Lecture 12: Shi'a, Sunni and Sufism | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 12: Shi'a, Sunni and Sufism

Course: Introduction to I slam

Lecture: Shi'a, Sunni and Sufism



C. Shi’a and Sunni Compared and Contrasted, Sufism

The split between the Sunni and Shi’a groups began when there was a disagreement over who should succeed Muhammed after he died. Sufi Islam is the mystical expression of Islam and could be compared to the monastic movement in Christianity.

To summarize the Shi’a and Sunni differences, I want to make a few brief comments here, though I think it will take us a lot more time to fully expound on
some of these points because each of these develops in some ways, theological issues which we have yet to cover.

Shi’a (Ali’s party)

1. The belief that the caliph should be the descendent of Ali we have already discussed, as opposed to Sunni, who believe that the caliph should be chosen in a rational way by the council, regardless of his blood descent.

2.This is an issue we have not raised yet, the doctrine of Imamism, which looks to certain divinely appointed leaders to arise in direct succession to Muhammed. This is a doctrine within the Shi’a party that allows for certain leaders to arise as actually carrying the mantle of Muhammed’s prophethood. The Ismailis will say there are only seven of these figures. They are in division. There is a 12 version, that there are 12 of these figures in human history. There are all kinds of divisions within Shi’a about how many figures there are in this line. But the belief, the doctrine in Imamism is a very important doctrine in Shi’a.

Among Sunnis, they use the word “Imam” too. But rather than saying this is only seven people in the history of the world, or 12 divinely appointed people, they will refer to any Islamic leader of the assembly at Friday noon prayer as “Imam.” It is kind of like a general term. Therefore, you must be very, very careful when you use the word “imam” what context you are in, or if you are reading about it.

3. Thirdly, the emergence of the “Mahdi” figure in times of distress to protect the prophetic message. This is a very important doctrine in the Shi’a theology. It is less important to Sunnis. In fact, many Sunni reject any notion of a final Mahdi figure, a messianic figure at the end of time.

4. As a rule, the Shi’a tend to emphasize human freedom; whereas Sunni, divine sovereignty and predestination. The very thing we said last time that happens every year, has happened yet again. This year 35 people were trampled to death during the stoning of the devil. This of course plays into the Sunni doctrine of divine sovereignty and predestination because they believe that those 35 people would have died wherever they were in the world, at that instant they would have died. That is what the imam said at the grand opening of the mosque in Mecca. That is something you read about annually when this event occurs.

5. The Shi’a are found in vast majority only in Iran and Southern Iraq. The Sunni of course are the majority worldwide with five times the adherence of Shi’a. The Shi’a have added a phrase to the Shahadah: “There is no God but Allah. Muhammed is the prophet of Allah,” or God, “and Ali is the friend of God.” That is a sectarian addition to the Shahadah, which of course the Sunni find offensive and they reject any change or additions to the Shahadah. So that gives you a nice summary. We will be saying more about that as we develop the doctrine particularly of revelation. Particularly lecture 8 we will be spending a lot of time on the Hadith and you will see how the Sunni and Shi’a interpret it differently and also interject the role of the imam differently in their view of revelation. This will give you a kind of working feel for it.

6. Sunni (Normative party)

One other matter and then we will have the components in mind to move ahead in our discussion. We have now essentially and finally introduced the fact that there are two major divisions within the Islamic fabric, Sunni and Shi’a. What we are going to see is that the Sunni are further divided into various groups. Rather than denominations, the way we would maybe couch it, again because of the legalistic nature of Islam, are schools of law, interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith, etc. The Shi’a also have various groups into which they are divided within based on certain theological, mainly doctrines that are particular, mainly the imam doctrine. We will look at these later.

7. Sufism

We are seeing the divisions of Islam into these two groups. But there is a third factor that you need to have in your mind in order to get this picture complete, that is Sufism or the Sufi Muslims. It should not be pictured quite like this, that you have Sunni, you have Shi’a and you have Sufi as a third group. This is more like the charismatic movement or something. This is a spiritual, mystical movement that has invaded Shi’a and Sunni. This is a mystical movement that has come in and in some way dramatically changed how Sunni and Shi’a Muslims practice and believe in their particular doctrine.

When I was in Africa I asked many Muslims, “Are you Sunni or Shi’a?” They would say, “I belong to this particular tariqa. This is like a certain Sufi group which they call a “Sufi Brotherhood.” “I belong to the Sufi Brotherhood.” That was more important to them than this division. Though if you read in a textbook about Islam, all of the Muslims in Nigeria are classified, with only a few exceptions, as Sunni Muslims. In that sense, they are part of this huge statistic of 90% of Muslims are Sunni. But, in fact, many of them do not find the Sunni schools of law particularly helpful in their guidance. Even their interpretation of Shariah law, which you would think would be particularly guided by a school of law, is probably guided by the most liberal one, the large one we will look at. They have interpreted it with new, novel ideas; so you have Sufism which comes into it.

This gives you some general framework. We will be looking at the four schools of law, some sects of Shi’a and we will look at the Sufi movement as a whole, the whole Islam movement and how that has dramatically changed how Islam is practiced, especially in Indonesia, for example. You have a lot of even non-Muslim ideas, tribal religions, primal religions. This comes into Sufism and gets couched in some quasi Islamic language; but in fact, is quite different from traditional, and both of these seem quite orthodox when you compare to that.

My masters degree at Princeton on Islam was on this topic of Islam in Africa and I studied four different groups in Africa and how they actually practiced Islam. I went to these groups in Africa and I interviewed and I talked to them and I tried to do some study on, not what the textbook said they should believe, what they actually believed and practiced. I found that in fact they were guided dramatically by Sufi thought and that was more determinative in their minds than often traditional Sunni doctrine, which some of them were actually totally unaware of, even though they were Sunni Muslims. That is something that again, should be in your mind because as we develop the course, we will get more into some of the more divergent expressions of Islam as it actually plays out in the mission field.

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