Islam – Sunni and Shia

Allah in Arabic The Succession to Muhammad

As one might imagine, the death of the Prophet threw the Muslim community into chaos. Some refused to believe it was true; others wondered what would happen now that he was dead. It was clear that he was the last in the chain of the Prophets and so whoever succeeded him would not be another Prophet. However, just as Muhammad had been the spiritual, legal, political and military leader of the community, so all four responsibilities were to rest upon the shoulders of his successors.


It is no surprise to us that sometimes the events of history are told differently by different groups. The group that became the majority amongst Muslims is called the Sunnis, who make up about 85% of Muslims today all over the world. Sunnis believe that neither the Qur’an nor Muhammad said who was to succeed him nor did he lay down a procedure for selecting his successor.

For the Sunnis, as long as the leader ruled under God, following the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunna, it was a role that could be filled by any man, based on his piety and wisdom. Leadership was to be by merit; not by inheritance, birth or family.

Accordingly, a group of the leading figures in Madina selected Abu Bakr (d. 634), as the first Head of the Community after Muhammad. He had been one of Muhammad’s closest companions and one of the earliest converts to Islam. In the last few days of his life, when he was very weak and ill, the Prophet asked Abu Bakr to lead the prayers. Indeed on one occasion Muhammad joined the congregation and prayed behind Abu Bakr. This is seen by the Sunnis as indicative that he was approved for collective leadership after Muhammad’s death. Abu Bakr was presented to the believers and accepted by a majority. He only lived a further two years. He appointed Umar as his successor.

Umar was accepted by a majority of believers and served as Caliph for ten years (634-644). Towards the end of his life, Umar nominated six prominent Companions who were to elect his successor from amongst themselves. They chose Uthman as the third Caliph (644-656). He was followed by Ali (d.661), the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, who was elected by the community. The leadership of the first four Caliphs was accepted by most of the community. They are called the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, the Rashidun. The period of their leadership (632-661) is considered as a golden age, in contrast to the dynasties of rulers who came after them. These later Caliphs took up a more secular lifestyle and the Caliphate became the preserve of certain clans or families.


A minority group among Muslims had a different approach to Muhammad’s succession. Their name comes from the fact that they supported Ali’s right to succeed the Prophet. Hence they became the Party of Ali, or Shi’a-t Ali, which is shortened to Shi’a.

According to them, the Qur’an refers to the succession to the Prophet in Q. 5:55. This verse was revealed relating to an incident in which Ali gave away his ring in charity. Another verse speaks of the Family of the Prophet, the Ahl al-Bayt, being made pure and spotless [Q. 33:33, 3:61]. This is held to be a reference to an incident in which Muhammad, his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn, were all purified by God, making them the highest of creation.

Further evidence in support of the Shi’a view of divine selection is provided by an incident which happened on the return journey from the Hajj shortly before Muhammad died. Muhammad called a halt at an oasis, where he raised the hand of Ali and said publicly that whoever held him as their leader should regard Ali in a similar way.

This is taken by the Shi’a to be the appointment by Muhammad of Ali as his successor. The three men who were later to be acclaimed as the first three Rightly-Guided Caliphs, were present at this time and all then pledged allegiance to Ali.

Immediately after the death of Muhammad, Ali was engaged in the preparations for the burial of the Prophet’s body. The group of Companions met and selected Abu Bakr to head the community. When Ali found out what had happened, he didn’t protest. He felt it would be unworthy to claim the leadership. He did, however, make his position clear. Umar and later Uthman succeeded Abu Bakr. Then in 656, after the death of Uthman, Ali assumed the Caliphate.

In Shi’a terminology, the divinely appointed leaders of the community in succession to Muhammad are called Imams. To the Shi’a, Imam Ali was the first divinely appointed successor and the first three Rightly-Guided Caliphs had no right to this position.

The close relationship between Muhammad and Ali provides the Shi’a with a clear model of what an Imam should be. The Qur’an refers to Ali as Muhammad’s nafs, which can be translated as something like ‘soul or inner self’ [Q. 3:61]. So Ali was seen as having the same inner light as Muhammad. In other words, he inherited from him the light of divine guidance.

This is why the Shi’a regard the divinely appointed Imams as infallible in interpreting the Qur’an and the Islamic way of life. They receive divine inspiration or ilham rather than direct revelation from God in the way that Muhammad did. This confers on them the supreme authority and knowledge to interpret the Shari’a in ways binding on the believers. The Imams were also sinless, possessing both spiritual and political authority.

All Imams come from the Family of the Prophet, as descendants of Fatima and Ali. Each Imam appointed his successor on the basis of piety and wisdom according to the guidance of God. This did not necessarily mean the eldest son, as in a monarchical system. The selected one is God’s choice as inspired guide and is entitled to political authority, even if rejected by the community.

The line of Imams descended from Ali, through his two sons, Hasan and Husayn, until the twelfth Imam in succession disappeared from sight in 874; and then into the Greater Occultation in 941, in which he is beyond contact with all human beings, where he will remain until the beginning of the Last Days. There was a dispute about the rightful fifth Imam, which resulted in the formation of the Zaydis. Subsequently, there was another dispute about the rightful seventh Imam, which resulted in the Isma’ilis, amongst whom are the Bohras and the Nizari Isma’ilis, amongst the latter the largest group are the followers of the Aga Khan.

The first Imam, Ali, was declared such by Muhammad. Then each Imam in turn infallibly declared his successor. Each Imam is “the Proof of God”, the guardian of the correct meaning of the Qur’an and Sunna. They draw from the Light of Muhammad, so cannot go wrong, nor can they exceed or deviate from the truth that he knew and passed on to them. The Shi’a believe that the earth is never without the presence of an Imam, because otherwise the true meaning of faith would be lost. The Hidden Imam is both the Imam of the Present Age and the Awaited One, Imam al-Mahdi, who will one day return to establish true faith and justice throughout the earth.

Because of the centralised authority of the Imams, the Shi’a claim an additional 300 years of infallible guidance. It was these Imams who guaranteed the deposit of the Hadith of Muhammad according to the Shi’a collections.

The Shi’a have always been a minority, often living alongside and intermingled with their Sunni brothers and sisters. It is common for Sunni and Shi’a to marry one another and the day-to-day living out of their faith is very similar.

During our own time, the time of the Hidden Imam, the Islamic guidance of the community rests in the hands of a body of Shi’a scholars. Amongst these are the Ayatollahs, who are recognised as the most learned and pious. The most highly respected of these Ayatollahs are acknowledged experts in Shari’a and so ordinary Shi’a Muslims today take the rulings of these select Grand Ayatollahs as authoritative guidance on the way in which they should live their lives.

Since the 16th Century, with the founding of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1765), Shi’a Islam has been the recognised religion of Iran, and Shi’a are a majority in Iraq and Bahrain. They are also significant minorities in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and some Gulf States, as well as in other Arab countries.

By Dr Christopher Hewer

St Ethelburga’s Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations