Muslims are split into two main branches, the Sunnis and Shia. The split originates in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community.
The great majority of Muslims are Sunnis – estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%.
Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam. The word Sunni comes from “Ahl al-Sunna”, the people of the tradition. The tradition in this case refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. All subsequent Muslim leaders are seen as temporal figures.
In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction – literally “Shiat Ali” or the party of Ali. The Shia claim the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.
Ali was killed as a result of intrigues, violence and civil wars which marred his caliphate. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to caliphate. Hassan is believed to have been poisoned by Muawiyah, the first caliph (leader of Muslims) of the Umayyad dynasty.