The Shias are often considered as differing from the Sunni because their choice of Imam Ali as the first Caliph was based on Imam Ali being the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) first cousin and closest living male relative, as well as being his son-in-law (married to his daughter, Fatima) – and therefore the head of the Ahl-e-Bayt, or People of the House (of the Prophet (PBUH)). This, however, greatly oversimplifies the understanding that the Shias have of Imam Ali, who was already known as a philosopher and a teacher, and like the Prophet (PBUH), was considered an intensely pious and humble man. Imam Ali’s right therefore to succeed the Prophet (PBUH) was also based on Imam Ali having personal attributes that were considered integral to the religion’s leadership post Muhammad’s (PBUH) death.
As previously mentioned, Imam Ali was also believed to be the rightful successor to the Prophet (PBUH) after his death because he had been designated by the Prophet (PBUH) himself – a right that was denied to him. According to Shia accounts, the Prophet (PBUH) had anointed Imam Ali as his successor on a number of occasions, but especially after his last pilgrimage when he was on his death bed.
After the Prophet (PBUH) died in 632 CE, however, tribal leaders and the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions met and elected his close friend, Abu Bakr, as Caliph while Imam Ali and the Prophet’s (PBUH) closest family were making funeral arrangements. Although this was disputed, Imam Ali and his family did not protest against the decision at the time. It was only after the turmoil, and ultimately the murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, that Imam Ali was invited to become the fourth Caliph. He did so with great reservation because of the unrest that had continued to exist in the Muslim community and which had remained unresolved by Uthman’s death. Hence, disunity and conflict continued into Imam Ali's Caliphate, and eventually Imam Ali was assassinated during prayer.
After Imam Ali’s death, the Caliphate was claimed by both Imam Ali’s son, Hassan, and the Governor of Syria, Muawiyah. In order to unite the Muslim community and maintain peace, Hassan ceded the Caliphate to Muawiyah, and removed himself entirely from the question of leadership. However after the death of Muahwiya and the poisoning of Hassan, Hassan’s younger brother, Hussain – with support from the Muslim community – refused to recognise Muahwiya’s son, Yazid (who was a highly contested leader nominated by his father) as the rightful successor. Hussain saw the leadership of Muahwiya and Yazid as characterised by injustice and the corruption of core Muslim ideals. On his way to claim the Caliphate, Hussain and about 72 members of his family and companions were massacred in Karbala as they made their way to battle on the 10th of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar) in 680 CE. This event sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world at the time. But what is seen by Sunni communities today as a terrible and tragic part of Muslim history, is seen by the Shia as a sacred day of mourning and loss of the true trajectory of Islam.
The annual memorial for Hussain, his family, his children and companions is called Ashura (tenth day of Muharram) and is a day of profound mourning for Shia Muslims and other minority Muslims. While the martyrdom of the Prophet’s (PBUH) family is generally mourned by all Muslims, it is a seminal event in Shia history and for them symbolises resistance to injustice and tyranny. The tragedy at Karbala reinforced a developing consciousness among Shia and other minority Muslims that the loss of the Caliphate to Imam Ali, and ultimately the loss of Imam Ali himself and his sons, was a loss of the realisation of the true Islam which was concerned with sacredness, learning, scholarship and spiritualism. This loss, along with the focus on Imam Ali’s teachings, are crucial to the Shia identity today.
In today’s world, Shias form the majority in Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Significant Shia minorities exist also in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia.
It is important to note here, that most Sunni communities today do not necessarily believe that Imam Ali should not have been the first Caliph, nor that Imam Ali did not have a major and important contribution to make and that the loss of his sons was not a significant blow to Islam. Most Sunnis today accept that all four Caliphs had important contributions to make, and that despite the tragedy surrounding the death of Imam Ali’s sons, it constitutes a history that cannot be altered.