Sunni [Arab. Sunna,=tradition], from ahl al-sunnah wa-l-jamaa [Arab.,=the people of the custom of the Prophet and community], the largest division of Islam. Sunni Islam is the heir to the early central Islamic state, in its ackowledgement of the legitimacy of the order of succession of the first four caliphs (see caliphate), in contrast to the Shiite rejection of the first three as usurpers. It can also be seen as the aggregate of the adherents to the four extant schools of religious law (fiqh), the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali schools (see sharia). With no centralized clerical institution, Sunni Islam should be understood as an umbrella identity, grouping close to 90% of the world's Muslims, stretching geographically from the Indonesian islands to the African steppes, through the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, and the Arab world, and ideologically from ecstatic Sufism to the puritanic literalism of the Wahhabis and Salafias, through scholasticism and secularism. The scholastic formulation, the most constant expression of Sunni Islam throughout its history and geographic span, proposes the relation of the human being with the Divine as essentially individual, with no intermediaries. In actual practice, however, religious scholars (ulama), together with mystic shaykhs, pious persons, and popular saints (awliya), are often recognized as enjoying a religious authority of varying degrees. The Sunni theoretical characterization of the Prophet Muhammad as a mere executor of Divine will has not precluded the intensive devotional rituals directed to his person that flourish in a diversity of forms across the Sunni world. The prime center of scholastic learning in Sunni Islam is the mosque-university of al-Azhar in Cairo.

See L. Hazleton, After the Prophet (2009).

Sunni and Shia (or Shiite) are the two major denominations of Islam. The demographic breakdown between the two-groups is difficult to assess and varies by source, but a good approximation is that 85% of the world's muslims are Sunni, and 15% are Shia, with most Shia belonging to the Twelver Shia and a small minority divided between several other sects. Shi'a make up the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, and they are the largest religious group in Lebanon. Sunnis are a majority in other Muslim communities in South East Asia, China, South Asia, Africa and the rest of the Arab world. The historic background of the Sunni-Shia split lies in the schism that occurred when the Islamic prophet Muhammad died in the year 632(CE), leading to a dispute over succession to Muhammad as a caliph of the Islamic community spread across various parts of the world.

Over the years Sunni-Shia relations have been marked by both cooperation and conflict. Today there are differences in religious practice, traditions, and customs as well as religious belief.

Differences in beliefs and practices


Successors of the Prophet

The Sunnis hold that Abu Bakr was Muhammad's rightful successor and that the method of choosing or electing leaders (Shura) endorsed by the Qur'an is the consensus of the Ummah, (the Muslim community). Shia believe that Muhammad divinely ordained his cousin and son-in-law Ali (the father of his only two grandsons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali) in accordance with the command of God to be the next caliph, making Ali and his direct descendants Muhammad's successors.

Sunnis follow the Rashidun (rightly-guided caliphs), which were the first four caliphs who ruled after the death of Muhammad (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali). Shias discount the legitimacy of the first three caliphs and believe that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man (after Muhammad) and that he and his descendants by Muhammad's daughter Fatimah, the Imamah (Shia imams) are the sole legitimate Islamic leaders.

The imamate of the Shia encompasses far more of a prophetic function than the Caliphate of the Sunnis. Unlike Sunni, Shia believe special spiritual qualities have been granted not only to the Prophet Muhammad but also to Ali and the other Imams. They are all immaculate from sin and human error (ma'soum), and can understand and interpret the hidden inner meaning of the teachings of Islam. In this way the Imams are trustees (wasi) who bear the light of Muhammad (nur-e Muhammadi).


Shia, and some Sunni differ on the nature of the Mahdi. Shia as well as many Sunni, particularly Sufi Muslims, believe that the Mahdi will appear at end times to bring about a perfect and just Islamic society. Twelver Shia believe the Mahdi will be Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam returned from occultation where he has been hidden by God since 874 AD. In contrast, mainstream Sunnis believe the Mahdi will be named Muhammad, be a descendant of the Prophet and will revive the faith, but will not necessarily be connected with the end of the world.


The Shias accept some of the same hadiths used by Sunnis as part of the Sunna to argue their case. In addition they consider the sayings of Ahl al-Bayt that is not attributed directly to the Prophet as Hadiths. Some Sunni-accepted hadith are less favored by Shia, for example, because of Aisha's opposition to Ali (whom they believe to have been divinely appointed by Mohammad), hadith narrated by Aisha are not given the same authority as those by other companions.


