The actual differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam will probably not seem as dramatic as many non-Muslims presume. There are notable variations in the ways they view their religious leaders and attach meaning to the history of Muhammad's family, however. Cultural and political differences make up the most divisive issues separating the two groups today.
Origins of the Sunni - Shia Split
The split between these two significant sects of Islam can be traced back to the time soon after Muhammad's death in the year 632, and centered on who would succeed the Prophet and become the first Caliph, or leader. A friend and advisor of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, was eventually selected to fulfill this role. Those who accept this decision call themselves Sunni. This group makes up the more traditional, or orthodox, form of the religion.
Some refused to follow Abu Bakr, however, and believed that another man, Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, was Muhammad's true choice to be first the Caliph. The term, "Shia," is a sort of abbreviated version of the Arabic Shiat Ali, which means, "followers of Ali." The Shiites regarded him as the first in a series of Imams, or high clerics, who were direct descendants of Muhammad and acted as messengers of God. There were 12 Imams before the bloodline died out in the 800s. Each now has sub-sects devoted to his worship within Shia Islam.
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