The Division Within Islam Which Traces Its Lineage Back to Uthman

The modern split between Sunni and Shia Muslims can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad's early successors.

The modern split between Sunni and Shia Muslims can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad's early successors.

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by Contributing Writer

Following the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, there was a rapid succession of leaders in the Muslim world, including four of Muhammad's closest companions, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. The modern sectarian split between Sunni and Shia Muslims originated during this leadership transition. While Sunni Muslims embraced the new leaders and believed that the community should decide who would succeed Muhammad, Shia Muslims believed that only Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was the rightful successor.

Muhammad's Successors

The Prophet Muhammad left behind no male heir when he died, so a small group of disciples was responsible for choosing who would succeed him as the new leader, or "Rightly Guided Caliph." The first two Caliphs to succeed Muhammad were Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632-634, and Umar, who ruled from 634-644. When Umar died, the decision was between two of Muhammad's remaining companions, Uthman and Ali.

Uthman's Caliphate

Uthman was chosen as the next Caliph after the candidacy was discussed in the city of Medina, the Muslim community's power center. Several accomplishments defined his rule, including the creation of the first definitive edition of the Qur'an in 650. However, discontent also mounted within the growing Islamic empire because of Uthman's preferential treatment of his own family, many of whom he appointed to powerful positions.

Uthman's Death

A revolt against Uthman broke out in Egypt as a result of his nepotistic behavior and his controversial decision to burn all Qur'ans other than his official edition. In 656, he was overthrown and assassinated by a group of armed Egyptian men who arrived in Medina demanding leadership changes. Uthman did not resist when the rebels took over his home, and instead instructed his family and servants to flee and save themselves.

Ali's Caliphate

Finally, Ali agreed to take up the Caliphate after Muhammad's death and martyrdom. Today, Shia Muslims look to Ali as the Rightly Chosen Caliph to succeed Muhammad because of his blood relation to the Prophet. Sunnis however, who comprise the majority of all Muslims, look to any qualified Muslim scholar for guidance, not just the Immams, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

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