Mainstream Sunnism has been said to be "about" Sharia, sacred law. In contrast, Shia also follow Islamic law with great "vigilance", but their belief is not defined by law but emphasises "rituals, passion and drama."

Shiism and Sufism

Shiism and Sunni Sufism are said to share a number of hallmarks: Belief in an inner meaning to the Quran; special status for some mortals—saints for Sufi, Imams for Shia; belief in intermediaries between man and God, veneration of Ali and the Prophet's family.


Many distinctions can be made between Sunnis and Shia's through observation alone:


When prostrating during ritual prayer (Salah), Shia place their forehead onto a piece of naturally occurring material (usually a clay tablet (mohr), soil (turbah), or at times sand from Kerbala, the place where Imam Hussain was martyred), instead of directly onto a prayer mat, as Sunnis do. There is precedence for this in Sunni thought as well however, as it is recommended not to prostrate on a non-natural surface.

Shia perform prayers back to back, sometimes worshipping two times consecutively (1+2+2), thus praying at three separate times during the day instead of five as is required by Sunni.

Shia, and the followers of the Sunni Maliki sect, hold their hands at their sides during prayer; All other Sunnis cross their arms (right over left) and clasp hands, although it is commonly held by Sunni scholars that either is acceptable.


Shia permit mutah—fixed-term temporary marriage—which is not acceptable within the Sunni community. Mutah is not to be confused with Misyar marriage, which has no date of expiration and is permitted by Sunnis. A Misyar marriage differs from a conventional Islamic marriage in that the man does not have financial responsibility over the woman by her own free will, and women are given more rights than in Mutah marriage.

Hijab and dress

Devout Shia women traditionally wear black, as do the male religious leaders. Mainstream Shia' and Sunni women wear the hijab differently. Mainstream Sunni women cover around the perimeter of the face, but only to below their chin, thus the protuberance of the chin shows. Shia women believe that the hijab must cover around the perimeter of the face and up to the chin. Some Shia' women, such as those in Iran and Iraq, use the black chador to cover half of their face or chin by their hands when in public.

Given names

Shia are often recognizable by their names which are often derived from the proper names or title of saints. Shia who trace their ancestry back to the imams carry the title sayyid.


Abbasid era

The Umayyads were overthrown in 750(CE) by a new dynasty, the Abbasids. The first Abbasid caliph, As-Saffah recruited Shiite support in his campaign against the Umayyads by emphasizing his blood relationship to the Prophet's household through descent from his uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. The Shia also believe that he promised them that the Caliphate, or at least religious authority, would be vested in the Shiite Imam. As-Saffah assumed both the temporal and religious mantle of Caliph himself. He continued the Umayyad dynastic practice of succession, and his brother al-Mansur succeeded him in 754. The sixth Shi'a Imam died during al-Mansur's reign, and there were claims that he was murdered on the orders of the caliph..

However Abbasid persecution of Islamic lawyers was not restricted to the Shia. Even the Sunni scholar and founder of the biggest Sunni school of law, Abu Hanifah, was imprisoned by al-Mansur and tortured. Al-Mansur also had Ibn Hanbal, another one of the four major schools of Sunni law, flogged.

Shia sources further claim that by the orders of the tenth Abassid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, the tomb of the third Shia Imam Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala was completely demolished, and Shias were sometimes beheaded in groups, buried alive, or even placed alive within the walls of government buildings still under construction.

The Shia believe that they thus continued to live for the most part in hiding and followed their religious life secretly without external manifestations.

Post-Abbasid era

Attacks on Shiism grew even sharper after the Mongol sack of Baghdad and the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 according to scholar Vali Nasr. Vali Nasr also credits the influential Sunni jurist Ibn Taymiyyah with being instrumental in developing the theological foundation for the belief that Shi'ism is a heresy, and for generally "setting the tone for much of the sectarian conflict" between the two groups.

Shia-Sunni in Iraq

Shia Iranians migrated to what is now Iraq in the sixteenth century. "It is said that when modern Iraq was formed, 75% of the population of Karbala was Iranian", In time, these immigrants adopted the Arabic language and Arab identity, but their origin has been used to "unfairly cast them as lackeys of Iran. Other Iraqi Shia are ethnic Arabs with roots in Iraq as deep as those of their Sunni counterparts

Shia-Sunni in Persia

Sunni was the dominant form of Islam in most of Iran until rise of Safavid Empire. However, many scholars and scientists in Persia who lived before the Safavid era, such as Avicenna, Geber, Alhacen, Al-Farabi and Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī, were Shi'a Muslims, as was most of Iran's elite, while other Persian scientists and scholars, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, were Sunni Muslims.

