Middle East : 5 Facts about Sunnis and Shias

January 7, 2016 4:26 am

 All Muslims are expected once in their life to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the haj. Photo / AP

The execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by has sparked
a furor in the along sectarian lines. In Iran, the regional
Shia superpower, the Sunni embassy was ransacked and burned.
Saudi kingdom and a number of its Sunni allies have cut or downgraded
diplomatic relations with Tehran. In a number of Sunni-majority states,
members of the Shia minority have taken to the streets to protest Nimr’s

The events seem to be a worrying escalation of the sectarian
rhetoric that has blighted the Muslim world in recent years and worsened
conflicts in places such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
While it’d be
wrong to lay all the blame at the schism that split the Sunni and the
Shia Muslims nearly 14 centuries ago, it’s hard to deny that the current
divide reinforces a lot of other rivalries and disputes – and is
perhaps even exploited by some to further other aims.

1. The schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims began in the 7th century:

split between Sunni and Shia Islam took place in 632AD after the death
of the Prophet Muhammad, who is regarded by non-Muslims as the founder
of the religion.
The dispute arose over a disagreement over who
should succeed Muhammad as the caliph of Islam: Sunnis believed that Abu
Bakr, the father of Muhammad’s wife and a personal friend, should lead
Muslims due to a consensus among the Muslim community.
Shias believed that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was chosen by Muhammad to be his successor.
initial dispute set off a longer conflict about who should lead the
Islamic community, with Sunnis believing that Muslim leaders should be
chosen from those qualified and the Shia Muslims believing they should
follow Muhammad’s bloodline.
While Ali did eventually become the fourth caliph, he was assassinated and his son was killed.
Muslims consider him the only legitimate caliph, while Sunnis consider
the successive caliphates claimed by dynasties like the Umayyads, the
Abbasids and the Ottomans as legitimate. The way the two groups view
themselves is shown in their names.
The word Sunni comes from
“Ahl al-Sunnah” or the “People of the Path”, suggesting that they follow
the traditions set by Muhammad’s teachings and habits. Shia comes from
“Shi’at Ali”, which means the “Party of Ali” and suggests their link to
Muhammad’s blood lineage.

2. Today around 1 in 10 Muslims are Shias:

Islam began as a movement within the broader Islamic community and it
remains a minority today. Exact estimates are hard to come by (in part
due to political concerns in a number of countries), but in 2009, Pew
Research estimated that around 10 to 13 per cent of the world’s Muslim
population was Shia and around 87 to 90 percent were Sunni.
found that the majority of Muslims lived in just a few countries: Iran,
Pakistan, India and Iraq. In Iran, a country with a population of about
77 million, it’s thought that as much as 95 per cent of the Muslim
population might be Shia, meaning that more than a third of the global
Shia population may live in the country.
Meanwhile, many other
countries have large Sunni majorities, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi
Arabia. A number of key nations in the Middle East are relatively
split. Yemen is estimated to be as much as 40 per cent Shia, for
example, and Shia Muslims make up around 45-55 per cent of the
population in Lebanon.
Demographics do not always result in
control of political leadership, however. The majority of Syria is
Sunni, yet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his late father were
members of the Shia Alawite sect. The Bahraini leadership are Sunni, but
the majority of the Bahraini citizenship is Shia. Iraq is majority
Shia, too, but was ruled by the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein for

3 Sunnis and Shias interpret the religion differently:

split between Sunnis and Shias is often compared to the split between
Catholicism and Protestantism within the Christian Church.
an imperfect comparison but useful in some ways, as it shows how two
religious sects can come to differences over the interpretation of the
same source materials – and how arguments over religious doctrine and
leadership can eventually turn into political violence.
Sunni and Shia Muslims accept the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet
Muhammad as the basis of their religion. Many of their traditions are
the same: They fast during Ramadan and make the pilgrimage to the holy
city of Mecca.
However, their views on how to follow the faith do
have some notable differences. Sunnis tend to focus more on
interpreting Islamic scripture, for example, while Shias follow the
guidance of religious leaders.
Neither the Sunni nor the Shia
Muslim communities are monolithic, however. Within the Shia community
there are a variety of different branches, most split among their
beliefs about who came to lead Islam after the death of Ali.
example, the largest branch are known as “Twelvers”, as they believe
that there were 12 leaders, known as imams, after Muhammad. There are a
number of different schools of thought within Sunni Islam, mostly with
different views on interpreting Islamic law.
It’s also worth
noting that there are other Islamic communities outside of the broad
Sunni and Shia delineation. Sufism, a branch of Islam that emphasises
the spiritual and mystical elements of the faith, has links to both
Sunni and Shia communities. Another school of Islam predominant in Oman,
the Ibadi movement, is said to predate both the Sunni and Shia schools.

