Islam – Sunnis and Shiites


Palestinians are beginning to understand that history has passed them by. Their old struggle against Israel pales in comparison to the huge new conflicts raging across the Middle East. A major component of the new conflict is the Shiite-Sunni divide, which split Islam just after its founding 1,400 years ago. Although Shiites comprise only 15% of the Muslim masses, that’s a mighty bite of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Tens-of-thousands of virulently religious armed militants kill and maim in the name of whichever Islamic variant they follow.



The Sunni-Shiite divide began after Mohammed’s death in 632 with the question of succession. Sunnis believed that Mohammed left no spiritual heir. Instead, Abu Baker, father of one of Mohammed’s wives, was elected as his successor and future leaders were likewise chosen by the Muslim community.

Shiites believe that Mohammed left his cousin and son-in-law, Ali Iban Abi Talib, to succeed him as Islam’s first caliph; future leaders, or imams, were chosen from Ali’s direct descendants. Shiites call themselves Shia Ali, partisans of Ali, while Sunnis name themselves after what they consider the correct sunna (way).

30 years after Mohammed’s death, the two groups were locked in the First Fitna (Islamic Civil War), which roiled from 656–661. Eventually, Mu’awiyya, governor of Syria, prevailed and set up the Sunni Umayyad dynasty in Damascus.

A landmark in Islamic history was the Battle of Karbala (680) in Iraq, where Caliph Yazid I of the Umayyad dynasty killed the third Shiite imam, Hussein ibn Ali. Shiites are still sore about this. In later history, each group carved out rival territories such as Shiite Persia and the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

Today, Sunnis are dominant in most Muslim communities from Morocco to Indonesia, while Shiites are the majority in Iraq, Iran, Azeraijan and Bahrain. Indonesia is the largest Sunni country in the world while Iran has more Shiites than any other nation. Pakistan boasts the second-largest Shiite and Sunni populations, although the former outnumber the latter by four to one. Most Muslims in Israel are Sunni and most Arab Muslims of the United States are Shiite.



The Islamic split is expressed by what most outsiders would regard as minor differences in belief, religious practices, clothing and names. For most of Islamic history the groups agreed to disagree and lived relatively quietly side by side. In some countries like Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Bahrain, communities even mingled and intermarried; in others the two groups were separate. Rare instances of pogroms and outright warfare usually erupted when political advantage was in the offing.

Recently the situation changed, leading to such widespread polarization between the two groups that Olivier Roy, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, stated: “Today, Azerbaijan is probably the only country where there are still mixed mosques and Shi[ites] and Sunnis pray together.” What caused this?

The Arab Spring is an important factor in today’s Sunni-Shiite crisis. Religious rivalry was contained by authoritarian regimes in Arab world. With the crack of political structure, religious conflict broke out. Compounding the Sunni-Shiite conflict during the past 20 years is the use of satellite television and internet to spread virulent hate and recruit fighters.

But the major event which sparked the conflict was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution, which thrust Shiite ideology into prominence and led to a Sunni backlash. As scholar Vali Nasr wrote in The Shia Revival, “Where Iranian revolutionaries saw Islamic revolutionary stirrings, Sunnis saw mostly Shia mischief and a threat to Sunni predominance.”

While supporting Shiite agendas in foreign countries, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini initially tried to bridge the Shia-Sunni divide through various means. He designated a special Islamic Unity Week and inaugurated Al-Quds Day, an international day calling for struggle against Israel and for the release of Yerushalayim from Jewish control. But his efforts to lull the Sunnis failed.

Former Iranian Shia leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also “stressed the impermissibility of the fighting between the Sunnis and Shias” and the need to “be aware of the conspiracies of the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken Islam and tear it apart in Iraq.” In 2007, a rare summit meeting was held between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying on his return: “Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies’ conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front.”

But words and actions like these also did little to decelerate the growing schism and hatred.

