Islam, like other religions, has multiple schisms, factions and parties within it. Just like Christianity, there are divergent views. In the Islamic world the largest of these splits is that between Sunni and Shi’ite. Shi’ites represent 15–20 percent of Muslims worldwide, and these are grouped in certain geographic areas, such as Iran, where Shi’ites make up some 90 percent of the Muslim population, and the Gulf countries.
“Sunni” refers to the term “Sunna of the Prophet,” which are the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad–a kind of biography, from which the Islamic community created an orthodox religious textual basis. This, needless to say, suggests that the Sunnis self-identify as “orthodox.” The Sunni heartland is more-or-less the Fertile Crescent, but large numbers also reside in other Islamic countries such as Pakistan where the 80/20 Sunni/Shi’ite split is also present.
“Shi’ite” is the adjectival form of Shi’ism, a term which refers to the Shi’at ‘Ali, or “Party of ‘Ali.”
Shi’ites, therefore, in very basic terms, are Muslims who follow ‘Ali, who was the fourth Caliph (Islamic leader) after the death of the religion’s founder, Muhammad, in 632. ‘Ali had been passed over for leadership three times, but finally became Caliph in 656–only for a brief period, before being assassinated. Followers of ‘Ali believed that the succession should go to descendants of the Prophet through ‘Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, and the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. ‘Ali never managed to generate a unified following during his Caliphate, and the community descended into civil war.
This was the beginning of the Sunni/Shi’ite split, and it initiated the first of several wars within the Islamic community as different factions struggled for leadership.
But what of their differences?
Originally there were few doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi’ite. The party of ‘Ali comprised, after all, Muslims, and there was only one group of Muslims at the beginning, all following the Prophet. Shi’ism as a political faction took route in areas which are now somewhat peripheral to the “Arab Heartland,” the Fertile Crescent and Arabian Peninsular, with the exception of the Gulf Coast which is today largely Shi’ite. Shi’ite religious practices, therefore…