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In the opinion of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet to mankind, to both Sunnis and Shiites.

AnswerThe Islamic religion was started by God's revelation ofthe Quran to the prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) in the seventh century. In 622, Prophet Muhammad founded the first Islamic state, a theocracy in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia located north of Mecca.

The two Islamic groups are Sunnis and Shiites. The two groups are the same in the basic Islamic beliefs and faith. They only differ in some detailed side issues including the way of selection of the successors (Caliphs) who rule the Islamic State after the death of the prophet Muhammad.

The largest group, called the Sunnis, believe that the first four caliphs--Muhammad's successors--rightfully took his place (through election) as the leaders of Islam.

The smaller of the major groups are the Shiites. There are a number of subdivisions under the 'umbrella' of 'Shi'a' and although they differ in details all of them believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Muhammad. They believe that the Caliphs should be of the descendants of the prophet. Accordingly, Aly should have been the first caliph after the prophet Muhammad's death.

The Shi'ites call these successors Imams. Shi'ites do not accept that the Imam is to be only a political leader but they believe that they are literally 'manifestations of God', they are sinless, infallible and the bringers of true understanding to all humanity. They are referred to within the Shi'ite tradition as being masum, that is, free from error or sin. The last Imam, the Mahdi, is believed not to have died but to be in hiding and Shi'ites believe that he will appear at the end of time in order to bring about the victory of the Shi'a faith (see third paragraph below).

The main groups under the Shi'ite umbrella are the Zaydiyyah or Fivers, the Isma'iliyyah or Seveners and the Imamiyyah or Twelvers. The numbers five, seven and twelve refer to the last authorised interpreter of the law or Imam that each group accepts. Of the three the Twelvers are the biggest & it was in 931 that the Twelfth Imam disappeared.

This was a seminal event in the history of these Shi'ite Muslims. According to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, "Shi'ite Muslims, who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, [believe they] had suffered the loss of divinely guided political leadership" at the time of the Imam's disappearance. Not "until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978" did they believe that they had once again begun to live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.

The following Answer is Disputed

Islam has more than two major branches, the major branches that can be more easily found are the Tablighs, the Sunnis and the Shia. There are key differences between these "branches" which would take a lot of details to describe, however, to put it in as short an answer as possible, here si a view of their beliefs for lack of a better word.

  • Tabligh: This "branch" founds itself on the belief that there is one God, and focuses primarily on this fact and that prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) was a prophet, and a MAN doing the work of God as he was chosen to do. They believe that they are here as Muslims, not merely to spread a religion blindly, but to remind every Muslim of what his duties are as a Muslim and to put every effort into ensuring that all Muslims follow what God has sent down by living their lives in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) and to guide Muslims according to what the prophet (S.A.W) did and said, and to live as closely to his example as possible. Not to add anything to Islam, not to take anything away, but to maintain the way of life that was taught to us over 1400 years ago.

[Hint: Tabligh is not a branch of Muslims. it is an Arabic word that means "informing". Every Muslim, Sunni or Shiite, is required to understand his religion and to perform "Tabligh" to the relevant people. However, this task is no longer relevant. Nowadays, there are a wide variety of means of "Tabligh" or informing such as education institutions, mosques, media, etc. The other point is that Prophet Muhammad never believed in, by any Muslim, as doing the work of God. The prophet is believed in as conveying the commands of God and God Quran revelations to him.]

  • Sunni: This "branch" has the same belief system as the tablighs, but they differ in one aspect, that being that they believe the prophet (S.A.W.) was more than a man, to the extent that some of them believe he actually has the power to be in different places at the same time. The argument of this belief is for a different time and place.

[Hint: No Muslim, of Sunni or Shiite, believes that Prophet Muhammad was more than human but they all believe that he was supported by God & selected as a prophet to receive the revelation of the Qur'an. The Sunnis are the Muslims who agree on the way the Caliphs were elected and are followers of Qur'an teachings and Prophet Muhammad sayings and practices. ]

  • Shia: This "branch" believes that the prophet (S.A.W.) was the last prophet, and also that Ali (R.A) is the successor of the prophet and the first imam. Their belief also states that Imam Mahdi is alive and is the 12th imam hiding in the earth in between people and will disclose himself on Allah's command and will come and again show us the right path.... As before, this is not a forum for argument and this is left up to you.

[Hint: Apart from what they believe in Imam Mahdi, the Shiites differ from the Sunnis only in the way of the Caliph were elected. Although they supported the first Caliphs as elected, after Muhammad's death, they believed that they should be from the prophet's family & descendants. ]

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They are more alike than different. They worship same God. Believe in same prophet and same Quran. Perform the same five Islam pillars. They go to same place for pilgrimage. They can do the ritual worship of praying together behind the same Imam irrelevant he is Sunni or Shia. They differ in minor issues that are not violating basic Islam fundamentals and principles. Refer to question below.
Shiats say that Imam must be appointed by God; that appointment may be known through the declaration of the Prophet or the preceding Imam. The Sunni scholars say that Imam (or Caliph, as they prefer to say) can be either elected, or nominated by the preceding Caliph, or selected by a committee, or may gain the power through a military coup (as was in the case of Muawiyah).

Shi'a scholars say that Imam must be sinless. The Sunni scholars (including Mutazilites) say that sinlessness is not a condition for leadership. Even if he is tyrant and sunk in sins (like in the case of Yazid, or Today's King Fahd), the majority of the scholars from the shools of Hanbali, Shafi'i, and Maliki discourage people to rise against that Caliph. They think that they should be presevered.

Shiats say that Imam must possess above all such qualities as knowledge, bravery, justice, wisdom, piety, love of God etc. The Sunni scholars say it is not necessary. A person inferior in these qualities may be elected in preference to a person having all these qualities of superior degree.

Shiats say that 'Ali was appointed by Allah to be the successor of the Prophet, and that the Prophet declared it on several occasions. More than one hundred of those occasions are recorded in the history. The Sunni scholars believe that the Prophet did not appoint anybody to be his successor. This is despite the fact that there are many traditions in the six authentic Sunni collections which support this assignment.

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Q: What are some similarities and differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam?
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