What is the difference between Shia and Sunni muslims?

This neat explainer finds that Sunni muslims are:

  • After the death of Prophet Muhammad, the supporters of Abu Bakr, a friend of the prophet became Sunnis. They make up 80% of muslims today.
  • While both follow five pillars of Islam, Sunnis rely on Prophet and his teachings (the sunna), which is why Shias accuse Sunnis of dogmatism.
  • Sunnis consider Shias to have committed heresy (see below).

Shia muslims are:

  • After the death of Prophet Muhammad, the supporters of Ali, Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, became Shias (short for “shiaat Ali”, partisans of Ali).
  • While both follow five pillars of Islam, Shias rely on their ayatollahs (first 12 of whom were direct descendants of Ali) as the reflection of God on Earth. (This is what Sunnis consider heresy).
  • Mindful of their minority, Shias have mostly chosen to remain at peace with the Sunnis, unlike the sectarian violence that occurred among the Christians.

Religion and intelligence

More than 400 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Greek playwright Euripedes wrote in his play Bellerophon, “Doth some one say that there be gods above? There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool, led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.”

Euripides was not an atheist and only used the word “fool” to provoke his audience. But, if you look at the studies conducted over the past century, you will find that those with religious beliefs will, on the whole, score lower on tests of intelligence. That is the conclusion of psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman of the University of Rochester and Judith Hall of Northeastern University, who have published a meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

New meta-analysis checks the correlation between intelligence and faith,  Ars Technica, 11 August 2013.

This story set the news agenda that day. It received over 150,000 reads and 600 comments in just one day. It was then picked up by The Independent, Yahoo News, Huffington Post and Daily Mail.

Image credit: Sebastian Bergmann

The role of religion

Ever since I took the time to explore my own religious views, I’ve been rewarded with more and more questions about life. One that haunted me for quite sometime was: how to explain (concisely) the role of religion in our society?

So I tried. This is what I came up with: some people find it too hard to find meaning in life. Religion gives them one. And then they find meaning may be from scriptures, idols, stories, community or something else that being religious provides.

This is perhaps too simplistic an explanation. While I came to this conclusion on my own, I am not the first one to do so. Here’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow:

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” ……Traditionally, the problem of existence has been most directly confronted through religion, and an increasing number of the disillusioned are turning back to it, choosing either one of the standard creeds or a more esoteric Eastern variety.

Learning from religion

Alain de Botton gave a very interesting talk at TED. He tried to do what few dare – mix religion and atheism. He called for Atheism 2.0. There’s lot of food for thought in his talk but I’ve decided to do something new with situations like this one. To the many ideas that got thrown at me, I am going to apply my two ideas deal. According to that deal, I am going to share one idea from the talk that I feel very convinced about and one idea that I felt completely repelled by.

Repetition is a necessity

Botton claims that in a secular world we are taught lessons once and are expected to remember them for a life time. Instead, religion understands that our minds are like sieves and they expect us to repeat important life lessons over and over again.

I feel convinced with this idea. Religious or not, people tend to make very similar mistakes in their lives over and over again. I am sure you’ve come across older people who seem to make the same common mistakes that we young people make. This phenomenon has made me wonder many times whether our ability to learn drops so sharply as we grow old that we need to make those mistakes again to remember the lesson we’ve learnt already before.

It seems that Botton’s claim holds a good explanation for this phenomenon and moreover, it also makes me think about a better way of keeping a track of life lessons. It seems to me that as an atheist and a rationalist, I would benefit from something like a self-written guide to good living. A document that I can keep tweaking as I go ahead in life but also something I can refer to on a regular basis to refresh the many important lessons that I’ve learnt.

I also believe that the key to better living is forming better habits. This ‘guide’ could be used to help form these key habits.

Bringing dogma to education

Botton’s thoughts on how university education should be restructured by learning from religion repel me. He claims that currently universities around the world treat us as rational adults who need information and data to be able to understand how to live a good life. Whereas, all major religions treat us as children. Religions believe that ‘we are only just holding it together’ and that we need help. He says that we should bring back sermon style teaching where words are meant for changing lives and not just for giving information.

This idea repels me because, in short, what he is requesting us to do is going to bring dogma to education. Universities are places where people come to learn from their own experience rather than get told what is that they should do. They face opposing ideas and must learn to be able to draw their own conclusions.

The world is a very complex place and not even the combined knowledge of all religion, philosophy and science can yet, accurately enough, set guidelines of how to live a good life. It is definitely much better to let people figure out whether they need help rather than overwhelm them with ‘help’ that Botton thinks is the right help for them.

Best of the two worlds

I am not against the notion that there are certain things that religion does well and that it may well be possible to have the best of the two worlds. Yet, I think that the best of two worlds will be different for different individuals. A one-size fits all isn’t the way forward, and Botton accepts that too.