Thus far we have dealt with the main body of Muslims, the Sunnīs, or traditionalists. Local and school differences may exist among them with no impairment to their basic conviction that they form one religious community.
However, there exist also among the "People of the Qibla" (those who turn toward Mecca) dissident sects who feel that they are set apart from all other Muslims, and who regard the Sunnīs as heretics, or even infidels.
To understand these sects, it is necessary to return to the early days of Islam. The second Caliph, ‘Umar, was struck down in the Mosque by a Persian slave bent on avenging the conquest of his people (A.D. 644). The six most distinguished Companions of the Prophet then met to elect one of themselves Caliph. The choice narrowed to ‘Alī, the Prophet's cousin, husband of his daughter and father of his grandchildren; and to ‘Uthmān, an early convert from the clan of Umayya, the aristocratic Qurayshī family which had led the opposition to the Prophet in Mecca. ‘Uthmān had also married a daughter of the Prophet. The other four finally decided upon ‘Uthmān, and ‘Alī's friends bitterly denounced the "conspiracy" to withhold allegiance from the Prophet's own family.
‘Uthmān was personally pious, but it was felt that his family, the Umawis, had entirely too much influence with him. He gave them high posts, and seemed unwilling to notice their corrupt dealings. He lived more luxuriously
than his predecessors, and he allowed his family and the chief Companions to become owners of vast private properties in the conquered lands. At the same time, he antagonized many of the Companions. Discontent grew in the camp cities, where it was felt that all spoils and revenues of the conquests should be divided equally among the community. ‘Alī was known to share this view.
In ‘Uthmān's eleventh year as Caliph, an army rebellion demanded his abdication. When he refused, even after being blockaded in his palace, murderers burst in and hacked him to death. The insurgents and two of the chief Companions, Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, then prevailed upon ‘Alī to accept the Caliphate.
Since the murder of ‘Uthmān, the Muslim community has never again been fully united; it was confronted with a moral dilemma to which no universally acceptable solution has been found. If one approved of ‘Uthmān's acts, he was wrong; if he approved of the murder, he was wrong and any moral neutrality was also felt to be wrong.
Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, together with ‘A’isha, the Prophet's widow, now deserted ‘Alī, accusing him of illegal election and complicity in the murder, and raised an army.
‘Alī made the new camp city of Kūfa in Iraq his capital, and his followers routed and killed Ṭalḥa and Zubayr. The commander of the army in Syria, Mu‘āwiya, cousin of ‘Uthmān, then claimed the right of vengeance for the dead Caliph. A diplomat of great skill, he first maneuvered ‘Alī into a situation where he felt obliged to accept arbitration. At this, many of the pietists who had approved of ‘Uthmān's death deserted ‘Alī's army, accusing him of repudiation of the Qur’ān, where they found, "If one party rebels against the other, fight against that which rebels" (49:9). Since ‘Alī had in this way apostacized,
they maintained, all who continued to follow him were infidels. These Khārijīs, or "Seceders," thus became a new sect of Islam, and held that other Muslims were apostates whose blood it was lawful to shed. ‘Alī was forced to fight them, but their appeal to the tribal elements was strong, and in A.H. 40/A.D. 661, ‘Alī was assassinated by a Khārijī.
‘Alī had been a deeply religious man, who had appealed profoundly to the loyalties of his followers, and he had lent his moral authority to social and economic reforms many Muslims desired to see. Very soon he and his descendants were given an almost prophetic prestige; they have even been seen by some of their followers as emanations of the Godhead.
Mu‘āwiya became Caliph, and the House of Umayya ruled for ninety years. The Khārijīs and the Faction of ‘Alī, the Shī‘a, led unsuccessful religious revolts, and even in the remainder of the community dissatisfaction with the Umawīs grew. In A.D. 750 a general revolution by all elements for "an Imām of the Prophet's family" toppled the Umawīs, but it was the descendants of the Prophet's uncle ‘Abbās who had secretly engineered the revolution and who now seized the power. The Shī‘a continued their opposition, and subdivided repeatedly over the claims of ‘Alī's descendants, who became the nuclei of new Shī‘ī sects.