How Did Sunni & Shia Beliefs About Caliphs Differ?

Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson Husayn on the holiday known as Ashura.
... Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Although the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam agree that Muhammad was the messenger of God, they differ sharply on the leadership of the Islamic community after the Prophet's death in 632 C.E. Although the question of who should serve as Muhammad's caliph, or successor, might seem like ancient history to a non-Muslim, the conflicting perspectives on the caliphate actually cast light on broader differences between these two expressions of Islam.

1 The Caliphate

The words "caliph" and "caliphate" derive from the Arabic "khalifa," the word used to refer to a successor or deputy in the Quran and the Hadith, collections of sayings and incidents from the life of Muhammad. Deciding who should take over for Muhammad after his death was a particularly sensitive matter for the early Islamic community. Not only did the Prophet not leave behind an incontrovertible designation of who should take his place, but Muhammad actually played two roles for the community: he was both the messenger of God and their political leader. Muhammad's immediate successors would occupy similar roles, although the nature of the caliph's religious leadership would become a matter of dispute.

2 Sunni Caliphs

According to Sunni teaching, Muhammad left the process of determining who would succeed him to the Muslim community to decide by consensus. The community chose the Prophet's close companion Abu Bakr, a man known for his devotion and discernment. The next three caliphs were also former companions of the Prophet. Because of their direct connection to Muhammad and his teaching, Sunni Muslims call his first successors the "rightly guided" caliphs. After the passing of the fourth caliph, Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, the caliphate's authority became more political than religious.

3 Shia Imams

Shiite belief disputes the validity of the first three caliphs, and the lines of authority diverge after the passing of the fourth, Ali. This stance is what gives this branch of Islam its name, from "Shiat Ali," the faction or partisans of Ali. According to Shiite teaching, the proper line of succession went through Muhammad's family, not community consensus. In this view, the first legitimate successor was Ali, whom they regard as the first in the line of infallible and sinless successors referred to as imams.The martyrdom of the third imam, Muhammad's grandson Husayn, continues to be commemorated by Shiite Muslims on the holiday of Ashura, a period of fasting and reflection previously established by Muhammad.

4 The Caliphate Today

The caliphate and Shiite imamate each came to an end, but elements continue to evident in Islam today. Different sects within Shiite Islam hold to their own lines of imamate succession, with the largest group being the Twelvers, who believe that Muhammad's last descendant, the twelfth Imam Mahdi, disappeared in the ninth century and will someday return.Although interim religious leaders may not be infallible imams, they nonetheless hold considerable spiritual authority, particularly the revered leaders known as ayatollahs. The caliphate as a political institution faded away and was officially abolished in 1924. However, decision-making through community consensus, or ijma, became a hallmark of Sunni interpretation of religious law.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.