“Some Muslims don’t like other Muslims praying on the rock,” Al-Qazwini said, referring to a biscuit-sized stone or piece of dried mud that Shiites place their foreheads on when prostrating during prayer. Sunnis do not use this stone, and some believe it goes against Islamic tradition, and is even heresy.
“It’s happened to me at least 50 times in Saudi Arabia. They see the rock, they take it away and say that it’s shirk, polytheism,” Al-Qazwini declared, eliciting gasps from his audience.
The variation in the proper way to pray is one among several differences that exist between Shiites, who make up about 15 percent of Muslims globally and in America, and the majority of Sunnis. Until recently, those differences mattered little in the United States, where the two groups bonded as Muslim minorities and prayed in the same mosques.
“There weren’t enough of either to justify the cost of building sectarian mosques, and because in general, early generation immigrants were less focused on establishing formal houses of worship,” said Andrea Stanton, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver.
That is changing, however, as American Shiites are increasingly establishing their own mosques. According to “The American Mosque 2011,” a survey sponsored by several Muslim American organizations, 7 percent of roughly 2,100 mosques in America are Shiite, and most have been built in the last 20 years.
One reason: Shiites have become numerous and financially strong enough to manage the expensive process of buying or building their own mosques. Another factor: the growth in Shiite populations as immigrants flee persecution in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where Taliban gunmen recently executed at least 22 Shiite bus passengers.
Many Shiite Muslims say that while American mosques profess to be open to any and all Muslims, they tend to be Sunni in practice and can be hostile to Shiite beliefs and practices.
In some ways, the Sunni/Shiite divide is similar to divisions between Protestants and Catholics — both are Christians, but with different ways of understanding and worshipping the same God.
The differences between Sunnis and Shiites are historic and theological. After Muhammad died in 632 A.D., some Muslims believed he should be succeeded by his male relatives, beginning with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. They became the Shiites. Others supported the prophet’s closest companions; they became the Sunnis.