Nizamiyyas were the medieval institutions of Islamic higher education established by Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk in the eleventh century. Nizamiyyah institutes were the first well-organized universities in the Muslim world. The most famous and celebrated of all the nizamiyyah schools was Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad (established 1065), where Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk appointed the distinguished philosopher and theologian, al-Ghazali, as a professor. Other nizamiyyah schools were located in Nishapur, Balkh, Herat and Isfahan.

The Sunni hegemony did not undercut the Shia presence in Iran. The writers of The Four Books of Shia were Iranian, as were many other great Shia scholars.

According to Mortaza Motahhari:

The majority of Iranians turned to Shi'ism from the Safawid period onwards. Of course, it cannot be denied that Iran's environment was more favourable to the flourishing of the Shi'ism as compared to all other parts of the Muslim world. Shi'ism did not penetrate any land to the extent that it gradually could in Iran. With the passage of time, Iranians' readiness to practise Shi'ism grew day by day. Had Shi`ism not been deeply rooted in the Iranian spirit, the Safawids (907-1145/ 1501-1732) would not have succeeded in converting Iranians to the Shi'a creed and making them follow the Prophet's Ahl al-Bayt sheerly by capturing political power.

Shiites in Iran before Safavids

The domination of the Sunni creed during the first nine Islamic centuries characterizes the religious history of Iran during this period. There were however some exceptions to this general domination which emerged in the form of the Zaydīs of Tabaristan, the Buwayhid, the rule of Sultan Muhammad Khudabandah (r. Shawwal 703-Shawwal 716/1304-1316CE) and the Sarbedaran. Nevertheless, apart from this domination there existed, firstly, throughout these nine centuries, Shia inclinations among many Sunnis of this land and, secondly, original Imami Shiism as well as Zaydī Shiism had prevalence in some parts of Iran. During this period, Shia in Iran were nourished from Kufah, Baghdad and later from Najaf and Hillah. Shiism were dominant sect in Tabaristan, Qom, Kashan, Avaj and Sabzevar. In many other areas the population of Shia and Sunni was mixed.

The first Zaidi state was established in Daylaman and Tabaristan (northern Iran) in 864 C.E. by the Alavids; it lasted until the death of its leader at the hand of the Samanids in 928 C.E. Roughly forty years later the state was revived in Gilan (north-western Iran) and survived under Hasanid leaders until 1126 C.E. After which from the 12th-13th centuries, the Zaidis of Daylaman, Gilan and Tabaristan then acknowledge the Zaidi Imams of Yemen or rival Zaidi Imams within Iran.

The Buyids, who were Shi'a and had a significant influence not only in the provinces of Persia but also in the capital of the caliphate in Baghdad, and even upon the caliph himself, provided a unique opportunity for the spread and diffusion of Shi'a thought. This spread of Shiism to the inner circles of the government enabled Shias to withstand those who opposed them by relying upon the power of the caliphate.

Twelvers came to Iran from Arab regions in the course of four stages. First, through the Asharis tribe at the end of the seventh(CE) and during the eighth(CE) century. Second through the pupils of Sabzevar, and especially those of Shaykh Mufid, who were from Ray and Sabzawar and resided in those cities. Third, through the school of Hillah under the leadership of Allama Hilli and his son Fakhr al-Muhaqqiqin. Fourth, through the scholars of Jabal Amel residing in that region, or in Iraq, during the 16th(CE) and 17th(CE) centuries who later migrated to Iran.

On the other hand Ismailis sent Da'i (missionaries) during Fatimid caliphate to Iran as well as other Muslim lands. When Ismailis divided into two sects, Nizaris established their base in Iran. Hassan-i Sabbah conquered fortresses and captured Alamut in 1090 CE. Nizaris used this fortress until Mongol raid in 1256CE.

After the Mongol raid and fall of the Abbasids, the Sunni ulema suffered greatly. In addition to the destruction of the caliphate there was no official Sunni Madh'hab for a while. Many libraries and Madrasahs were destroyed and some of the Sunni scholars migrated to other Islamic lands like Anatolia and Egypt. In contrast Shia where unaffected as their center was not in Iran at this time. For the first time Shia could invite other Muslims openly.

