What is the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam ?

The fundamentals of the Islamic faith are agreed upon by all Muslims. These fundamentals include the belief in the oneness of God, the role of the Prophet Muhammad as his final messenger, prayer, the requirement to perform Hajj once in one's lifetime, and the requirement to give to charity.

Sunnis and Shi'is do not disagree on these issues. The rift between the two, rather, developed along historical and political lines, on the question of who was to be the legitimate leader of the Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad.

The passing on of Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. thrust the nascent Muslim community into a protracted debate over who would be their next leader. Some companions felt that the Prophet had designated his nephew and beloved son-in-law 'Ali as his political and religious successor, and thus the Imam (leader) of the Muslim community. The majority, however, opted for the procedure of choosing from among a group of elders, and thus an old friend of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, was elected as the first Caliph. The group that historically held to the view that 'Ali and the descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima (who was also 'Ali's wife) are the legitimate successors of the Prophet's mantle of leadership are referred to as Shi'ati 'Ali (the supporters of 'Ali).

This issue has led to the development of the largest institutional division within the Muslim community, without any drastic variation in fundamental beliefs or practices.

Political machinations often deepened the wounds of division, and the historical Sunni-Shi'a differences are still passionately employed by people with vested interests for political or "religious" hegemony.

Groups with extremist beliefs have emerged from both sides. Among those who claim to be Sunni Muslims are the Qadianies, who believe that a person by the name of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed appeared in the Indo-Pak subcontinent over a hundred years ago, and that he was a prophet of Allah who received divine revelation. Among the Shi'a there are the Abadiyyahs, who believe that 'Ali was partly divine; the 'Alawies, who consider 'Ali virtually a prophet; and the Druze, who consider an 11th-century descendant of 'Ali, al-Hakim, to have been the embodiment of God. All groups that hold such views are diametrically opposed to the agreed-upon fundamentals of Islam and are not considered within the fold of Islam by the mainstream Shi'as and Sunnis who constitute more than 90% of those who claim to be Muslim.

What are the precise steps one should take to embrace Islam?

To embrace Islam, one needs to be fully informed about the fundamentals of the Islamic faith and aware of the responsibilities that accompany one's attestation to the faith. The decision to accept Islam should not be a result of coercion or misinformation, for if one is to live by Islam one is to be committed to a way of life that guides every level of everyday activity.

Faith is essentially manifested in three ways:

It is manifested by internally accepting the truth of Islam and also by attesting to your faith (taking the shahaadah) in the presences of witnesses.

The shahaadah, the declaration of faith, says, "I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is the last messenger." The fundamental truths include the belief in the Absolute Uniqueness of God (Allah) the Supreme Being, to whom we are individually accountable on the Day of Judgment and rewarded for the good and punished for our evil; the belief in the Prophets sent throughout history to guide human beings toward establishing truth and justice; the belief that Muhammad was the final Prophet and that he received the Qur'an, which is the only divinely revealed book to be preserved in its original to this day.

Finally, one needs to practically apply Islam's commandments, which include the prescribed prayers, charity, and a pilgrimage to be taken once in one's lifetime if one has the means of doing so. Also, one is expected to do good and to avoid and prevent all evil for the benefit of all creation.

What is the punishment for breaking promises, and how could one repent?

The Qur'an is filled with injunctions commanding people to be truthful (chapters 4:58, 5:1), and the Prophet Muhammad has classified hypocrites as having three traits: "when he speaks he lies, when he promises he breaks it, when he is entrusted he betrays."

In fact, if one has seriously sworn an oath to do something and does not fulfil what he or she has sworn, then the expiation is either the feeding of 10 persons or the clothing of 10 people (according to the Qur'an 5:89). If one is financially unable to do this, he or she is then required to fast for three days.

When one has broken a promise, besides an apology, one has to sincerely repent and to pay restitution for any loss or damage that may have been caused by not fulfilling the promise.

To repent, one must regret the wrong done, turn away from the habit or practice for which one is repenting, pay restitution to the aggrieved party to the best of one's ability, and turn to Allah for forgiveness.

Is sex determination through sonography allowed in Islam?

Sonography forwards us detailed and intricate information that could assist in the prevention of harm to both the fetus and the mother. Any information that could enhance the quality of life, as sonography indeed does, is welcomed. Knowing the gender of the fetus in the womb is a byproduct of the information available to us, whether one decides to take the info or chooses not to.
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