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Muslims, Shi'ite and Sunni

[ (shee-eyt, soo-nee) ]
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The two main groups of Islam, of which the Sunnis are the majority. The split rose from an early dispute over who should be the leader of Islam after the death of Muhammad. The larger group, the Sunnis, argued that the successor should be appointed by election and consensus, as tradition dictated. (Sunni comes from the Arabic word Sunna, meaning “tradition.”) The smaller group believed that Muhammad's successors should come from his family, starting with Ali, his son-in-law. These, the partisans of Ali, were named from the word Shia, meaning “partisan” in Arabic. The defeat of the Shi'ites by the Sunnis is thought to have determined some of the characteristic attitudes of the two groups, the Sunnis stressing merit and achievement, the Shi'ites appealing to the defeated, poor, and oppressed.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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