Phi Beta Cons

Sunni vs Shiite

Yesterday, I had a piece for NRO’s Education Week about higher education’s failure to impart knowledge of Islam and Muslim society to American college students.

In the piece, I listed a few questions I’d asked classmates at Harvard after the al-Askari shrine in Samarra was bombed last February. Knowing the answers to them, I argue, should be the norm. Anyways, I’ve received a couple pieces of mail asking me the answers.
I wouldn’t want to be the hypocrite that tempts with questions, chastises universities for not giving the answers, and then staying mum myself! So here goes: I’m doing this entirely from memory, so I will not be hurt (indeed, I will be grateful) to be told if I am wrong on any count.
The major theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites?
A comparison to Christianity might help here. Just as Catholics believe in the apostolic succession–that the pope literally is the possessor of the keys of St. Peter (considered the first pope) and custodian of the one, true Church–so do Shiites believe in the succession of imams, descending from Muhammad. There have been 12 imams, the last of whom was hidden by Allah until the end of days; the coming of a charismatic Muslim leader, the Mahdi (there have been several claiming to be him through history) is supposed to herald the twelfth Imam’s return. Emanating from this belief in lineal authority is the Shiite emphasis on hierarchy and the presence of supreme religious leaders like an ayatollah, which has no direct analog in Sunni Islam.
Most Muslims are Sunni, however. To carry along the Christian analogy: Just as scripture and its interpretations are the main engine in germinating the many different variations of Protestantism in Christendom, the reliance of Sunnis on interpretable texts — the Qu’ran, of course, but also the Sunnah (as the collected customs of Mohammad are known) and the Hadith (Mohammad’s sayings) — works the same way. There are four schools with different interpretations of the scripture, and each cleric is something of a self-sustaining entity, thus the proliferation of zany fatwas one occasionally hears about.
The countries in the region with Sunni majorities? Those with Shiite majorities?
Nearly all the Muslim world is comprised of Sunni-majority states. The Shiite-majority exceptions are Iran and Iraq. (Okay, memory not useful here: Azerbaijan and Bahrain are also Shiite-majority.) Syria’s Allawites, who are classified as Shiites although are often considered schismatic, constitute the Syrian ruling class, although the population is mostly Sunni.
Some of the main pilgrimage sites in the Muslim world?
Mecca and Medina, of course, are specifically designated as sacred in original scripture: a pilgrimage there is one of Islam’s “Five Pillars” and is something every Muslim who has the means to do so ought to do to lead a pious life. There is also Jerusalem, site of the Dome of the Rock, where Muhammad ascended into heaven for his epic “night journey.” These sites are common to all Muslims.
The shrines of the first imams are considered holy by Shiites, and many of them are in Iraq. Of course, there is Samarra, which we all should have heard of by now; it is the home of the al-Askari shrine, where a couple later imams are entombed. There are also shrines with interred imams at Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad.
Whether al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite?
Sunni, extremely so: Al-Qaeda regards Shiites as heretical because of the importance of human lineage and authority in Shi’a Islam, which al-Qaeda considers idolatrous.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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