I know that we in the west don’t really know much about Islam, and for that reason I did read Reza Aslan’s “No God but God” a few years back. I’ve been interested by the Sunni-Shiite split, and whether it is similar to the Catholic-Protestant split.
Which, it turns out, it really is not.
- Protestantism, of course, emerged as a rebellion against Catholicism, the church’s corruption, and in particular the practice of selling “indulgences.” It was a direct theological response to Catholicism.
- While Catholicism is generally conservative, Protestantism runs the political spectrum from extremely liberal (Unitarian Universalist) to very conservative (Seventh Day Adventist). In certain countries, especially those of Latin America, Catholicism can also be very populist.
- The split between Sunni and Shia was not a theological split. It was essentially a war of secession. On one side was Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest advisors. He was “elected” to become the first Caliph of the Islam nation. On the other side was Ali bin Abu Talib, who was both the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. They believe that Ali was anointed by God himself to be Muhammad’s successor.
- Sunni and Shia Muslims do not break neatly into more liberal or conservative groups. Both factions seem to run the gamut from moderate to extremely conservative or outright radical. With few exceptions, there seem to be little in the way of “liberal” congregations, as one has among Unitarians or Reform Jews. There have been small more liberal movements like the Gülen movement in Turkey, but these appear to be well outside of the mainstream.
A bit like Catholics, Shia Muslims do seem to believe that the Imam is without sin, and that his authority is “infallible” as it comes directly from God. Sunni Muslims, by contrast, believe that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders. Sunni Muslims generally contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.