Why do you people always have to focus on differences? For a change, how about focusing on what they have in common?
Like all Muslims, Shi'ites believe in the five pillars of Islam, such as how there's only one God (aka Allah, simply the Arabic word for God), that Muhammed was God's last prophet, and that you should neither eat nor copulate in daytime during the month of Ramadan. Speaking of eating, Shi'ite dietary restrictions are identical to those of other Muslims. With its grilled honey ham, two bacon strips and two sausage links, Denny's Lumberjack Slam breakfast is one meal you'll never find a Muslim ordering, Shi'ite or otherwise.
The list of similarities, such as how Shi'ite-ruled Iran treats women just as shittily as Sunni Saudi Arabia, could go on, but you people wanna know the differences. It's kind of convoluted story, but here it is:
Shi'a means the "faction." When the prophet Muhammed died in 632, the elders of the then small Muslim community in Western Arabia took it upon themselves to choose who would succeed him as their spiritual and political leader. The leader was to be called a caliph. People who were down wit dat method of succession became known as Sunni Muslims. The faction that disagreed with that became Shi'ites.
Shi'ites believed that the only person worthy of succeeding Muhammed was his cousin on his father's side, Ali. The logic (and I use that word reluctantly) behind that idea was the belief at the time that spiritual purity was a quality passed on by fathers, not mothers. (Pause for incredulous laughter).
Muhammed's own sons died young, but since Ali was Muhammed's patrilateral cousin and kind of like a son to him, the Shi'ites saw him as their man. His "da man-ness" was cemented further by his marriage to Muhammed's daughter, Fatima.
Wait a minute, if Muhammed was kind of like a father to Ali, wouldn't that make his wife Fatima sort of a sister? Yuck.
After 20 years and three caliphs, Ali was finally elected caliph himself in 656. Because he was thought to have been involved in the assassination of the caliph right before him though, a group led by Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, rebelled against him. When Ali decided to negotiate with Mu'awiya instead of fight, he pissed off some of his own supporters so much they assassinated him in 661. Ali is believed to be buried in Najaf, Iraq.
With the Sunnis now in charge of the fast-expanding Muslim nation, Mu'awiya tried to kill off the Shi'a faction once and for all by killing its leaders. He kept Ali's son, Hasan, from leading a rebellion against him by promising him that he'd be the next caliph. Instead of keeping his word though, he poisoned Hasan and passed on the caliphate to his own son Yazid. Yazid tried to pull the same gangsta b.s. with Ali's other son, Hussein. Hussein fled, but Yazid and his posse eventually caught up to and beheaded Hussein at Karbala, Iraq. Legend has it that Yazid took Hussein's head home as a grisly prize, where it proceeded to drive him nuts by reciting the Quran all the time. The scenes we recently saw in the news of Shi'ites flagellating themselves in Karbala, Iraq, were part of the ritual mourning for Hussein that some Shi'ites (certainly not all) like to act out.
The difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis matters to the U.S. thusly: Shi'ites view current events in Iraq through the prism of their long history of being put upon. They don't want the new Iraq to be a repeat of the old one, where Saddam Hussein repressed them savagely. To hold Iraq together, we have to convince the Shi'ites that shared rule with Sunnis is in their best interests. Good luck.
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