of time in order to bring about the victory of the Shi'a faith (see third paragraph below). The main groups under the Shi'ite umbrella are the Zaydiyyah or Fivers, the Isma'iliyyah or Seveners and the Imamiyyah or Twelvers. The numbers five, seven and twelve refer to the last authorised interpreter of the law or Imam that each group accepts. Of the three the Twelvers are the biggest & it was in 931 that the Twelfth Imam disappeared. This was a seminal event in the history of these Shi'ite Muslims. According to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, "Shi'ite Muslims, who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, [believe they] had suffered the loss of divinely guided political leadership" at the time of the Imam's disappearance. Not "until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978" did they believe that they had once again begun to live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure. The other important concept in Shi'ite Islam concerning the Imam (regardless of whether he was the Fifth, the Seventh or the Twelfth) is that he will return. He is called the Mahdi and will bring about the Kingdom of God on earth after an apocalyptic battle between the forces of Islam and the rest of the world. [Note that other groups descended from Shi'ia Islam such as the Babis and Baha'is define the 'battle at the end of time' as a symbolic or metaphysical one rather than an actual battle.]
The division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation. The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet." On the other hand, some Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself. The Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad's death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet). Note: There are comments associated with this question. See the discussion page to add to the conversation.
Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_difference_between_Sunnis_and_Shi'a#ixzz1u5MSZrjz