Iran's supremacy within the Shiite world began in the 16th century, with the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty, which founded an empire in the region. But the split between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam goes back much further.
"The difference between Sunni and Shia Islam has to do with the way in which religious authority of the Prophet Muhammad was continued," says Todd Lawson, professor of Islamic thought at the University of Toronto. "The identity of the two was worked out during the first 250 years of Islam, as a result of which each group developed its own version of Islamic history."
When Muhammad died in 632, the majority of the Muslim community didn't recognize his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his rightful successor. Instead, Abu Bakr, a close friend and father-in-law of the Prophet, was chosen. Although Ali was eventually elected caliph, the dissidents known as Shiite Ali believed that passing him over as Muhammad's direct successor was a grave mistake for Islam.
Bloody battles followed after Ali's death, when the Shia rejected the authority of the dynasties of caliphs established in Baghdad and Damascus.
They insisted only the children of Ali and Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, were the legitimate heirs of Islam. But the Prophet's grandson Husayn, along with 72 family members and supporters, was killed by caliphate soldiers in the battle of Karbala, a symbol of Shia martyrdom for centuries.
The differences between Sunnis and Shias go beyond the succession to the ways in which the two branches of Islam see their religion. For Sunnis, it devolves from a large body of literature that preserves the life and teachings of Muhammad, and is the basis of law and doctrine. For Shias, says author Vali Nasr, it is more personal: "People need the help of exceptionally holy and divinely favoured people in order to live in accord with the inner truths of religion."
Throughout most of Islamic history, Sunnis have dominated Shias in power as well as numbers. The Shia population is now less than 200 million of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. But in strategic areas of the Middle East, they are on the ascent, altering patterns drawn by the colonial powers.
The Toronto Star Nov. 21, 2006. 12:26 AM