Even now, many people who hear these terms daily on the news are confused about what the real differences are between Sunni and Shia Muslims, so I, having been brought up in a very devout Shia household in Pakistan, thought I would explain these things, at least in rough terms. Here goes:
It all started hours after Mohammad’s death: while his son-in-law (and first cousin) Ali was attending to Mohammad’s burial, others were holding a little election to see who should succeed Mohammad as the chief of what was by now an Islamic state. (Remember that by the end of his life, Mohammad was not only a religious leader, but the head-of-state of a significant polity.) The person soon elected to the position of caliph, or head-of-state, was an old companion of the prophet’s named Abu Bakr. This was a controversial choice, as many felt that Mohammad had clearly indicated Ali as his successor, and after Abu Bakr took power, these people had no choice but to say that while he may have become the temporal leader of the young Islamic state, they did not recognize him as their divinely guided religious leader. Instead, Ali remained their spiritual leader, and these were the ones who would eventually come to be known as the Shia. The ones who elected Abu Bakr would come to be known as Sunni.
This is the Shia/Sunni split which endures to this day, based on this early disagreement. Below I will say a little more about the Shia.
So early on in Islam, there was a split between political power and religious leadership, and to make a long story admittedly far too short, this soon came to a head within a generation when the grandson of one of the greatest of Mohammad’s enemies (Abu Sufian) from his early days in Mecca, Yazid, took power in the still nascent Islamic government. Yazid was really something like a cross between Nero and Hitler and Stalin; just bad, bad in every way: a decadent, repressive dictator (and one who flouted all Islamic injunctions), for whom it became very important to obtain the public allegiance of Husain, the pious and respected son of Ali (and so, grandson of Mohammad). And this Husain refused, on principle.
Yazid said he would kill Husain. Husain said that was okay. Yazid said he would kill all of Husain’s family. Husain said he could not compromise his principles, no matter what the price. Yazid’s army of tens of thousands then surrounded Husain and a small band of his family, friends and followers at a place called Kerbala (in present day Iraq), and cut off their water on the 7th of the Islamic month of Moharram. For three days, Husain and his family had no water. At dawn on the third day, the 10th of Moharram, Husain told all in his party that they were sure to be killed and whoever wanted to leave was free to do so. No one left. In fact, several heroic souls left Yazid’s camp to come and join the group that was certain to be slaughtered.
On the 10th of Moharram, a day now known throughout the Islamic world as Ashura, the members of Husain’s parched party came out one by one to do battle, as was the custom at the time. They were valiant, but hopelessly outnumbered, and therefore each was killed in turn. All of Husain’s family was massacred in front of his eyes, even his six-month old son, Ali Asghar, who was pierced through the throat by an arrow from the renowned archer of Yazid’s army, Hurmula. After Husain’s teenage son Ali Akbar was killed, he is said to have proclaimed, “Now my back is broken.” But the last to die before him, was his beloved brother, Abbas, while trying desperately to break through Yazid’s ranks and bring water back from the Euphrates for Husain’s young daughter, Sakeena. And then Husain himself was killed.
The followers of Ali (the Shia) said to themselves that they would never allow this horrific event to be forgotten, and that they would mourn Husain and his family’s murder forever, and for the last thirteen hundred years, they have lived up to this promise every year. This mourning has given rise to ritualistic displays of grief, which include flagellating oneself with one’s hands, with chains, with knives, etc. It can all seem quite strange, out of context, but remembrance of that terrible day at Kerbala has also given rise to some of the most sublime poetry ever written (a whole genre in Urdu, called Marsia, is devoted to evoking the events of Ashura), and some of us, religious or not, still draw inspiration from the principled bravery and sacrifice of Husain on that black day.
Earlier today, I took the following unlikely pictures on the ritziest road in New York City, Park Avenue:
This is the procession commemorating Ashura, or the 10th of Moharram. In front, you can see a painstakingly recreated model of the tomb of Husain. The mourners are dressed mostly in black. It is a testament to the tolerance of American society that despite the best attempts of some of its cleverest citizens to proclaim a “clash of civilizations,” it allows (and observes with curiosity) such displays of foreign sentiment.
The procession is made up of Shias of various nationalities, with the largest contingents being from Pakistan and Iran.
A young Shia holds up a banner, perhaps forgetting for a second that he is supposed to be mourning.
You can see one of the coffins with roses on it, which are ritualistically carried in the procession.
The self-flagellation is in full swing at this point. (The arms are raised before coming down to beat the chest.)
This is “Zuljana” or Husain’s horse, caparisoned with silks and flowers.
The self-flagellation, or matam, reaches a climactic frenzy before ending for Asr prayers. Later in the evening, there are gatherings (or majaalis) to remember the women and children of Husain’s family who survived to be held as prisoners of Yazid.