Sunni? Shiite? Why Care? Part 2

Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope
Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope

(For part 1 of this post, click here.)

Misconception number 2: There is no significant difference between Sunni and Shiite. 

So here's the deal: After the prophet *Muhammad died in 632 AD, his followers decided a leader should be chosen to lead the people and settle disputes as the prophet had done. This office was called the khalifa ("successor"), or caliph. The first caliph was Muhammad's friend, Abu Bakr. The next three caliphs were also close friends or relatives of Muhammad, including his son-in-law, Ali. (Ali's wife was Fatima, daughter of Muhammad.) Ali was murdered by a disgruntled follower, and his rival, Mu-awiyah, became the first caliph of a powerful dynasty called the Umayyad dynasty. But Ali's son, Husayn, wasn't going to take this lying down. His army fought the Umayyads, but Husayn and many of his followers were massacred.

So here is the historical explanation of the Sunni-Shiite conflict: the majority of Muslims (about 85%), known as the Sunni, believed that the caliph was primarily a political and military leader, not a religious authority. The minority Shiites (10-15%), those who followed Ali and Husayn, believed that the caliph must be a descendant of Ali, through Fatima.

Today, if you ask a Sunni or a Shiite to explain their differences, however, you may hear other reasons. The doctrinal differences that initially divided the two groups are given greater or lesser importance, depending on whom you ask. There are certainly political and religious differences: Shiites generally do not acknowledge the authority of elected government officials, holding to the belief that all authority -- political AND religious -- should be in the hands of the imam, or Muslim cleric, whom they believe to be without sin. This is why the Supreme Leader of Iran, for example, is Ali Khamenei, an imam, not the president, Hassan Rouhani. The Sunni-Shia divide can also be seen in certain rituals such as prayer and marriage.

Are these differences essential and crucial to all Muslims? No. Millions of Muslims prefer to simply refer to themselves as Muslim. The reason you might have the impression that all Muslims are militant on either one side or the other is, just as in most situations (American politics comes to mind), it is the extremists who make the most noise.  In some regions it has become more like an intense sibling rivalry and a competition for power and territory. Think of the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics: if one of each sat down across from each other, their debate (to put it kindly) would not be over the worship of Mary or the sale of indulgences. It would be other hostilities that have festered for generation upon generation. It would be over the fact that So-and-so killed my uncle or my cousin. In truth, many of the Middle Eastern conflicts are not religious conflicts at all. Often cloaked in religious language, they are power struggles. They are tribalism alive and well. They are the Capulets and the Montagues.

This is important as we attempt to follow ever-changing developments in the Middle East and other areas of conflict among Muslims. Iran, along with Lebanon and most of Iraq, is primarily Shiite. Saudi Arabia, an ally of the U.S. (that's another discussion), is majority Sunni. At this writing, the tension between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is so high that diplomatic relations have been severed.


You cannot understand the dynamics of the Iraq War OR the Iran-Saudi tensions unless you get this Sunni-Shiite piece. I am no foreign policy expert, but apparently neither were the decision makers in charge of the first American invasion of Iraq. The vacuum and ensuing civil war that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein were all about the power struggle between Sunni and Shia (not to mention hundreds of splinter groups on each side), and the ongoing instability because of this is something the Americans would have done well to anticipate. Although Saddam had a strangle hold on the power in Iraq, he was a Sunni, who are in the minority in Iraq. So when he was yanked out of power by the American-led coalition, what ensued was a power struggle that is still going on and blocking this war-torn nation from stability. It is becoming increasingly more clear that neither the US nor any other Western power will be able to bring an end to these hostilities that existed long before the first American soldier set foot on Iraqi soil.

For a concise and objective explanation of this epic struggle, I recommend you listen to this brief clip from PRI's The World.

And ISIS? That's yet another story. Stay tuned.

*You'll see different spellings of the prophet's name (e.g. Mohammed), as they are all approximate transcriptions from the Arabic.