Profiles: Key Individuals in the Shia-Sunni Divide

Shia worshipers pray in front of the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. i i

Shia worshipers pray in front of the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, in Iraq's holy city of Najaf in May 2003. hide caption

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Shia worshipers pray in front of the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib.

Shia worshipers pray in front of the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, in Iraq's holy city of Najaf in May 2003.

Read short biographies of some of the major figures in our series about the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) was born in the Arabian city of Mecca. He became a religious, political and military leader of the Arabs and founded Islam, a strictly monotheistic religion. He is known as the last prophet and the Messenger of God for his divine revelations that became the Quran, the holy book of Islam. He died and is buried in the city of Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia.


Ali (598-661). Ali ibn Abi Talib was a cousin of Muhammad and became his son-in-law when he married the prophet's daughter, Fatimah. Ali was one of the first Arabs to convert to Islam. He became a powerful warrior as the small community of Muslims struggled to survive.

When Muhammad died, there was a disagreement within the community of Muslims about who would succeed him. Most in the community wanted the decision to be made by the community itself. A smaller group wanted a member of Muhammad's family to succeed him, specifically Ali.

The former group prevailed and selected Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph.

Eventually Ali became the fourth caliph in 656, but the community of Muslims was rife with conflicts. He was assassinated near the town of Kufa in present-day Iraq.

His followers are known as Shiites, or the partisans of Ali. Ali is known as the first Imam of Shiism.


Imam Hussein
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Hussein (624-680) was the second son of Ali and Fatimah, the grandson of Muhammad. The story of Hussein is the central event of so-called Twelver Shiism. After his father Ali died, Hussein became Shiism's third Imam. Violence and conflict prevailed among the Arabs and the still-young community of Muslims. The majority of Muslims, known as Sunnis, were led by the caliphs based in Damascus. At this time the caliph was Yazid, but many Shia and Sunnis did not support him.

 

Hussein engaged a superior Arab army in 680 near Karbala in present-day Iraq and was killed in battle. His head was cut off and presented to the caliph in Damascus.

 

The date of Hussein's death became the central Shiite holy day, Ashura.


Mohammed ibn Hasan ibn Ali (born 868) was the twelfth and last Imam of Shia Islam. He is also known as the Hidden Imam or the Mahdi.

 

His father, the eleventh Imam, died in 874. Followers of Twelver Shiism, the dominant sect of Shiism, believe the young son did not die but was hidden by God in a condition of occultation. He will not be revealed on Earth again until God decides it is time, and he will reappear as the Mahdi or the messiah to establish justice on Earth.

 

Sunni Muslims do not believe in the Hidden Imam or that he is the Mahdi.


A painting depicts Persian warfare during the Safavid dynasty period.
Dave Bartruff/Corbis

The Safavid Dynasty ruled Persia from 1501 to 1732. The first Safavid king was Ismail, who came from Azerbaijan to conquer Persia. Ismail and his successors made Twelver Shiism the official religion of Persia.

 

The Safavids used Shiism to unite the various peoples and regions of Persia and to distinguish it, and defend it, from the Ottoman Empire to the west, which was Sunni, and from the Moghul rulers of India to the east, who were also Sunni.

 

Iran, the modern name for the Persian state, remains overwhelmingly Shiite to this day.


Reza Pahlavi, the first Shah of Iran.
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Reza Pahlavi (1878-1944) was a Persian military officer who established himself as king, or Shah, of the newly named Iran in 1925. Reza Shah set about building a new and modern Iran, taking as his model the secular state established by Kemal Ataturk in the new nation of Turkey. In attempting to modernize the state, Reza Shah sparked opposition from the Shia clergy of Iran, who disapproved of many of his reforms, including providing new rights for women.

 

During World War II, the Shah flirted with Nazi Germany. Iran was occupied by Soviet forces in the north and British forces in the south, who forced Reza Pahlavi to abdicate the throne in 1941 in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.


Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in 1971.
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Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), the last Shah of Iran, attempted to resist a wave of nationalist turmoil in the post-war period. He fled the throne in 1953 when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh consolidated his power, but was reinstated as the result of a CIA and British plot that engineered the removal of Mossadegh.

