Pearl of Wisdom

When Allah afflicts a servant with illness, sins shed away from him in proportion to the seventy of his ailment.'

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib [as]
Da'd'im al-Islam, v. 1, p. 218

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Library » Islamic Unity » Summary of Differences Between Shi'ah and Sunni
Summary of Differences Between Shi'ah and Sunni E-mail

"And it is not for a believer man or believer woman to have any choice in their affair when Allah and His Apostle have decided a matter"
(Holy Quran, 33:36).

It may be of help to mention here that regarding this question the Muslims are divided into two sects: the Sunnis, who believe that Abu Bakr was the first caliph of the Holy Prophet of Islam; and the Shi'ahs, who believe that 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib, peace be upon him, was the first Imam and caliph.

Summary of Differences

The Holy Prophet has said in a hadith which has been accepted by all sects of Islam:

My ummah ( followers) will shortly break up into seventy-three sects, all of which shall be condemned except one.
[al-Khatib at-Tabrizi: Mishkatu 'l-masabih, Eng. tr. James Robson, vol.l, p.45; al-Majlisi has collected, in a complete chapter, traditions to this effect in Biharu 'l-anwar,, vol. 28, pp. 2-36; al-Qummi, Sh. 'Abbas: Safinatu 'l-bihar, vol. 2, pp. 359-60.]

The seekers of salvation have always made untiring efforts to inquire into the matter to discover the right course - the path to salvation. And indeed it is necessary for every man to take reason as his guide, try his best in this matter and never despair of attaining the truth. But this can only be possible when he has a clear view of the radical differences before him, and discarding all bias and prejudices, examines the points at issue with thoughtful mind, always praying to Allah to lead him in the right path.

For this reason I propose to briefly mention here the important differences and conflicts together with the arguments and reasonings of each sect, in order to facilitate the path of inquiry. The main questions are:

1. Does it lie with Allah to appoint a prophet's successor or is it the duty of the ummah (the followers) to appoint whomsoever they please as successor to the Prophet?

2. In the latter case, did Allah or the Prophet place in the hands of the ummah any systematic code containing the rules and procedures for the appointment of a caliph, or did the ummah by their unanimous consent before appointing a caliph, prepare a set of rules to which they adhered (subsequently), or did the ummah act according to what they thought expedient at the time and according to the opportunity at their disposal? Had they the right to act as they did?

3. Does reason and Divine Law demand the existence of any qualifications and conditions in an Imam and caliph? If so, what are they?

4. Did the Prophet of Islam appoint anyone as his caliph and successor or not? If he did so, who was it? If not, why?

5. After the Prophet's death, who was recognized to be his caliph and did he possess the qualifications necessary for a caliph?

Basic Differences

It will save time if we explain at the outset the basic cause of the differences concerning the nature and character of the Imamate and caliphate. What is the primary charactenstic of the Imamate? Is an Imam, first and foremost, the ruler of a kingdom? Or is he, first and foremost, the representative of Allah and vicegerent of the Prophet?

As the Imamate and caliphate is generally accepted as the successorship of the Prophet, the above questions cannot be answered until a decision is made on the basic characteristics of a prophet. We must decide whether a prophet is, first and foremost, the ruler of a kingdom or the representative of Allah.

We find in the history of Islam a group which viewed the mission of the Holy Prophet as an attempt to establish a kingdom. Their outlook was material; their ideals were wealth, beauty and power. They, naturally, ascribed the same motives to the Holy Prophet. 'Utbah ibn Rabi'ah, the father-in-law of Abu Sufyan, was sent to the Holy Prophet to convey the message of the Quraysh: "Muhammad! If you desire power and prestige, we will make you the overlord of Mecca. Do you desire marriage into a noble family? You may have the hand of the fairest maiden in the land. Do you desire hoards of silver and gold? We can provide you with all these and even more. But you must forsake these nefarious preachings which imply that our forefathers who worshipped these dieties of ours were fools."

The Quraysh were almost certain that Muhammad (saw) would respond favourably to this offer. But the Holy Prophet recited surah 41 in reply which, inter alia, contained the following warning:

But if they turn away, then say: "I have warned you of a thunderbolt (of punishment) like the thunderbolt of the 'Ad and the Thamud " (41: 13)

'Utbah was overwhelmed by this clear warning. He did not accept Islam, but advised the Quraysh to leave Muhammad (saw) alone to see how he could fare with other tribes. The Quraysh claimed that he was also bewitched by Muhammad (s. a.w. a.)
[Ibn Hisham:
as-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, vol.l, pp. 313 -4]

To summarize the event, 'Abbas took Abu Sufyan for a review of the Islamic army. He pointed out to Abu Sufyan eminent personalities from every clan who were present in the army. In the meantime, the Holy Prophet passed with his group which was in green uniform. Abu Sufyan cried out: "O 'Abbas ! Verily your nephew has acquired quite a kingdom ! " 'Abbas said: "Woe unto thee! This is not kingship; this is Prophethood"
[Abu'l-Fida': al-Mukhtasar, vol.1, pp 143-4; alYa'qubi: at-Tarikh, vol. 2, p. 59.]

Thus it is crystal-clear that the main characteristic of the Holy Prophet was not that he had any political power, but that he was the Representative of Allah. And that representation was not bestowed on him by his people; it was given to him by Allah Himself.

Likewise, his successor's chief characteristic cannot be political power; but the fact that he was the Representative of Allah. And that representation can never be bestowed upon anyone by his people; it must come from Allah Himself. In short, if an Imam is to represent Allah, he must be appointed by Allah.

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