Several local Shia dynasties like Sarbadars were established during this time. The kings of the Aq Qoynlu and Qara Qoynlu dynasties ruled in Tabriz with a domain extending to Fars and Kerman. In Egypt the Fatimid government ruled (al-Ka-mil of Ibn Athir, Cairo, 1348; Raudat al-safa'; and Habib al-siyar of Khwand Mir).

Shah Muhammad Khudabandah, the famous builder of Soltaniyeh, was among the first of the Mongols to convert to Shi'aism, and his descendants ruled for many years in Persia and were instrumental in spreading Shia thought.

Sufism played a major role in spread of Shiism in this time. According to Hossein Nasr

After the Mongol invasion Shiims and Sufism once again formed a close association in many ways. Some of the Ismailis whose power had broken by the Mongols, went underground and appeared later within Sufi orders or as new branches of already existing orders. In Twelve-Imam Shiism also from thirteenths(CE) to the sixteenth(CE) century Sufism began to grow within official Shiite circles.

Nasr insists on the role of Sufis orders on spread of Shiism.

The extremist sects of the Hurufis and Shasha'a grew directly out of a background that is both Shiite and Sufi. More important in the long run than these sects were the Sufi orders which spread in Persia at this time and aided in the preparing the ground for the Shiite movement of Safavids. Two of these orders are of particular significance in this question of the relation of Shiism and Sufism:The Nimatullahi order and Nurbakhshi order.

Shiaism in Iran after Safavđids

Ismail I initiated a religious policy to recognize Shi'a Islam as the official religion of the Safavid Empire, and the fact that modern Iran remains an officially Shi'ite state is a direct result of Ismail's actions. Unfortunately for Ismail, most of his subjects were Sunni. He thus had to enforce official Shi'ism violently, putting to death those who opposed him. Under this pressure, Safavid subjects either converted, or pretended to convert, but it is safe to say that the majority of the population was probably genuinely Shi'ite by the end of the Safavid period in the 18th century, and most Iranians today are Shi'ite, although there is still a Sunni minority. Safavids systematically sought to establish Shia as the religion of the state.

Immediately following the establishment of Safavid power the migration of scholars began and they were invited to Iran ... By the side of the immigration of scholars, Shi'i works and writings were also brought to Iran from Arabic-speaking lands, and they performed an important role in the religious development of Iran ... In fact, since the time of the leadership of Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Tusi, Iraq had a central academic position for Shi'ism. This central position was transferred to Iran during the Safavid era for two-and-a-half centuries, after which it partly returned to Najaf. ... Before the Safavid era Shi'i manuscripts were mainly written in Iraq, with the establishment of the Safavid rule these manuscripts were transferred to Iran.

This led to a wide gap between Iran and its Sunni neighbors until the 20th century. During the early days of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini endeavored to bridge the gap between Shiites and Sunnis by declaring it permissible for Shiites to pray behind Sunni imams and by forbidding criticizing the Caliphs who preceded Ali — an issue that had caused much animosity between the two sects.

Shia-Sunni in Levant

Shias claim that despite these advances, many Shi'as in Syria continued to be killed during this period merely for being Shi'ah. One of these was Muhammad Ibn Makki called Shahid-i Awwal (the First Martyr), one of the great figures in Shi'a jurisprudence, who was killed in Damascus in 1384CE (al-Ka-mil of Ibn Athir, Cairo, 1348; Raudat al-safa'; and Habib al-siyar of Khwand Mir).

Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi was another eminent scholar, killed in Aleppo on charges of cultivating Batini teachings and philosophy (al-Ka-mil of Ibn Athir, Cairo, 1348; Raudat al-safa'; and Habib al-siyar of Khwand Mir).

Modern Sunni-Shia relations

Currently an estimated 85% of Muslims are Sunni, 13% Shia, and 2% members of other groups. In addition to Iran, Iraq has emerged as a major Shia government when the Shi'a achieved political dominance in 2005 under American occupation.

The two communities have often remained separate, mingling regularly only during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. In some countries like Iraq, Syria, and Bahrain, communities have mingled and intermarried. Shias have been treated harshly in some countries dominated by Sunnis, especially in Saudi Arabia. Some Sunnis have complained of mistreatment in Shia-dominated states of Iraq and Iran.


At least one scholar sees the period from collapse of the Ottoman Empire through the decline of Arab nationalism as time of relative unity and harmony between traditionalist Sunni and Shia Muslims - unity brought on by a feeling of being under siege from a common threat, secularism, first of the European colonial variety and then Arab nationalist.

