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DIFFERENCES: Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims

The rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites is 1,320 years old. The events of today are closely related in expressing the ideological conflict between the two main branches of Islam. Today’s bombings, killings and government actions are expressions of a conflict fought between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims for centuries. However, the “Arab Spring” which originally had no religious underpinning, has become focused on the rivalry, with the political and religious leaders taking advantage of the Islam division for grasping power in the changing and needing to become more contemporary Middle East and Africa. The various factions and governments have reignited the fervor of the Islam differences to secure power within most of Africa’s Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The differences between the Sunni and Shiite date back to the death of the Prophet Mohammad, and the killing of Imam Hussein. Shiite-Muslims consider Hussein (the grandson of Prophet Mohammed) to be the 3rd Imam, and the rightful successor of Islam’s founder. Imam Hussein’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shiites as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression.

However, both the Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam use the same Holy Book Quran, have the same teachings and practices, but this is pretty much where the similarities between the two end.

Following are the principal points where these two continue to differ:

The Sunni and Shiite division occurred after the death of the Prophet Mohammad and the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. At that point in recorded history, the two branches began to have differences of who should or should not be the Islam leader. For the Sunni Islam sect, they believed that the rightful heir of Mohammad’s leadership position should be based on consensus of the Islam communities. For this reason, the Sunni regard Abu Bakr, Mohammad’s close friend and advisor, as the heir to the leadership.

On the other hand, the Shiites believe that only Allah, the One true God, has the ability to choose the next leaders of the Islam. As such only those who can trace their ancestry directly to the family of the Prophet Mohammad should stand as leaders of the Islam. This is why for the Shittes; it is Ali, the fourth caliph and a direct descendant from the family of the Prophet Mohammad and Imam Hussein.

Another difference between the Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims regards their belief of the Mahdi, or the ‘Rightfully Guided One.’ While both sects believe that the Mahdi would serve as the global caliph of all Islam, the Sunni Muslims look forward to his birth and coming to Earth. On the other hand, the Shiite Muslims believe that the Mahdi had already arrived.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims worldwide observe and consider this month of fasting to be the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar. This holy period is typically peaceful and observed by both sects, however, there are other events that are used to mark the differences between the sects. Shiite-Muslims celebrate Arbaeen, which marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary commemorating the slaying of Shiite’s most important martyr Imam Hussein by the armies of the Sunni Caliph Yazid in 680 AD – in today’s media world this day is frequently used to bring attention to political instability and typically bombings of Sunni mosques take place to make a media political comment.

Geopolitical Sunni and Shiite Divisions:

Muslims are of two denominationsSunni (75–90%), or Shiite (10–20%).  About 13% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, 25% in South Asia, 20% in the Middle East, and 15% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sizable minorities are also found in Europe, ChinaRussia, and the Americas. Converts and immigrant communities are found in almost every part of the world. With about 1.57 billion followers or 23% of earth's population, Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.

The political and national Sunni and Shiite concentrations:

Islam/Muslim Leadership

There is no central “control place or person” that governs Islam. However there are local mosque and group leaders in religiously sanctioned positions of Islam. These are generally the educated class of Muslim legal scholars engaged in the various fields of Islamic studies (Iran is currently ruled by that class). In a broad sense, the term ulema is used to describe the body of Muslim clergy who have completed several years of training and study of Islamic sciences, such as a mufti, qadi, faqih, or muhaddith. Some include under this term the village mullahs, imams, and maulvis—who have attained only the lowest rungs on the ladder of Islamic scholarship; other Muslims would say that clerics must meet higher standards to be considered ulema. Some Muslims practice ijtihad whereby they don't accept the authority of any clergy.

Summary Overview:

  1. Islam is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion originating with the teachings of the Prophet of Islam Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure. The word Islam means "submission", or the total surrender of oneself to God (Arabic: الله‎, Allāh). An adherent of Islam is known as a Muslim, meaning "one who submits [to God]".

  1. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are the two opposing sects of the Islam religion with the division between the two sects precipitated by the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

  1. Sunni Muslims believe that their leaders are those that are voted by the members of the Islam communities based on their capability to fulfill the required tasks.

  1. Shiite Muslims believe that their leaders must be those who are direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who had been elected by Allah to serve as the first leader of the Islam faith.

  1. Sunni Muslims believe that the Mahdi, or the ‘Rightfully Guided One’ is yet to come to Earth and make his presence felt. Shiite Muslims believe that the Mahdi is already here and is just waiting for the right time for him to make his reappearance.

Unanswered Questions Loom over the Nairobi Terrorist Attack

Who knew what and when? Those are the questions now being asked in Kenya amid the fallout from the deadly Westgate mall attack in Nairobi on September 21.

