A recent question from a highly intelligent tdaxp reader made me think about the arrogance of much of the blogosphere. Many of us bloggers have been dismissive of politicians who confuse Shia and Sunni, but we never take the take to actually lay-out those differences.
The difference between Sunni and Shia is the difference between the Holy Roman Empire and the Priori of Sion (from The DaVinci Code). Like the Holy Roman Empire, the Sunni Caliphate was determinedby “elections” which were designed to make sure that powerful elements in the community were OK with the new leader. This may have lasted for a short while, but quickly it became a title that was passed, father-to-son, in some family. In the Holy Roman Empire the family were the Habsburgs, and in the Sunni Caliphate the last family to own the title were the Ottomans. Humorously, just as the Holy Roman Empire ended life as a secular German confederacy during the Napoleonic Wars, the Sunni Caliphate ended its life in in the secular Turkish republic following World War I. After the fall of the last Caliph, some individuals tried to revive the title (for themselves), but nothing came up this. So there is no current Caliph, just as there is no current Holy Roman Emperor.
Meanwhile, the Shia Imamate (like the secret society in the DaVinci Code) is based on blood-descent from a Holy Figure (Jesus Christ through Mary Magdeline, or Muhammed’s son-in-law Ali through his daughter, Fatima). Both the Priori of Scion and Shia believe that their current leader (or “Imam”) is hiding. Shia additionally believe that this Imam is several hundreds of years old, persecuted by the wicked religious establishment (in this case, the Sunnis), and perhaps hiding in a well. The Imam, like the leader of the Priori of Scion, will reveal himself when the time is right.
Now, in spite of the quirky Shia view of leadership, actual religious Shia organization makes more sense to me. A Shia Muslim “Ayatollah” is a combination of a Bishop and a Doctor of Theology. The reason that no one calls Sadr an “ayatollah” is that he hasn’t completed the coursework. So he’s a cleric which, like political priests, are a dime a dozen. Shia Islam is run similar to the Catholic Church, except with no strong “Pope.”
Ayatollah Khomeini called himself “imam,” or “leader,” but claimed that this was separate from Imam, the hiding guy. In a similar way, the Catholic Church calls its leader Papa, or “Father,” while recognizing this is a very different title than God-the-Father. This didn’t catch on though, and the title has not remained in use. So Shia Islam is where the Catholic Church would have been if the First Vatican Council — which established papal infallibility — had failed.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Muslims run their religion similar to low-church protestants. How do you get to be a Sunni Muslim cleric? Say you are, and get other Sunni Muslims to follow you. Thus Osama bin Laden is a real Sunni Muslim cleric in the same sense that a KKK prayer-leader was a real baptist cleric.
In short: Sunni Muslims have to wait until some mass movement declares a new Caliph — an event exactly as likely as the European Union naming some person Holy Roman Emperor. Shia Muslims, for their part, have to wait until their hidden Imam reveals himself and the world ends. In the meanwhile, Sunni Muslims operate similarly low-church protestants while Shia Muslims operate similarly to Lutherans.
And that’s the difference between Sunni and Shia.