A remarkable example of Sunni-Shia cooperation was the Khilafat Movement which swept the subcontinent of India following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Caliphate, in World War I. Shia ulama (scholars) "came to the caliphate's defence" attended the 1931 Caliphate Conference in Jerusalem. This was despite the fact they were theologically opposed to the idea that non-Imams could be Caliphs or successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and that the Caliphate was "the flagship institution" of Sunni, not Shia authority. This has been described as unity of traditionalists in the face of the twin threats of "secularism and colonialism."

Another example of unity was a fatwa issued by Al-Azhar's rector, Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, recognizing Shia Islamic law as the fifth school of Islamic law. In 1959, al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most influential center of Sunni learning, "authorized the teaching of courses of Shia jurisprudence as part of its curriculum."


Following this period, Sunni-Shia strife has seen a major uptick, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The most common explanation for the bloodshed is conspiracies by outsiders - "the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken [Islam]" (Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi), unspecified "enemies" (Iran president Ahmadinejad), or American neo-liberals who wish to provoke "a debilitating Islamic civil war." (Dilip Hiro).

Another scholar lays the blame at entirely different source, the unintended effects of the Islamic revival. According to Vali Nasr, as the Muslim world was decolonialised and Arab nationalism lost its appeal, fundamentalism blossomed and reasserted the differences and conflicts between the two movements, particularly in the strict teachings of Sunni scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. The Iranian Islamic revolution, changed the Shia-Sunni power equation in Muslim countries "from Lebanon to India" arousing the traditionally subservient Shia to the alarm of traditionally dominant and very non-revolutionary Sunni. "Where Iranian revolutionaries saw Islamic revolutionary stirrings, Sunnis saw mostly Shia mischief and a threat to Sunni predominance. Although the Iranian revolution's leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was very much in favor of Shia-Sunni unity, he also challenged Saudi Arabia, in his view an "unpopular and corrupt dictatorship" and an "American lackey" ripe for revolution. In part because Saudi Arabia was the world's major international funder of Islamic schools, scholarships, fellowships, etc., this angered not only Saudi Arabia but its many fundamentalist allies and benefactors throughout the Sunni world.


Shia-Sunni discord in Iraq starts with disagreement over the relative population of the two groups. According to most sources, including The CIA World Factbook, the majority of Iraqis are Shi'ite Arab Muslims (around 65%), and Sunnis represent about 32% of the population. However, Sunni are split ethnically between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. Many Sunnis hotly dispute their minority status, including ex-Iraqi Ambassador Faruq Ziada, and many believe Shia majority is "a myth spread by America". One Sunni belief shared by Jordan's King Abdullah as well as his then Defense Minister Shaalan is that Shia numbers in Iraq were inflated by Iranian Shias crossing the border. Shia scholar Vali Nasr believes the election turnout in summer and December 2005 confirmed a strong Shia majority in Iraq.

The governing regimes of Iraq were made mainly of Sunnis for nearly a century until the 2003 Iraq War. The British, having put down a Shia rebellion against their rule in the 1920s, "confirmed their reliance on a corps of Sunni ex-officers of the collapsed Ottoman empire". The British colonial rule ended after the Sunni and Shia united against it.

The Shia suffered indirect and direct persecution under post-colonial Iraqi governments since 1932, especially that of Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam public Shia festivals such as Ashoura were banned. It is said that every Shia clerical family of note in Iraq had tales of torture and murder to recount. In 1969 the son of Iraq's highest Shia Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim was arrested and allegedly tortured. From 1979-1983 Saddam's regime executed 48 major Shia clerics in Iraq. They included Shia leader Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister. Tens of thousands of Iranians and Arabs of Iranian origin were expelled in 1979 and 1980 and a further 75,000 in 1989. Shia opposition to the government following the first Gulf War was reportedly suppressed.

Iraq War
Some of the worst Shia-Sunni sectarian strife ever has occurred after the American invasion of Iraq, steadily building up to present. While thousands have been killed by American and allied military collateral damage, this has become overshadowed by the cycle of Sunni-Shia revenge killing -- Sunni often using suicide bombing, Shia favoring death squads.

According to one estimate, as of early 2008, 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. Sunni suicide bombers have targeted not only thousands of civilians, but mosques, shrines, wedding and funeral processions, markets, hospitals, offices, and streets. Sunni insurgent organizations include Ansar al-Islam. Radical groups include Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, Jeish Muhammad, and Black Banner Organization.

