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On October 25th, 2017, IDI held one of its Exploring Faiths events at the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Toronto. Muneeb Nasir, President of the Olive Tree Foundation, was the master of ceremony for the event. He asked those in attendance to think about how Shia and Sunni denominations were portrayed in the media, and why there was so much tension and conflict between the two.

Dr. Liyakat Takim, Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University, spoke from the Shia perspective. He explained that followers of the Shia denomination believed, when the Prophet Mohammad passed away, that the rightful candidate to succeed him was his son in law Ali. In 680 CE Ali’s son Hossein was martyred (not by Sunnis) and this led Shias to feeling like they were having their rights taken away, of being wronged.

He explained that Shia Islam most closely resembled the hierarchy of the Catholic church—there are twelve holy leaders. Both Shia and Sunni Muslims believe in a coming Messiah, but the Shia believe that he will be born, whereas Sunnis believe that this has already happened. Dr. Takim explained that many similarities between the two denominations exist in the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, with the main difference lying in the area of Islamic law or jurisprudence. Shias and Sunnis pray with different hand gestures and prayer combinations, which are relatively minor differences. He stressed that the two denominations coexisted peacefully for many centuries.

With the religious aspect of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Khomeini wanted the religious revolution to spread, which had geopolitical ramifications. Many Gulf states felt the pressure from Iran, and Saudi Arabia began to emphasize the differences.

In Canada, for example, coexistence is very good, with the majority of problems coming from extremists who want to emphasize differences. On the Council of Imams, both denominations are represented.

Dr. Katherine Bullock, President of the Tessellate Institute, spoke next from the Sunni perspective. She explained that she was originally an Atheist from Australia, but met many religious Muslims and Christians at university, eventually converting in 1994. Her first experience with the different denominations was when someone asked if she was Sunni or Shia and she had to delve into research of the two before she decided that she preferred the Sunni tradition.

She explained the main tenets of the Sunni tradition. There is a belief in six things: 1) there is only one God; 2) the existence of angels; 3) all prophets recognized by various Abrahamic traditions existed; 4) God sent the final scriptures to the Prophet Mohammad; 5) there will be a Day of Judgement where those in Hell will have a chance to be redeemed and enter Heaven; 6) Destiny, which are trials from God.

Dr. Bollock then explained the Five Pillars of the Body: 1) Testify that there is only one God and the Prophet Mohammad is his voice; 2) prayer five times a day with set times and words; 3) zakat, which is 2.5 percent of annual earnings to charity; 4) fasting for Ramadan; 5) Hajj, or pilgrimage two months after Ramadan, at least one time in one’s life.

She gave some interesting facts that the highest population of Muslims reside in Asia, most of which are Sunni. There are more Muslims in China than there are in Syria, for example. In Canada, the earliest record of a Muslim population is in 1831 and currently there are 1 million Muslims in Canada—making up 3 percent of the population, with 61 percent in Ontario. The breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslim is not measured in Canada.

During the discussion, it was explained that the Ismailis believed that Isma’il ibn Jafar, the son of the the sixth Shia Imam, was his true successor. They disappeared after his death but resurface in Egypt in the 10th century as the Fatimid dynasty. The main spiritual leader is the Aga Khan and he is seen as descendent of the Prophet Mohammad and a spiritual guide for the Ismaili community who is empowered to interpret the Islamic doctrine according to the needs of the times.

Wahhabism or Salafi was explained as well. There was a reformer in Central Arabia called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who felt that Islam had become corrupted due to the superstitious nature of Sufism. He rejected the four schools of Islamic law and was deemed heretical. In the 1700s, he exchanged his religious ambitions with Muhammad bin Saud’s political ambitions. This held alliance held strong over the years and eventually resulted in the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 1932.

The Salafi way was described as jurisprudence for the modern age. The repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ‘60s led to the distinction between Quietiest Salafi and Militant Salafi, who believe that law must be implemented as they understand it regarding religion. This was also a response to colonialism.

There exist both political parties who try to diminish the divide between the Muslim traditions and those who try to exploit it to political advantage. Colonial powers also had a large influence on the contemporary history of Iran and Lebanon and the regional interaction between the different denominations.


The Denominations of Islam

Exploring Faith is a program where IDI aims to provide insights about the diverse faith traditions present in Canada. These series of event aims to increase religious literacy, break down the myths about religious traditions, create a positive engaging learning environment with the participation of adherents from faith or no-faith background.

The panel explored the Denominations of Islam and diversity of practices of Muslims in Canada and around the world.

Opening Remarks:

Dr. Nevin Reda Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies, Emmanuel College


Muneeb Nasir President, Olive Tree Foundation


Dr. Katherine Bullock President, Tessellate Institute

Dr. Liyakat Takim Sharjah Chair in Global Islam, McMaster University

Date: October 25, 2017 12pm – 2pm

Venue: Multi-Faith Centre, Main Activity Hall 569 Spadina Avenue Toronto, ON

Exploring Faith Series: Denominations of Islam