Sunnis and Shias, or Why People Fight Over Religion

Posted on June 24, 2014


This is a public service column devoted to a synopsis of why Sunnis and Shias fight over everything in modern Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Apparently they’re not very friendly to each other in other parts of the Muslim world either.

I don’t know anything about Shias or Sunnis, but that has never stopped me from speaking (or writing in this case) with great candor and conviction.

That’s an inside joke among those of us in the ranks of professors, and ex-professors, who as junior professors were often asked to teach across a broad spectrum of courses and subjects, some of which we knew very little about. So we grabbed a few textbooks, crammed (think final exam you ex students), and we’re off to lecture–for example–on the Sunnis and Shias in the history of Islam as if we knew this stuff by heart from long study.

Shias and Sunnis are the two major denominations of the Muslim world. It’s kind of like Catholics and Protestants in Christianity. They didn’t get along too well in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries either. Think heretics, witches, torture, and burnings at the stake for starters less you Christians get to thinking too smugly as you read about Islam’s divisions.

Shias and Sunnis have been at each other’s throats—off and on—since the prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D. They basically split over who was to rule as Caliph, or leader, after Muhammad. The Shias followed a relative of Muhammad’s named Ali bin Abu Talib while the Sunnis were followers of an elected leader named Abu Bakr.

Arabic has a lot of words beginning with the letter “A” so get used to it if you want to bone up on Islam.

Even Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary over much of the old Turkish Empire that collapsed at the end of World War I, got confused.

When drawing borders in 1921—and thereby creating modern Iraq—Churchill asked an aide for a short explanation of the leader he planned to install in Bagdad.
“Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih [older spellings] with Sunni sympathies?” Churchill asked, adding, “I always get mixed up between these two.”

For those of you interested in the real origins of modern Iraq, skip all the quickie, recent—and mostly shallow and self-serving—books and blogs by political pundits and politicians, and pick up Christopher Catherwood’s Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq.

Sunnis make up a majority of about 85% of all Muslims in the world today. The rest are largely Shia, with a few very small splinter denominations here and there. Shia Muslims, although in the minority, have controlled Iraq and Iran in the last few generations.

Shia and Sunni differences do not obscure that both share in the main articles of Islamic belief, and, in fact, most refer themselves as “Muslims,” rather than Shias (Shiites another form) or Sunnis.

Again, like Christian denominations, many Christians—if asked what religion they belong to—will sometimes say simply “Christian,” although the denominational affiliation—Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholic, etc.—is strong. It depends. If I were traveling in the Middle East, I’d probably say Christian. If I’m going through south Alabama, I would say Baptist. Being Christian in this part of the world is a given.

There are sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shias that they take seriously. Shia Muslims (remember those descended from Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) tend to revere its leader, the Imam, as sinless by nature and infallible in authority.

This is kind of like the Roman Catholic Pope, with the big exception that the Pope, like all Christians, is born into sin and only freed from it by the atonement on the Cross made by Jesus Christ. But past Imams are like saints in Christianity, especially Catholicism, who are venerated for being able to intercede on your behalf before God.

Sunnis do not follow the rule of a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders like the Shias. They believe leadership comes from a trust that is earned and which comes from the people, and is not a birthright.

So, from the get go, a fundamental division occurred based on how you answered the question: who is to rule after the Prophet? Shias favored the family and descendants of the Prophet; Sunnis favored a somewhat more democratic selection by the elite of the community on who best could govern.

In the early decades after the death of Muhammad, the struggles to control his legacy—Shia or Sunni—were deadly and barbaric, marked by civil war, the slaughter of opponents, and bitter—and long lasting– rivalries were engendered in this struggle.

There is even a belief within Shiism, dating from the 10th century, that the twelfth Shiite Imam was hidden from harm by God and he will return as the Mahdi or the Messiah.

Aside from sectarian differences, political divisions arose between the Shias and Sunnis over the centuries, and so the scene on the stage gets very complicated.
Close students of Islam reveal that there were long periods when Sunnis and Shias lived at peace, if not entirely in harmony.

They both agree on certain grand principles of Islam: Allah is the only God and Muhammad was his messenger. They share the same holy book, the Koran, but they split on a lot of theology.

Christians too are divided along theological fault lines, but have stopped persecuting and burning or beheading each other as a way of persuading others. This is most apparently not the case between Sunnis and Shias.

In examining the dynamics of the politics of largely Islamic states, from Pakistan in the east to Turkey and the North African states such as Egypt and Libya to the west, one has to take into account these deep religious rifts in Islam. Religion and politics are still tightly intertwined in countries such as Iran.

And adding to the tinderbox of Middle Eastern politics is the centuries-old competition for the souls of men between Islam and Christianity. One of the fundamental reasons for the rise of Islam was to correct the prevailing Judaism and Christianity of the times.

While all three faiths came out of the same book, the Bible, Islam parted ways with Christians on the nature of Jesus Christ. They admitted he was a gifted Prophet, but no more. Christians insist on Jesus’s divinity, while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah and have their own view of God’s work here on earth.

So, there you have it: a very brief synopsis of a very complicated division within Islam that has many nuances far beyond my knowledge, or the confines of this column.

Whimsically, I looked up Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves as I composed this little piece, but could find nowhere on the Internet whether Ali was a Sunni or a Shia.

Perhaps it didn’t matter to him. The words Open Sesame were far more important for Ali.

Today Ali, the poor little merchant, would no doubt have had his hand cut off for stealing a little gold out of the thieves den, victim of old hatreds and intolerances in a part of the world where Judaism and Christianity were eclipsed by Islam.

Published in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, June 29, 2014 as Sunnis and Shias: Islam’s Long Struggle