Takfir motivation for many of these killings may come from Sunni insurgent leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Before his death Zarqawi was wont to quote Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, especially his infamous statement urging followers to kill the Shi'a of Iraq, and calling the Shias "snakes". An al-Qaeda-affiliated website posted a call for "a full-scale war on Shiites all over Iraq, whenever and wherever they are found.Wahabi suicide bombers continue to attack Iraqi Shia civilians, and the Shia ulema have in response declared suicide bombing as haram:

"حتي كساني كه با انتحار مي‌‏آيند و مي‌‏زنند عده‌‏اي را مي‌‏كشند، آن هم به عنوان عمليات انتحاري، اينها در قعر جهنم هستند"
"Even those who kill people with suicide bombing, these shall meet the flames of hell.
Some believe the war has strengthened the takfir thinking and may spread Sunni-Shia strife elsewhere.

On the Shia side, in early February 2006 militia-dominated government death squads were reportedly "tortur[ing] to death or summarily" executing "hundreds" of Sunnis "every month in Baghdad alone," many arrested at random. According to the British television Channel 4, from 2005 through early 2006, commandos of the Ministry of the Interior which is controlled by the Badr Organization, and

who are almost exclusively Shia Muslims - have been implicated in rounding up and killing thousands of ordinary Sunni civilians.

The violence shows little sign of getting opposite sides to back down. Iran's Shia leaders, some of whom have strong ties with Iraqi Shia, are said to become "more determined" the more violent the anti-Shia attacks in Iraq become. One Shia Grand Ayatollah, Yousef Sanei, who has been described as a moderate, reacted to the 2005 suicide bombings of Shia targets in Iraq by saying the bombers were `wolves without pity and that `sooner rather than later, Iran will have to put them down`


Although the country of Jordan is 95% Sunni and has seen little Shia-Sunni fighting within, it has played a part in the recent Shia Shunni strife. It is the home country of anti-Shia insurgent but of Raed Mansour al-Banna, who died perpetrating one of Iraq's worst suicide bombings in the city of Al Hillah. Al-Banna killed 125 Shia and wounding another 150 in the February 28 vehicle bombing of a police recruiting station and adjacent open air market. In March 2005 Salt, al-Banna's home town, saw a three-day wake for al-Banna who Jordanian newspapers and celebrants proclaimed a martyr to Islam, which by definition made the Shia victims "infidels whose murder was justified." Following the wake Shia mobs in Iraq attacked the Jordanian embassy on March 20, 2005. Ambassadors were withdrawn from both countries.

All this resulted despite the strong filial bonds, ties of commerce, and traditional friendship between the two neighboring countries.. Jordan, for example, had refused to ally itself against Iraq during the first Gulf War despite its alliance with America and the economic hardship that resulted.


Pakistan, the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, has seen serious Shia-Sunni discord. Almost 77% of Pakistan's population is Sunni, with 20% being Shia, but this Shia minority forms the second largest Shia population of any country, larger than the Shia majority in Iraq.

Shia Muslims have played an important part in Pakistan's history. In the last two decades, "as many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan", "300 in 2006. Amongst the culprits blamed for the killing are Al Qaeda working "with local sectarian groups" to kill what they perceive as Shi'a apostates, and "foreign powers ... trying to sow discord.

Some see a precursor of Pakistani Shia-Sunni strife in the April 1979 execution of deposed President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on questionable charges by Islamic fundamentalist General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Ali Bhutto was Shia, Zia ul-Haq a Sunni.

The "Islamization" of General Zia ul-Haq that followed was resisted by Shia who saw it as "Sunnification" as the laws and regulations were based on Sunni fiqh. In July 1980, 25,000 Shia protested the Islamization laws in the capital Islamabad. Further exacerbating the situation was the dislike between Shia leader Khomeini and General ul-Haq.