A week after the attacks, most fingers pointed at Kenya's National Intelligence Service (NIS) for its failure to detect the brazen plot. But now senior Kenyan officials - including four cabinet ministers and the chief of defense - are in the spotlight after the leak of a damning intelligence file full of specific warnings that apparently reached their desks. 

One report in January 2013 warned of a "Mumbai-attack style, where the operatives storm into a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages".

Another was equally prescient, even naming the eventual target. "The following suspected Al Shabaab operatives are in Nairobi and are planning to mount suicide attacks on undisclosed date, targeting Westgate Mall and Holy Family Basilica [church]," said a situational report dated September 21, 2012 - exactly one year to the day when the assault was launched. 

Kenyan politicians had complained that the NIS failed to issue warnings. But the leak of the 32-page intelligence file, obtained by Al Jazeera, suggests five senior officials - including the secretaries of interior, defense, foreign affairs, and treasury, as well as the chief of defense forces - were aware of imminent threats.

The senior officials were briefed on the "noticeable rise in the level of threat" starting on September 13, eight days before the Westgate attack. "Briefs were made to them informing them of increasing threat of terrorism and of plans to launch simultaneous attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa on 13th and 20th September, 2013," one report said.

Much remains murky about the mall assault, including the death toll and how many attackers were involved. At least 67 people were confirmed killed and more than 170 others wounded. The Kenyan Red Cross said 39 people caught in the attack remain unaccounted for.

Several Horn of Africa security analysts told Al Jazeera institutional rivalry and unclear command lines within Kenyan security agencies were the likely reasons behind the failure to foil the Westgate strike.

"The problem with the Kenyan intelligence service for the last couple of years is that it has been politicized," said analyst Abdullahi Halakhe.

"It is not run like a professional outfit. They are dealing with internal issues, neutralizing political opponents, rather than protecting the country from internal and external aggression," Halakhe said.

Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at the London-based think-tank Chattam House, said being on full alert for an attack at all times is not realistic.

"We have seen with previous terrorist attacks, not only in Nairobi and Kampala [Uganda] but also in cities such as New York and London, it is impossible to remain on high-alert continuously," Soliman said.

"It will always be possible for an individual or a small group to remain unnoticed and carry out atrocities such as Westgate. I doubt the Kenyan police have the capacity to protect all of Nairobi's significant targets," Soliman said.

The Westgate assault may also be a culmination of wrong intelligence on the threat posed by groups such as al-Shabaab. Amid continuous air strikes against its training facilities, authorities appeared to down-grade the organization’s potency.

"In intelligence the term is 'you have to be right all the time and the terrorist only has to be right once'. This is such a situation. One should not forget that Kenya has done quite a lot in preventing previous and other incidents," said Anneli Botha, senior researcher of terrorism at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS).

Intelligence had indicated that al-Shabaab has been steadily lost ground in Somalia, weakened by military gains by the African Union force (AMISOM) and Somali government troops. But the attack appears to have emboldened the organization.

Some al-Shabaab leaders want their fighters confined to Somalia, while others such as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Godane, have pushed for a global jihad.

"The Westgate attack has strengthened Godane’s hand," said Halakhe.

Analysts say the al-Shabaab leader may be sending a message to intelligence agencies that reports of infighting and weakness are overblown. 

"Godane is saying I am going to show the group is not dead. You took our economical lifeline - that is [the port city of ] Kismayo, but they are telling the Kenyan government we will hit where it hurts - and that was Westgage," Halakhe said. 

"To others who are disenchanted, he is telling them to come back because al-Shabaab is the only alternative they have." 

Soliman said a thorough probe will be carried into the attack. "There is a period of mourning and reflection, after which there will be a serious investigation of what took place and measures that can be implemented to prevent such an attack occurring again."

Halakhe questioned what, if anything, Western intelligence agencies provided to Kenyan authorities. The leaked NIS file said that Israel's Embassy in Nairobi had warned of "possible terrorist attacks on their citizens" during Jewish holidays from September 4-28, though it cited "Iran and the Hezbollah" as the likely perpetrators.  

"If Kenyan intelligence slept on the job where were the Western intelligence services, because they are more sophisticated and more advanced compared to Kenya. Where were they?"  asked Halakhe.

Changes within Kenya's security apparatus will likely be part of the fallout from the Westgate attack, Halakhe said. 

"I think the anger and disaffection towards the intelligence failure will lead to some changes within the intelligence unit. There will be some movement, some will be sacked, and some will be moved around," he said.

Others said a full investigation was needed before laying any blame. Botha said the public should not be too quick to judge, adding Kenya's involvement in Somalia was already a red flag that attacks back home were a reality.  

"When Kenya sent its troops to Somalia and al-Shabaab issued threat after threat, we expected a terror attack to happen. Before this there were [also] some grenade attacks in some cities," Botha said.

The government, meanwhile, has defended its handling of the situation. Kenya's Interior Ministry Principal Secretary Mutea Iringo has said the security forces should not be blamed for not be alert enough.

