Islam, one of the three Abrahamic religions, is the second largest religion in the world with over 1 billion practitioners. During the 7th century, the burgeoning religion faced a significant dilemma when the Prophet Muhammad, the religion's founder, passed away without officially naming his heir. This question of leadership would be the main cause that motivated Islam's only major division, which split the religion into the Sunni and Shiite sects.
Abu Bakr's Leadership
When Muhammad died, he left an Islamic community of 100,000 followers. The larger contingent within this community chose Abu Bakr (573-634) , who was at the time of Muhammad's death, his closest friend and adviser. Abu Bakr, who was married to the Prophet's daughter Aishah, helped lead the pilgrimage to Mecca in 631 and led public prayers before Muhammad's death . He was eventually chosen as the Prophet's successor and became the first caliph of Islam.
Abu Bakr's followers came to be known as Sunnis. The Sunni had a different motivation for choosing the successor to Muhammad: Unlike the Shiites, they did not believe that this leadership role reflected a divine order. Rather, they took a more pragmatic stance and chose a leader who would, given the political circumstances of the times, best lead. Traditionally, Sunni leaders have come from powerful families of Mecca, and their religious beliefs have been shaped by views of the majority rather than those of more peripheral groups.
Upon Muhammad's death, a minority group within the religion perceived Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, to be his rightful heir. Ali became the first imam (leader) of the Shiite sect and was succeeded by other imams. Along with the Prophet and other early members of Islam (which included Abu Bakr), Ali helped create the core of the young Islamic community in Mecca. Once he migrated to Medina to join Muhammad, he married Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter. Their progeny would shape the future of the Shiite sect, as they were perceived to be the successors of the religion.
The Shiites' main motivation for the split is rooted in the way they have interpreted Muhammad's words: Although both Sunnis and Shiites agree that Muhammad claimed Ali as his inheritor, Sunnis believe that Muhammad was only expressing his closeness to Ali and did not appoint him to be his successor, while Shiites believe that these words constituted Ali as the Prophet's successor.
Today, the Shiite sect is the smaller of the two major Islamic sects and is divided into several distinct sects, the largest being the Ithna Ashariyyah. The Shiites believe that leaders of Islam are direct descendants of Muhammad and his family. Most acknowledge that the leadership lineage was carried on by Musa al-Kazim, the son of Ja'far ibn Muhammad, who was the great grand-son of Ali. They also believe that this direct lineage ended with the Twelfth Imam.
Throughout the centuries, other sects have arisen within the religion. The Kharijite was an extremist sect that arose after the Battle of Siffin, which had been caused by the murder of the third caliph, Uthman. The Kharijite's main cause for the split from Ali, who had by then become the fourth caliph, was due to the concessions Ali made to Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, following the battle. The Kharijites would eventually assassinate Ali in 661. Sufism, which expresses mystical aspects of Islam, arose as a reaction against what some Muslims perceived as growing material concerns over religious duties during the Umayyad period (661-749).
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