Shia formed student associations and a Shia party, Sunni began to form sectarian militias recruited from Deobandi and Ahl-i Hadith madrasahs. Preaching against the Shia in Pakistan was radical cleric Israr Ahmed. Muhammad Manzour Numani, a senior Indian cleric with close ties to Saudi Arabia published a book entitled ``Iranian Revolution: Imam Khmeini and Shiism.'' The book, which "became the gospel of Deobandi militants" in the 1980s, attacked Khomeini and argued the excesses of the Islamic revolution were proof that Shiism was not the doctrine of misguided brothers, but beyond the Islamic pale. Anti-Shia groups in Pakistan include the Lashkar i Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, offshoots of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The groups demand the expulsion of all Shias from Pakistan and have killed hundreds of Pakistani Shias between 1996 and 1999. As in Iraq they "targeted Shia in their holy places and mosques, especially during times of communal prayer." From January to May 1997, Sunni terror groups assassinated 75 Shia community leaders "in a systematic attempt to remove Shias from positions of authority. Lashkar i Jhangvi has declared Shia to be `American agents` and the `near enemy` in global jihad.

An example of an early Shia-Sunni fitna shootout occurred in Kurram, one of the tribal agencies of the Northwest Pakistan, where the Pushtun population was split between Sunnis and Shia. In September 1996 more than 200 people were killed when a gun battle between teenage Shia and Sunni escalated into a communal war that lasted five days. Woman and children were kidnapped and gunmen even executed out-of-towners who were staying at a local hotel.


Shia-Sunni strife in Pakistan is strongly intertwined with that in Afghanistan. Though now deposed, the anti-Shia Afghan Taliban regime helped anti-Shia Pakistani groups and vice versa. Lashkar i Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, have sent thousands of volunteers to fight with the extreme Deobandi Taliban regime and "in return the Taliban gave sanctuary to their leaders in the Afghan capital of Kabul." "Over 80,000 Pakistani Islamic militants have trained and fought with Taliban since 1994. They form a hardcore of Islamic activists, ever ready to carry out a similar Taliban-style Islamic revolution in Pakistan." According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

Shia-Sunni strife inside of Afghanistan has mainly been a function of the puritanical Sunni Taliban's clashes with Shia Afghans, primarily the Hazara ethnic group.

In 1998 more than 8000 noncombatants were killed when the Taliban were betrayed in Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan where many Hazaras live. Some of the slaughter was indiscriminate, but many were Shia targeted by the Taliban. Taliban commander and governor Mullah Niazi banned prayer at Shia mosques and expressed takfir of the Shia in a declaration from Mazar's central mosque:

Last year you rebelled against us and killed us. From all your homes you shot at us. Now we are here to deal with you. The Hazaras are not Muslims and now have to kill Hazaras. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan. Wherever you go we will catch you. If you go up we will pull you down by your feet; if you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair.

Assisting the Taliban in the murder of Iranian diplomatic and intelligence officials at the Iranian Consulate in Mazar were "several Pakistani militants of the anti-Shia, Sipah-e-Sahaba party."

Iran & Shia Statehood

Iran is unique in the Muslim world because its population is overwhelmingly more Shia than Sunni (Shia constitute approximately 80% of the population) and because its constitution is theocratic based on rule by a Shia jurist.

Sunnis there have complained of discrimination, particularly in important government positions. In a joint appearance with former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani calling for Shia-Suni unity, Sunni Shiekh Yusuf al-Qaradawi complained that no ministers in Iran have been Sunni for a long time, that Sunni officials are scarce even in the regions with majority of Sunni population (such as Kurdistan, or Balochistan). Sunnis cite the lack of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, Iran's capital and largest city, despite the presence of over 1 million Sunnis there, and despite the presence of Christian churches, as a prominent example of this discrimination. Although reformist President Mohammad Khatami promised during his election campaign to build a Sunni mosque in Tehran, none was built during his eight years in office. The president explained the situation by saying Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would not agreed to the proposal. As in other parts of the Muslim world, other issues may play a part in the conflict, since most Sunnis in Iran are also ethnic minorities.

Soon after the 1979 revolution Sunni leaders from Kurdistan, Balouchistan, and Khorassan, set up a new party known as Shams, which is short for Shora-ye Markaz-e al Sunaat, to unite Sunnis and lobby for their rights. But six months after that, they were closed down, bank accounts suspended, and had their leaders arrested by the government on charges that they were backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A UN human rights report states that

...information indicates Sunnis, along with other religious minorities, are denied by law or practice access to such government positions as cabinet minister, ambassador, provincial governor, mayor and the like, Sunni schools and mosques have been destroyed, and Sunni leaders have been imprisoned, executed and assassinated. The report notes that while some of the information received may be difficult to corroborate there is a clear impression that the right of freedom of religion is not being respected with regard to the Sunni minority.

