Middle East

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.

Sunni? Shiite? Why Care?

Allahu akhbar
Allahu akhbar

For years now, the news has been chock full of the words Sunni and Shia (or Shiite). What do they mean and why should we care? For Westerners not directly affected by the conflicts in the Middle East, it is easy to just ignore these labels. Or worse, some will say "those Arabs are all the same, as far as I'm concerned." Nothing could be farther than the truth, and for us to make any sense at all of what is going on -- and this conflict is getting closer to home all the time -- it is important to have a basic understanding of the major players. And they're not all Arabs.

Misconception number 1: All Muslims in the Middle East are Arabs. 

Yes, the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, and the majority of the peoples of the Middle East are Arabs from one tribe or another. But there are some notable and very important exceptions:

Iran is the ancient Persia (once the most vast empire on the planet), and Persians are NOT Arabs. Nor is their language Arabic. Yes, they use the Arabic alphabet, but their native tongue is Farsi and happens to use Arabic script. Do yourself and your Iranian neighbor or acquaintance a kindness by not, as in NEVER, calling him or her an Arab. They are a very proud people and once a great civilization. Most Iranians are at least nominal Muslims, but there is a very small Jewish minority and even a few Christians, although the state says that only Assyrians and Armenians may be Christian.

The Kurds are not Arabs. The Kurds, who live in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, are widely believed to be descendants of the ancient Medes. (You may remember seeing them mentioned in the Old Testament. Does the "law of the Medes and the Persians" ring a bell?) The Kurds are the largest people group in the world without their own state. (On a side note, Nashville, where I live, is home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.) Many Kurds speak Arabic, but their native tongue is, of all things, Kurdish. It also uses the Arabic alphabet, so you'll be forgiven for thinking they were one and the same.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look at the difference between Sunni and Shiite and why it matters. Nothing in the Middle East will make much sense without a basic understanding of this conflict.