Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide explained

Sunni and Shiite Muslims, two main sects of Islam, have been in conflict for more than a millennium. Here’s a primer on that ancient division.

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—Sunni and Shiite Muslims, two main sects of Islam, have been in conflict more than a millennium. And that ancient division continues to influence politics, foreign policy and even wars today. 

Most recently, militants from the Sunni-led Islamic State group have waged a bloody war of conquest across parts of Iraq and Syria and have spread to parts of Jordan, Egypt and Libya. Boko Haram, an al-Qaida affiliate waging war across parts of Africa, also is Sunni.

Here’s a primer:

Q: Who are the Sunnis and who are the Shiites?

A: Both are sects of Islam, and the adherents of both are Muslims—all bound by the same Quran, the same Five Pillars of Islam, which include belief in one God, daily prayer, fasting, charity and hajj, or pilgrimage. Both revere the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam in 620.

An admittedly imperfect analogy is the Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox divide within Christianity. All three groups are Christian, but they have diverging views on leadership, theology, worship rites and even sacred shrines. Some Catholics and Protestants view the other as apostates, but the bloody conflicts between the two camps are mostly consigned to history.

Q: What is at the root of their conflict?

A: Basically, Sunnis and Shiites differ on who should have succeeded Muhammad after his death in 632. Sunnis supported Abu Bakr, the prophet’s friend; Shiite Muslims felt the rightful successor was the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib. 

Ali became the fourth caliph, or spiritual leader of Muslims, but he was murdered, and his son was killed in battle, effectively ending the direct line from Muhammad. Today’s Shiites consider all caliphs after Ali to be false. 

Sunnis, meanwhile, believe Muslim leaders can be elected, or picked, from qualified teachers. So Sunni and Shiite Muslims do not recognize the same line of authority.

That’s why the declaration by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, last summer that it was establishing a “new caliphate” through its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi caused such a global stir. 

The Islamic State is a Sunni group, and its stated goals are to create a territory run by a caliph and Shariah, or Islamic law. In a video announcing the caliphate last June, the group described al-Baghdadi as a “descendant from the family of the Prophet, the slave of God”—perhaps an attempt to legitimate him in the eyes of Shiites. If they—or any other Muslims—fail to recognize the new caliphate, they will be considered apostates and can be killed under Shariah.

Q: Where do Sunnis and Shiites live?

A: In lots of hotbed places. Syria is a majority-Sunni country, but the regime of President Bashar Assad is a close ally of Shiite-dominated Iran (Assad’s Alawite sect is a whole other story). 

Iraq is majority Shiite, but northern Iraq has a lot of Sunnis, and the Islamic State group has made increasing inroads into the country. 

Neighboring Iran is majority Shiite, while next-door Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni. Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon have significant Shiite minorities. 

Sunnis make up about 85 percent of the world’s Muslims (including the vast majority of U.S. Muslims). See the problem?

Q: So, if all this happened 1,400 years ago, what are they fighting about now?

A: It’s a complicated question that can’t be reduced to a few sentences, but here goes:

Where once the conflict between Sunni and Shiite was religious, now it is more political. In Iraq, the Shiite-dominated army has been seen as a strong-arm of former Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and an oppressive force by majority Sunnis in the north. That’s why many were happy to have the Sunni-dominated Islamic State make gains across the north. 

And as the Islamic State grows in strength and numbers—experts say would-be jihadis have flocked to its forces in northern Syria since the declaration of the caliphate—the Sunni-Shiite conflict will intensify and spread.

Q: All this is taking place on the other side of the world. Why should I care?

A: Because Islam is a global religion, and America has significant strategic and military interests in the region. The number of Muslims is expected to rise by 35 percent in the next 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, to reach 2.2 billion people.


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