4. The rivalry between Sunnis and Shias was not always a big problem:

schism between the Sunni and Shia movements began in a bloody way, with
Ali Ibn Abi Talib murdered and his successor killed and beheaded in
Over the years that followed, the Shia minority was
sometimes persecuted by Sunni authorities and vice-versa. Later, as the
Safavid dynasty established Shia Islam as the state religion of Persia,
it came into conflict with the Sunni caliphate then based in the Ottoman
However, portraying the rivalry between the two groups
as a constant clash would be misguided. In many places, Sunnis and Shias
lived happily together, intermarrying and sharing places of worship.
besides, where there were clashes with each other there were also
clashes with other religions during these periods – and as others have
noted, there was never a war between Sunni and Shia with the ferocity of
the Thirty Years War between different Christian movements (estimated
to have left as many as 8 million dead).
The split between Sunni
and Shia was also weakened in the early 20th century by growing Arab
nationalist movements. The Ba’ath movement, which went on to dominate
both Iraq and Syria through separate political parties, emphasised
nationalism and socialism over religious divides.

5. Its resurgence is largely driven by politics:

easy to look around the Muslim world now and see it divided along
sectarian lines. The spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the death
of Nimr is really just the latest issue.
There’s the civil war in
Syria that largely pits Sunni forces against Shias. There are similar
divisions along sectarian lines in Yemen’s fighting. Iraq’s political
paralysis is in large part due to Sunni-Shia violence and mistrust. In
Pakistan and Afghanistan there remains deep tension between the Shia
minority and Sunni extremists.
Many trace these tensions back to
1979 and the Iranian revolution that installed an Islamic republic in
the country, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. That movement was
threatening to many Sunni powers in the region, not only because it was
Shia-led: The Ayatollah espoused a fiercely anti-American rhetoric that
put him at odds with US allies such as Saudi Arabia.
And perhaps
more importantly, it was a major Middle Eastern country where religious
leaders now held political power. The Iranian Government also quickly
proved itself willing to support Shia movements around the world, often
with violence.
It is believed to have offered significant amounts
of funding and training to Hizbollah in Lebanon and later various Shia
militia in Iraq. Things stepped up after the attacks in New York on
September 11, 2001.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab
Spring that began around seven years later also ended up pushing Sunnis
and Shias into further conflict. Isis (Islamic State), loathed by both
Sunni and Shia powers, has wedged itself into the middle, with leader
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi not only proclaiming himself successor to the Sunni
Ottoman caliphate but also claiming a blood tie to the Prophet
Muhammad, apparently an attempt to appeal to Shias.
As Greg Lynch
of George Washington University noted in 2013, it often appears that
sectarianism was being exploited for political gains. That appears to be
the case again now, with Saudi Arabia opening up a Sunni front against
Iran after coming under pressure economically and geopolitically.
of the big conflicts in the Middle East right now don’t really seem
quite so sectarian when examined closely. The Syrian war began as an
attempt to oust an Arab nationalist dictator.
The Houthi rebels
in Yemen may be Shia but they are part of the Zaydi minority, which is
theologically closer to Sunni Islam than other Shia movements, and seem
to have been initially motivated by local concerns about the Government.
and Libya may be facing powerful Islamist insurgencies, but it has
little to do with their Shia populations, whose size is negligible.
Nimr, the relatively little known Saudi Shia cleric whose execution has
sparked the latest tensions, himself appeared to downplay the importance
of sectarianism in a 2008 meeting with US officials, saying he only
wanted to side with “the people” against the government, according to
cables leaked by WikiLeaks.

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