Almost daily, we hear distressing stories of sectarian violence in Iraq. This has caused many Americans to realize that Islam, like other religions, is not a monolithic faith.

With more than 1.2 billion followers worldwide, Islam naturally encompasses tremendous diversity in its followers. Islam guides its faithful to seek peace, justice and unity, yet Muslims have periodically failed to live up to these foundational teachings.

The current divisions in Iraq stem from an ancient feud, but are not caused by any profound theological differences. The historical context was always political and, despite severe disagreements in the past, the conflict never assumed the characteristics it displays today in Iraq: viciousness, indiscriminate killing, and complete disregard for human life. Understanding what is happening in today’s Iraq requires a journey into the past.

On Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, his close companion Abu Bakr was elected as the next head of the Islamic state. Abu Bakr assumed the title “khalifa” meaning the “successor to or representative of the messenger of God.” The English word is “caliph,” and thus historically the Islamic state has also been described as a caliphate or “khilafa.”

A minority felt that the caliphate should pass down only to Muhammad’s direct descendants via Fatima, his daughter, and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was also Muhammad’s cousin.

Ali did later become the fourth khalifa, but faced political opposition almost immediately, sometimes from other relatives of Prophet Muhammad, like the Prophet’s wife Aisha.

Tragically, Ali was killed by an assassin who felt that he was too lenient in dealing with Muawiya, the governor of Syria who had refused Ali’s leadership. On Ali’s death, Muawiya assumed the title of caliph. Ali’s younger son Hussein agreed not to oppose Caliph Muawiya.

However, when Muawiya died in 680, his son Yazid usurped the caliphate. Hussein challenged Yazid’s leadership. This lead to a battle at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq. Hussein and his men were outnumbered and brutally slaughtered.

These events divided Islam between the party of Ali (Shiat Ali or “Shia”) and the majority who came to be known as “Sunni” (from the Arabic sunnah, meaning the traditional way).

Despite this history of political differences, Sunni and Shia Muslims agree on the fundamentals of Islam. Islamic scholars on both sides have declared the legitimacy of each other’s traditions and systems of jurisprudence.

For example, Al Azhar University, considered the most august seat of learning in Islam and the oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (legal opinion) in 1959 recognizing the legitimacy of Shia jurisprudence. Al Azhar University, though now Sunni, was founded by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in 969.

Given all that is happening in Iraq and the distressing possibility of this conflict widening to other regions, it is a duty of Muslim leaders and scholars worldwide to call upon all Muslims to focus on the shared values and beliefs of Shia and Sunni Muslims. (MORE)

Parvez Ahmed is board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. E-mail:



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