January 4, 2016

The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide

Print More
Iraq Shi'ite Muslim men bleed as they gash their foreheads with swords and beat themselves during the religious festival of Ashura in Najaf, 160km (100 miles) south of Baghdad on November 13, 2013. During Ashura, Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD. The most important day in the Shi'ite calendar, Ashura has become a show of strength in Iraq for a majority whose public worship was repressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Iraq Shi'ite Muslim men bleed as they gash their foreheads with swords and beat themselves during the religious festival of Ashura in Najaf, 160km (100 miles) south of Baghdad on November 13, 2013. During Ashura, Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD. The most important day in the Shi'ite calendar, Ashura has become a show of strength in Iraq for a majority whose public worship was repressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

The ‘Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) The execution of a senior Shiite cleric in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia has exacerbated Sunni-Shiite tensions. Two main sects of Islam have been in conflict for more than a millennium. Why does such an ancient division continue to influence politics, foreign policy and even wars today?

Here’s what you need to know:

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 — belief in one God, daily prayer, fasting, charity and hajj, or pilgrimage. Both revere the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam in 620.


RELATED STORY: Shiite cleric’s execution jeopardizes regional security (ANALYSIS)


A very rough — and 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.


RELATED STORY: Iraqi Shiites protest Saudi execution of cleric


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 “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, 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?

Sunni worshippers attend prayers at a Sunni mosque during Eid al-Fitr in Baghdad July 28, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmed Saad *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SUNISHIITE-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on February 18, 2015

Sunni worshippers attend prayers at a Sunni mosque during Eid al-Fitr in Baghdad July 28, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmed Saad *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SUNISHIITE-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on February 18, 2015.

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 group make gains across the north. And as the Islamic State group 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: OK, but 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.

Logo_Splainer_080614_Correct

KRE/MG END WINSTON

  • Pingback: The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide | International Christian Herald()

  • Pingback: The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide | Jews & Muslims()

  • Fourth Valley

    Hmmmm. This is a very limited explanation. There’s no mention of the Umayyad Caliphate (the Caliphate that arose after Ali’s assassination) nor anything about why the Shia objected to its legitimacy (they claimed the Umayyad method of passing down the title of Caliph to their children in a dynasty was against Islam, and that a Caliph needed to be selected by the people), and barely mentions Hassan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, and the roles they played in their rebellion against the dynastic Umayyads and leaves out the reason behind Husayn’s martyrdom and the importance it bears in the Shia schools.

  • I get 750 words

  • Husayn

    Here’s what’s important. There is no shia/sunni divide. The Wahhabis/Salafai’s/Deobandis/takfiris/Taleban are not sunni.
    They are mostly reffered to by Muslims as Khwarij, or the ‘exitors’
    They are a sect that has reared its ugly head from time to time
    throughtout Islamic history and has brutally murdered Muslims
    from both sects. Truth of the matter is, that Shia and Sunni have coexisted
    for 1400 years. This was true of Iraq and Pakistan as well till the US flamed the
    fire firstly, to counter Russia (watch Charlie Wilson’s War) and Secondly, by removing Saddam and funding ‘moderate rebels’ a comedic term that mostly refers to what went on to form ISIS.

  • Fourth Valley

    Ahhh, I didn’t realize you had a limit. That would explain it. Or rather, ‘splain it.

  • Larry

    “Truth of the matter is, that Shia and Sunni have coexisted for 1400 years. ”

    I think Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) would have begged to differ with you on that point. The Shia Hashashin group (where we get the word “assassin” from) tried to kill him on several occasions. Shia do not treat him in a sympathetic light.

    Your post also ignored the Cold War between Shia Iran and Suuni Saudi Arabia which has been going on for over 35 years. The one where both nations intentionally fuel sectarian unrest by funding proxy soldiers on both sides of the religious divide.

    Syria being the most prominent battlefield for Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both funding Islamicist brigands on opposite sides of the conflict. Iran funding Hezbollah forces fighting for the Syrian government, Saudi Arabia with ISIS.

  • Garson Abuita

    “Zionism is the reason why we have radical Islam in our times. Why can’t Americans understand this?” Because most Americans — not the kind that get “revelations” while tripping in a yurt with their aging hippie Ojai friends — understand that Shiites and Sunnis feuding over control over Iraq and Iran has nothing to do with Zionism. Nor does ISIS or Al Qaeda’s attempt to establish a worldwide caliphate have anything to do with Zionism.

  • Peggy Wright

    Yes, I agree with you about the origins of Islam. I remind myself and others that this is the way that most organized religions have started, too many people trusting emotion believing that the fervor of a speaker is evidence of divine visitation. I want to be unforgiving of those billions that believe (faith and belief are two different concepts) but I have to remember what others point out so cogently, education is the first victim of religious zeal; that is, liberal education. I was taught distrust of liberal education in fundamentalist church.
    Promulgating this is important because young people in search of meaning are prey for those trolling for souls and for physical bodies to sacrifice to jihad.
    Let’s face it, billions of people are in established, organic belief systems. They are not going away. Many within these systems are searching for ways to be relevant. I believe it incumbent upon everyone to work with and within these systems to promote peace.

  • Pingback: The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide - mosaicversemosaicverse()

  • Pingback: The ‘Splainer: Islam’s Sunni/Shiite divide | Christian News Agency()

  • Ibrahim

    Hi-The most important issues Sunnis have with Twelver Shia beliefs are
    1) Giving attributes of Allah to the Imams (i.e. being all knowing)
    2) Some of their scholars claim the Quran is corrupted
    3) Idolatry through performing acts of worship at imams (i.e. supplicating “Ya Hussein” when he is deceased and non but Allah can help)
    4) Claiming that the vast majority of the companions were apostates
    5) Innovating in matters of religion (i.e. Ashura ceremony in picture above)-

    There are various other Shia sects but those are issues are relating the the Twelvers, many of the beliefs above gradually developped over time. Sunnis also believe that the deaths of Ali & Hussein were unjustified.

    Thanks for reading

  • Excellent research. Thanks, Kimberly Winston.

    “The number of Muslims is expected to rise by 35 percent in the next 20 years.”

    I don’t fear Muslims. I fear a world which is forced to be religious
    against its will:

    “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy..” – Allah, Quran (4:104)
    “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations..” – Jesus (Matthew 28:19)

    The world would not automatically be perfect if religion were abandoned. But it would be better.

  • Amen, Peggy