The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, is one of the holiest sites for the world's Shia Muslims. Ali, the man Shias regard as the first imam after Muhammad, is buried here.

Photograph by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson, courtesy U.S. Navy

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  • On January 24, 661, Ali ibn Abi Talib, simply known as Ali, was assassinated in the Great Mosque of Kufa, in what is now Iraq. Ali’s death would lead to a permanent schism in Islam, between the Sunni and Shia denominations.
     
    Sunnis and Shias have many more common beliefs than differences. Both believe in one god (Allah); daily prayers; charitable giving; one divine prophet (Muhammad); and one holy book (the Quran). 
     
    Following Muhammad’s death, conflict emerged about who should lead the powerful spiritual and political caliphate. Sunnis wanted to elect independent leaders of the caliphate. In particular, they supported Muhammad’s friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, as the caliph to follow Muhammad.
     
    Shias supported Ali, Muhammad’s close friend, cousin, and son-in-law. In fact, the name “Shia” or Shi’ite” is a shortened form of shi’at Ali, or “party of Ali.” Shias believed the caliphate should be led by members of Muhammad’s family.
     
    Today, more than 75% of the world’s Muslims identify as Sunni. Shias, however, have larger populations in Iran and Iraq, and strong minority communities throughout the Middle East.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    assassinate Verb

    to murder someone of political importance.

    caliphate Noun

    spiritual and political Islamic leadership structure based around a caliph, or successor to the prophet Muhammad.

    conflict Noun

    a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

    denomination Noun

    branch of a church or larger spiritual faith.

    divine Adjective

    having to do with a god.

    elect Verb

    to choose by vote.

    emerge Verb

    to develop or come into view.

    holy Adjective

    spiritually blessed or sacred.

    Islam Noun

    religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.

    mosque Noun

    place of worship in the Muslim or Islamic religion.

    permanent Adjective

    constant or lasting forever.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    prophet Noun

    person who delivers a message from a god to religious followers.

    Quran Noun

    holy book of the Islamic religion.

    schism Noun

    split or separation.