Sunni-Shiite rivalry was partially responsible for the Iran-Iraq War which lasted from September 1980 to August 1988, making it the 20th century’s longest conventional war. Iraqi hostility to Iran was stoked by fear that the 1979 Iranian Revolution might inspire insurgency among Iraq’s Shiite majority. Other contributors to the Iran-Iraq conflict were a long history of border disputes and Iraq’s ambition to regional dominancy.

Although the Iran-Iraq War ended with a draw, Iranian influence spread to Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran’s greatest victory was the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, which led to the dissolution of his Sunni governing clique and the domination of parliament by Iraq’s Shiite majority. In conjunction with Shiite Iran, Iraq became a threat to the Sunni Gulf states and to Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia reacted to the Iranian revolution by accelerating the propagation of Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunnism, by supporting Iraq’s struggle against Iran, and by financing Pakistani and Afghanistan militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Saddam’s downfall also led to havoc in Iraq. Sunni suicide bombers targeted mosques, hospitals offices and streets. Al Qaeda urged Sunnis to wage “a full-scale war on Shiites all over Iraq, whenever and wherever they are found,” a task gladly implemented by a number of radical groups. Shia death squads paid back the Sunnis in their own coin.

In Lebanon, the Iranian backed Shiite Hezbollah movement became not only a rabid enemy of Israel but also a powerful political entity in its host country. In Yemen, Shiite Houthi rebels linked to Iran became dominant in the country. To counter the Houthis, Saudi Arabia assembled a multi-national coalition backed by the United States.

Shiite-Sunni aligned civil war rages in Syria and there is ongoing conflict in Iraq and Lebanon. In Bahrain, a large oppressed Shiite majority has risen up against Sunni leadership. Shiite Iran is in conflict with a small Sunni population in the south, while radical Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan have slaughtered thousands of Shiites.

Of course, Shiites and Sunnis also fight their own. Sunni-led Iraq invaded Sunni Kuwait in 1990 and Sunni Saudi Arabia targets Sunni al-Qaeda and related groups.



The Sunnis and Shiites are divided into numerous groups and ideologies ranging from moderate to fanatic. This is reflected in the Syrian conflict, which involves so many groups that it is difficult to figure who is fighting whom.

President Basher al-Assad leads Syria’s Shiite-Alawi 13% minority, which dominates the government and army and forms the backbone of the forces fighting for the regime. He is automatically opposed by Syria’s Sunni majority, which makes up 75% of the country’s population. The Sunni and Shiite divide also determines his opponents and allies.

Best known of his opponents is the Sunni ISIS group, which follows Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine. ISIS split from the Sunni al-Qaeda organization after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Mosul in 2014.

Another offshoot of Al-Qaeda is the anti-Assad Al-Nusra Front formed in 2011. Despite its Sunni affiliation, the Al-Nusra front is a bitter enemy of ISIS.

The anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) is comprised of 90% Sunni Muslims and a smattering of Shiites. Some claim that the group has disintegrated and defected to other groups. Also fighting Assad is the Saudi supported Sunni Islamic Front comprised of seven groups which merged in 2013. One of these groups, Sunni Jaysh al-Islam, publicized a video of its Sunni fighters executing Sunni ISIS terrorists.

Assad’s supporters include Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist organization backed by the Shiite government of Iran by contributions some claim to reach $200 million a year. Hezbollah has moved its focus from Israel to intense involvement in the Syrian civil war, becoming severely weakened. Shia militias from Iraq also back Assad’s government.

There is no easy solution to the sectarian crisis. Democracy cannot take root in regions where majority rule means oppression of minorities and religious fanatics will not adopt systems that defend different expressions of religion. In the meanwhile, like a wealthy campaign financier, the United States is courting both sides, retaining a close link to Saudi Arabia and simultaneously forging a nuclear deal with Iran.

(Sources include: Article published by the Council on Foreign Relations titled, The Sunni-Shia Divide. Wikipedia)


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