"The security forces have prevented many terror attacks in the recent past. The Westgate killings are 'unfortunate' since it was among the few instances in which the killers had outsmarted government agencies," he said.

Botha, a former trainer of South African police, agreed. "One should not be harsh to Kenyan security officials. Other Western countries like America, Britain face these sorts of attacks. Unfortunately these sorts of attacks happen to the best of countries," Botha said.

Kenyan police official Jonathan Kosgei defended the handling of the siege by outgunned police officers.  "In all honesty, this was the first time Kenya has witnessed such an audacious terrorist attack on a mall using guns," Kosgei said. "We knew of bombs, [but] this new style was hard to predict. However, the security forces did their best to contain the situation in the prevailing disadvantaged circumstances."

A Kenyan lawmaker, meanwhile, has also publicly stated that warnings of an attack on Nairobi landmarks were given to security officials.

Senator Mike Sonko, whose constituency includes Westgate Mall, said two women who apparently knew of the plot approached him months before the assault.

"They mentioned Westgate Mall, Village Market, Parliament and the Kenyatta International Conference Centre as their targets," Sonko said.

The women were taken to authorities and provided statements, but the information was not acted upon, said Sonko. 

"I know I will shock many people here. These people have remained in this area planning the attack for about three months, and despite the investigators getting that information, they could not quell the attack," he said.


Mass Failure into Liberian University Shocks a Nation

Liberia's Education Minister says she finds it hard to believe that not a single candidate passed this year's university admission exam.

Nearly 25,000 school-leavers failed the test for admission to the University of Liberia, one of two state-run universities.

The students lacked enthusiasm and did not have a basic grasp of English, a university official told the BBC.

Liberia is recovering from a brutal civil war that ended a decade ago and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel peace laureate, recently acknowledged that the education system was still "in a mess", and much needed to be done improve it.

Many schools lack basic education material and teachers are poorly qualified. However, this is the first time that every single student who wrote the exam for a fee of $25 has failed, our reporter says.

It means that the overcrowded university will not have any new first-year students when it reopens next month for the academic year, he adds.

Students told him the result was unbelievable and their dreams had been shattered, our reporter says.

Education Minister Etmonia David-Tarpeh told the BBC Focus on Africa program that she intended to meet university officials to discuss the failure rate.

"I know there are a lot of weaknesses in the schools but for a whole group of people to take exams and every single one of them to fail, I have my doubts about that," Ms. David-Tarpeh said. "It's like mass murder."

Ms. David-Tarpeh said she knew some of the students and the schools they attended.

"These are not just schools that will give people grades. I'd really like to see the results of the students," she added.

University spokesman Momodu Getaweh responded that the university stood by its decision, and it would not be swayed by "emotion".

"In English, the mechanics of the language, they didn't know anything about it. So the government has to do something," he said.

"The war has ended 10 years ago now. We have to put that behind us and become realistic."


DRC: Rape as a Weapon of War

Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He and his colleagues have treated about 30,000 rape victims, developing great expertise in the treatment of serious sexual injuries.

His story includes disturbing accounts of rape as a weapon of war.

“When war broke out, 35 patients in my hospital in Lemera in eastern DR Congo were killed in their beds.

“I fled to Bukavu, 60 miles to the north, and started a hospital made from tents. I built a maternity ward with an operating theatre. In 1998, everything was destroyed again. So, I started all over again in 1999.

“It was that year that our first rape victim was brought into the hospital. After being raped, bullets had been fired into her genitals and thighs.

“I thought that was a barbaric act of war, but the real shock came three months later. Forty-five women came to us with the same story, they were all saying: "People came into my village and raped me, tortured me."

“Other women came to us with burns. They said that after they had been raped chemicals had been poured on their genitals.

“I started to ask myself what was going on. These weren't just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy. You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly - a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch.

“The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything. It's very effective.

“We have a staged system of care for victims. Before I undertake a big operation we start with a psychological examination. I need to know if they have enough resilience to withstand surgery.

“Then we move to the next stage, which might consist of an operation or just medical care. And the following stage is socio-economic care - most of these patients arrive with nothing, no clothes even.

“We have to feed them, we have to take care of them. After we discharge them they will be vulnerable again if they're not able to sustain their own lives. So we have to assist them on socio-economical level - for example through helping women develop new skills and putting girls back in school.

“The fourth stage is to assist them on a legal level. Often the patients know who their assailants were and we have lawyers who help them bring their cases to court.

“In 2011, we witnessed a fall in the number of cases. We thought perhaps we were approaching the end of the terrible situation for women in the Congo. But since last year, when the war resumed, cases have increased again. It's a phenomenon which is linked entirely to the war situation.

“The conflict in DR Congo is not between groups of religious fanatics. Nor is it a conflict between states. This is a conflict caused by economic interests - and it is being waged by destroying Congolese women.”


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