Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Over the past few weeks a number of people have asked about the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. The differences between the two usually don’t matter much in practice, especially in the US. In fact, every mosque that I know of personally serves both Sunnis and Shi’a with little or no problem. But learning something about their differences can tell us a lot about how modern Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, practice Islam.
First, some statistics. Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunni, and most of the rest are Shi’a. Counting is tricky because some of the subgroups are hard to categorize. For example, one group which has been in the news lately, the Alawis, is really a kind of Shi’a. Although the total number of Alawis is relatively small (perhaps four million worldwide, compared to 1.5 billion Muslims) something like 10-15% of Syrians are Alawi, including the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This makes this group seem especially important today. Historically it’s easy to see that Alawi Islam developed from Shi’a Islam. But since many of their practices seem odd to most Muslims, it’s not unusual to classify Alawi religion as a separate type of Islam – or even as a different religion altogether.
On a basic level Sunnis and Shi’as disagree about who should have immediately succeeded Muhammad as leader of the Muslims community. Shi’as teach that Muhammad’s nephew Ali should have been chosen right away, instead of becoming only the fourth leader to succeed him (after the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman). Shi’as believe that the Muslims community should give special respect to Muhammad’s family and their descendants.
This leads to the crucial difference between Sunnis and Shi’a: how Muslims decide what Muslims are supposed to do. All Muslims are supposed to follow the Qur’an and hadith, but these were written in seventh century Arabia. So Muslims must ask themselves, how should we apply these old writings to modern life?
Sunnis take an amazingly democratic approach: they look to the actual practices of the majority of Muslims. When the decisions about what is right and wrong get difficult, Muslim legal scholars weigh in, and the community will then look for a consensus. Muslims call this consensus ijma, whether it is a consensus of the Muslim community or of legal scholars.
The idea is that God reveals his will through the consciences of Muslims. Sunnis like to quote a hadith of Muhammad which goes “my community will not agree on an error” – in other words, the community as a whole tends to figure out right from wrong without special guidance. This idea is similar to the practice of church democracy: we let members vote because we expect that each individual might personally sense God’s will.
Shi’as are less likely to look to the community to determine what is right. Shi’as instead listen to specific leaders to explain how to practice Islam. Of the several distinct groups of Shi’a, by far the largest is the “Twelvers” who hold that there was a line of twelve “Imams,” spiritual descendants of Muhammad. The last of these, Muhammad al-Mahdi, has lived in a kind of “hidden” place since approximately 941 A.D., and will return at the end of the age (similar to the Christian idea of the return of Jesus Christ). In the meantime, God appoints “spiritual leaders” to guide Muslims. Most Shi’a in Iran and Iraq are Twelvers.
The relationship of Shi’a “spiritual leaders” to the government of Muslim countries has historically been hard to define. Iran took an unusual turn in 1979 when it essentially became a theocracy (ruled by God), led by its leading “ayatollah,” a Shi’a scholar. While religious leaders, including ayatollahs, have been important to Shi’a governments in the past, modern Iran is the first Islamic state to be ruled by an ayatollah.
We need to keep in mind that Muslims are much like Christians in that they often feel free to disagree with their religious leaders, even when the leader becomes the head of a country. We might compare the head Ayatollah of Iran to the Roman Catholic Pope: after all, Pope Francis has influence in both world politics and the practice of Roman Catholicism.
Yet modern Americans know that the Pope’s influence is limited in both areas. Pope Francis has famously spoken out against “trickle down” economics, and against the idea of a wall between the United States and Mexico. He also supports efforts to reduce global warming, and, like Popes before him, condemns birth control and abortion. Does this mean that American Catholics overwhelmingly support his views? Do Catholics stop being Catholic when they disagree with or disobey the Pope? Obviously not! Catholics look to leaders for guidance; nevertheless most agree that they can remain Catholic even when they disagree with their leaders.
This principle holds for Shi’a Muslims as well. Iranian ayatollahs technically define the correct way to practice Shi’a Islam. But lesser scholars often disagree with the top ayatollah, and ordinary Shi’a, including most in the United States, freely disagree with policies and pronouncements of the Iranian government.
Conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims almost always has to do with politics, not Islam. Both Sunnis and Shi’as insist that Islam does not permit violence for the sake of religion. Yes, some people use Islam to justify violence. But Christians who insist that Christianity does not permit “religious” violence need to recognize that the same is true for Islam, whether Sunni or Shi’a.