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August 9, 2022
While relieved that an arrest was made today in the murders of four South Asian men in Albuquerque, New Mexico between November 2021 and August 2022, with the last three occurring in the last three weeks, we are horrified and heartbroken to learn that the suspect is a Muslim man who may have been motivated by anti-Shi‘i hatred. According to CNN, “Albuquerque police have detained and charged a man they say is the ‘primary suspect’ in the killings of four Muslim men. The man has been identified as Muhammad Syed, 51.”
Such horrendous actions are antithetical to Islamic teachings that hold all human life sacred, and which prohibit such blatant disregard for life. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims and to the entire community. We stand with our Shi‘i brothers and sisters both here at home and abroad against such acts of sectarian hatred and violence and call for greater efforts to counter anti-Shi‘i bigotry and hate.
For far too long competing narratives have resulted in stereotypes and bigotry that otherize and demonize the minority of the two major groups of Muslims. Yet, as we explain in our answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Sunni and Shi‘i division, the foundational elements of Islam are similar for both Sunnis and Shi‘ah, including core beliefs such as the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (p) as well as adherence to shared practices such as prayer, fasting, charity, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The following answers are summaries to frequently asked questions about the differences between the two groups.
What is the main difference between Sunnis and Shi‘ah?
Historically, the difference originated from the question of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is related to differing views about appropriate leadership for the Muslim community. While both most Sunnis and Shi‘ah assign special status to and revere the descendants and family of the Prophet Muhammad, Shi‘ah believe that God chose Muhammad’s cousin Ali, who was married to his daughter Fatima, to be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, and that Muhammad indicated this before his death. In contrast, Sunnis believe that that the Muslim community was free to choose the most qualified person as ruler and that Muhammad did not appoint any particular person as his political successor.
How and when did the division occur between Sunnis and Shi‘ah?
As mentioned above, Shi‘ah maintain that the right of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad went to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, while Sunnis believe that the choice of Abu Bakr, father-in-law and close confidant of Muhammad, and the subsequent two caliphs or rulers was valid. When Ali was finally chosen as the fourth caliph or ruler, after his death his rival Mu‘awiyyah quickly established Umayyad rule.
Many practices of the Umayyad dynasty disturbed many Muslims, which led to a number of revolts by various groups. One of these revolts was led by Husayn, Ali’s son and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. When Husayn, who is revered by both Shi‘ah and Sunnis alike, was brutally killed along with many of his family members by the Umayyads at Karbala in Iraq, this crystallized the belief among supporters of Ali that governance should have remained with the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The term Shi‘at Ali or “the faction of Ali” at some point became merely Shi‘ah, while the term Sunni came to include those who agreed upon the validity of the rule of all of the first four caliphs.
Why is there so much conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ah today? Does the conflict impact Muslim Americans?
Much of the conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ah is more political than religious. For instance, in Iraq before the Second Gulf War, Sunnis dominated the government. After the war, rule was shifted to Shi‘ah, and this has produced tensions that have often been exploited by extremists on both sides. In three Arab Spring countries (Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain), the sectarian divide has also been among the many factors playing a role in the conflicts, but the conflicts began for the same political and social reasons that they erupted in other Arab Spring nations.
While these conflicts are of concern to Muslim Americans who have family in the countries involved, the sectarian conflict has rarely impacted the larger Muslim American community, in part because Sunni and Shi‘i leaders in this country have made concerted efforts to prevent discord and demonstrate unity. This includes Sunni-Shi‘i unity conferences in the Bay Area, at the Islamic Society of North America Convention, and across the country. This tragic event only renews Muslim American efforts to promote intrafaith understanding and solidarity in our communities.