 

Like his father, the Shah pursued many secular reforms in Iran, engendering the hostility of the clergy, especially that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

 

The Shah became a close ally of the United States during the Cold War and used the wealth generated by rising oil prices to make himself one of the richest men in the world.

 

In 1978, a wave of enormous demonstrations challenged his rule, and he fled Iran in 1979.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989), a senior Shiite cleric, led the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah in 1979 and then became the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

Khomeini began his criticism of the Iranian monarchy in the 1940s, but he did not become widely known in Iran until the early 1960s, when he was arrested by the Shah's police for criticizing the monarch.

 

Khomeini spent 15 years in exile, living in Najaf in Iraq, developing his concept of an Islamic state. He is credited with creating the idea of the rule of the jurisprudent, in effect putting all state power in the hands of a top cleric. It was a position he assumed after 1980.

 

Khomeini sought to export his vision of the Islamic republic beyond the borders of Iran, but he was largely unsuccessful. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Khomeini was uncompromising in his defiance of Saddam Hussein. He hoped the Shia of Iraq would side with Iran, but they didn't.

 

Khomeini died a year after the Iran-Iraq war ended.


Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
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Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) was president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. A Sunni Arab, Saddam was a hard and murderous tyrant who became involved in the violent politics of Iraq as a young man, Saddam joined the Iraqi Baath Party in the 1960s and helped build its security apparatus.

 

He seized full power for himself in 1979 and set about removing all of his opponents through terrorism and violence. He saw himself as the king of the Arabs, and when he saw the turmoil in Iran created by the Islamic Revolution there, he invaded Iran in 1980 to seize its oil fields.

 

In 1990, with Iraq struggling from the financial burdens of the war with Iran, he invaded neighboring Kuwait to seize its oil fields.

 

In 1991, Saddam's army was expelled from Kuwait by a U.S.-led military coalition. Saddam remained an enemy of the United States after that, and although it turned out he did not harbor nuclear weapons and other arms prohibited under U.N. Security Council resolutions, he was ousted from power after a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

 

He was captured and put on trial for crimes against humanity. On Dec. 30, 2006, he was executed by hanging.


Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
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Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (1930 - ) is the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, effectively Iraq's senior Shiite cleric. Born in Iran into a clerical family, he studied in Qom, Iran's center of Shiite learning. He went to Najaf in Iraq to study in 1951.

 

Sistani disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of clerical rule in a Shiite state. He represents the so-called Quietist wing of Shia Islam where clerics do not take a direct role in politics and governing.

 

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has wielded considerable political influence. He favored democratic elections on the basis of one-person, one-vote to establish a representative government in Iraq and pressed the United States to carry them out.

 

Since the U.S. invasion, Sistani has tried to mediate among the various Shiite factions in Iraq to keep them united.


Muqtada Al-Sadr
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Muqtada al-Sadr (1973 - ) is a young firebrand Shiite cleric in Iraq with a following in Iraq's parliament and his own militia, known as the Mahdi Army.

 

Sadr is the fourth son of a revered Iraqi cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who along with two of his sons was gunned down by agents of Saddam in Najaf in 1999. After the U.S invsion of Iraq in 2003, a huge Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad was renamed Sadr City. It has become the stronghold of Sadr's Mahdi Army.

 

Sadr called for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as Saddam was toppled. In 2004, the Mahdi Army twice engaged U.S. forces. But each time, Ayatollah Sistani helped to negotiate an end to the fighting. Sadr's forces participated in the 2006 parliamentary elections in Iraq. At various times, U.S. forces have sought to take him into custody, always without success.


Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
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Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (1950 - ) is a cleric who is head of a key Iraqi Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

 

Born and raised in Najaf, Iraq, Hakim is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, who was considered one of the highest spiritual leaders of the world's Shia until his death in 1970. Hakim's family was also targeted by Saddam, who is believed to have ordered the killing of six of Hakim's brothers.

 

Hakim spent several years in jail in the 1970s, then went into exile in Iran, where he helped found SCIRI in 1982. His organization has participated in all elections held in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Hakim is also head of his party's military wing, the Badr Corps.

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