Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Is the Difference Between Sunni, Shiite and Sufi Muslims?

Almost 100 people were killed recently when a suicide bomber targeted Shiite Muslim pilgrims in Pakistan. Closer to home,
a Sufi cleric's plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero have ignited controversy that seems inextinguishable.

Clearly Islam is not monolithic. But what are the differences within the religion, and how deeply do they run?

Although the majority of Muslims are Sunnis, Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq, where they were persecuted by
Saddam Hussein. The schism between the groups dates to 632, when a controversy arose over the successor to Muhammad.

The Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not designate a successor. But the Shiites believe he did: his cousin and
son-in-law, Ali. They also believe that Ali's authority was usurped by the first three caliphs: Abu Bakr and Umar ibn
a-Khatab, both fathers-in-law of Muhammad, and Uthman ibn Affan, also a son-in-law. Unlike Ali, none of the men were
blood relatives of Muhammad. This was a point of contention for Ali's supporters, who believed that the succession should
be hereditary.

After Uthman's assassination in 656, Ali became leader, but discord erupted into civil war. He fought and defeated
opponents, one of whom was Aisha, Muhammad's third wife and Abu Bakr's daughter.

After Ali's assassination in 661, Sunni caliphs regained power for more than 20 years. Ali's son, Hussein, fought them
and was killed by Sunnis at Karbala, in Iraq. Scholars say that his death, which the Shiites consider martyrdom, helped
transform a political movement into a religious one.

Shiites and Sunnis share the Quran but have different collections of the hadith, which are the traditions and deeds of
Muhammad. Shiites believe that the imams are the source for the hadith. Sunnis believe the hadith come from the Prophet's

Both groups have imams, but the word is defined differently. Sunnis use imam to refer to both local clerics and top
religious scholars. Among Shiites, the top religious scholars are called ayatollahs, not imams. In the Shiite tradition,
the imams were 12 individuals who, like Ali, were directly related to Muhammad. They were infallible and divinely guided.
Shiites believe that the last imam, Mahdi, who disappeared in 874, will reappear in the last days.

"Because the Shiites gave their imams a higher level of spiritual and political authority than the Sunnis did to the
other companions of Muhammad, the Shiite religious scholars have had greater authority in the lives of Shiites than Sunni
religious scholars have had in the life of Sunnis," says Robert J. Riggs, a visiting assistant professor of history at
Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

The sects use different sources to settle matters not directly addressed in the Quran or in the hadith. The Sunnis weigh
community consensus; the Shiites rely on the infallibility of the imams.

"For Sunni Muslims, since there's no real central authority, decisions about proper Islamic practice take place at a
local level," says Keith David Watenpaugh, an associate professor of modern Islam, human rights and peace at the
University of California, Davis. "[Shiite] Muslims have a top-down approach. They spend a lot of time training [religious
scholars], who go through rigorous years of instruction in law and theology."

Sufi, on the other hand, is a contemplative school of Islam that aims to develop an individual's consciousness of God
though chanting, recitation of litanies, music and physical movement. Practitioners belong to different tariqa, or
orders, that are described as "sober" -- restrained in religious practice -- or "drunk," open to achieving religious

"For Sufis, what's important is approaching the inner meaning of God through mysticism. They try to reach an
understanding of the hidden meanings of the world," Watenpaugh says. "They tend to be less wedded to an orthodox reading
of the Quran. As a consequence, they have an open relationship with other religions."

Sufis avoid politics because it "complicates their ability to contemplate God," Watenpaugh says. "They see themselves as
transcending labels, so the Sunni-[Shiite] thing is ... irrelevant."

Sources for this article include Islam: The Key Concepts, by Kecia Ali and Oliver Leaman; Muslims: Their Religious
Beliefs and Practices, by Andrew Rippin; and the CIA World Factbook.

Afi-Odelia Scruggs is a regular contributor to The Root

Is a White Barber Racist for Rejecting a Black Customer?

It's not as if we haven't heard this story before, folks. Black customer walks into a white hair-cutting establishment
and asks for service. White hairstylist-barber promptly turns customer away because the supposed professional cannot
manage "black hair." Drama ensues. It recently happened to a black doctor visiting the town of Bellows Falls, near the
New Hampshire-Vermont border. When he walked into the barbershop, the white barber lied and told him that the barber
wasn't in because, as the barber later admitted, he didn't have the "skills" to cut his hair. In situations like these, a
lot of people are of the mind that the black folks are dodging a bullet. Who wants people who don't know how to do their
hair jacking up their heads? My take: If I want service, I should get service -- even if someone struggles through the
job. I shouldn't be turned away because of the color of my skin or the texture of my hair. Now, if I'm given service and
it's not what I wanted, well, I should have known better. But that's my choice! It's America! The doctor felt the same
way. He wrote an op-ed in the Bellows Falls newspaper. And now all of those small-town New Englanders, 97 percent of whom
are white, are so scared that the world might consider them racist that they are picketing the barber, who apparently
dropped the word "Negro" several times when recounting his story. Smart.

Here's the moral of the story for white barbers and hairstylists of the world: Just do it. Even if you think you don't
know how. The consequences are often worse if you refuse.