WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH SUNNIS AND SHIˇITES?
Sunni Muslim rulers shunned an Arab League summit held in late March. The
meeting ended with a joint call on President Bashar Assad to stop his bloody crackdown
on Syrian citizens. Unfortunately, an important element didn’t show up. Shi˜ites weren’t
there. Having watched this tension within the Muslim world for years, I still find myself
baffled by how passionate these divisions are in Islam.
Following the completion of America’s war and withdrawal from Iraq, the on-
going bombings made it clear that Sunnis and Shi˘ites have big problems riding in the
same boat. During the so-called Arab Spring, the relationship between these two
fundamental Islamic sects has not improved. To put the struggle in a Western context,
the situation is like the Baptist shooting at the Methodist because they don’t practice
immersion. (And that’s with bombs and AK-17 rifles.)
How can the two major Islamic groups have such a hate for each other? Few
Westerners actually understand the differences. Here’s the inside scoop.
Sunnis constitute 84% to 90% of the Muslim population while Shi˚ites sweep up
most of the rest. The Shi˜ite name literally means “party” or the party of Ali, the younger
cousin of Muhammad who grew up in the prophet’s home and married his daughter
Fatima. The basic Shi˘ite principal is that the head of the Muslim community must be a
descendent of Muhammad. Ali carried the Muslim flag when Islam captured Mecca in
630 A.D. and came out a hero. Long dead Ali is the central figure in this dispute.
The first three caliphs of the Moslem era weren’t of this linage and are considered
illegimate rulers by Shi˘ites, believing God imposed the years of corrupt rule to separate
true believers from hyprocrites. This conviction sets the stage for the ongoing strife and
struggle with the Sunnis.
The population of Iran contains the extremists Shiˇa element while next door
neighbor Saudi Arabia, once allied with Egypt, supports the Sunnis. The fall of Hosni
Mubarak has thrown these struggles into a turmoil, further pitting Sunnis and Shiˇa
against each other. In Iraq, as refugees returned home following the war, the tension runs
high with neither side trusting the other. Consequently, as the Americans left, the old
tensions between these groups returned, but with even greater suspicion and anomisity.
The differences between these groups are complex, but the basic apprehension is
that Sunnis will impose Islamic law and Shi’ites fear they will be required to follow
Sunni law. Sunni’s are highly offended because Shi˜ite ritual still curses the first three
caliphs. In addition, Sunni’s accuse the other group of hypocrisy and immorality because
of their practice of dissimulation and acceptance of temporary marriage.
Sound strange that two Muslim groups could still be at war with each other over
events that stretch back 1500 years? Westerners shake their heads and can’t decipher the
facts. With our separation of religion from government, Americans find Moslem hostility
toward each other to be strange, foreboding, and hostile.
Back to the recent Arab summit. The cold shoulder from Sunni-led monarchies
only re-enforced Shit˘ite suspicions. Iraq’s Shi˘ite leadership and Iran’s identical position
keep them on the outside of Arab League gatherings.
Make sense? Well, not really, but that’s the role Islam plays in the Middle East
and it won’t be changing anytime soon.
Question: Can you see any basis for reconciliation between these two groups? Will they
ever trust Americans when they don’t trust each other?