Members of the 'Balochistan Peoples Front' claim that Sunnis are systematically discriminated against educationally by denial of places at universities, politically by not allowing Sunnis to be army generals, ambassadors, ministers, prime minister, or president, religiously insulting Sunnis the media, economic discrimination by not giving import or export licenses for Sunni businesses while the majority of Sunnis are left unemployed.

There has been a low level resistance in mainly Sunni Iranian Balouchistan against the regime for several years. Official media refers to the fighting as armed clashes between the police and "bandits," "drug-smugglers," and "thugs," to disguise what many believe is essentially a political-religious conflict. Revolutionary Guards have stationed several brigades in Balouchi cities, and have allegedly tracked down and assassinated Sunni leaders both inside Iran and in neighboring Pakistan. In 1996 a leading Sunni, Abdulmalek Mollahzadeh, was gunned down by hitmen allegedly hired by Tehran as he was leaving his house in Karachi.

Members of Sunni groups in Iran however have been active in what the authorities describe as terrorist activities. Balochi Sunni AbdulMalek Rigi continue to declare the Shia as Kafir and Mushrik. These Sunni groups have been involved in violent activities in Iran, and have waged terrorist attacks against civilian centers, including an attack next to a girl's school according to government sources. The "shadowy Sunni militant group Jundullah" has reportedly been receiving weaponry from the United States for these attacks according to the semi-official Fars news agency. The United Nations and several countries worldwide have condemned the bombings. (See 2007 Zahedan bombings for more information)

Non-Sunni Iranian opposition parties, and Shia like Ayatollah Jalal Gange’i have criticised the regimes treatment of Sunnis and confirmed many Sunni complaints.

Following the 2005 elections, much of the leadership of Iran has been described as more "staunchly committed to core Shia values" and lacking Ayatollah Khomeini's commitment to Shia-Sunni unity. Polemics critical of Sunnis were reportedly being produced in Arabic for dissemination in the Arab Muslim world by Hojjatieh-aligned elements in the Iranian regime.


Syria is approximately three quarters Sunni, but its government is predominately Alawi, a Shia sect that makes up less than 15% of the population. Under Hafez al-Assad, Alawi dominated the Baath Arab Socialist Party, a secular Arab nationalist party which has ruled Syria under a state of emergency since 1963 and does not tolerate opposition. Alawi are often considered a form of Shia Islam that differs somewhat from the larger Twelver Shia sect.

A very serious 20th century conflict in Syria with sectarian religious overtones was that between the Alawi-dominated al-Assad regime and the Islamist Sunni Muslim Brotherhood culminating with the 1982 Hama Massacre, where an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 were killed by the Syrian military following a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Prior to the uprising Muslim Brotherhood attacks against military cadets at an artillery school in Aleppo, car bomb attacks in Damascus, and bomb attacks against the government and its officials had killed several hundred.

How much of the conflict was sparked by Sunni v. Shia divisions and how much by Islamism v. secular-Arab-nationalism, is in question, but according to scholar Vali Nasr the failure of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran to support the Muslim Brotherhood against the Baathists "earned [Khomeini] the Brotherhood's lasting contempt." It proved to the satisfaction of the Brotherhood that sectarian loyalty trumped Islamist solidarity for Khomeini and eliminated whatever appeal Khomeini might have had to the MB movement as a pan-Islamic leader.


See Human rights in Yemen article.

Muslims in Yemen including Shaf'i (Sunni) majority and Zaydi (Shi'a) minority. Zaidi are sometimes called "Fiver Shi'a" instead of Twelver Shi'a because they recognize the first four of the Twelve Imams but accept Zayd ibn Ali as their "Fifth Imām" rather than his brother Muhammad al-Baqir.

Both Shi'a and Sunni dissidents in Yemen have similar complaints about the government -- cooperation with the American government and an alleged failure to following Sharia law -- but it's the Shia who have allegedly been singled out for government crackdown.

During and after the US-led invasion of Iraq, members of the Zaidi-Shia community protested after Friday prayers every week outside mosques, particularly the Grand Mosque in Sana’a, during which they shouted anti-US and anti-Israeli slogans, and criticised the government's close ties to America. These protests were led by ex-parliament member and Imam, Bader Eddine al-Houthi . In response the Yemeni government has implemented a campaign to crush "the Zaidi-Shia rebellion, and harass journalists. These latest measures come as the government faces a Sunni rebellion with a similar motivation to the Zaydi discontent.


See Bandargate scandal

The small Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain has a Shia majority but is ruled by Sunni Al-Khalifa family as a constutitional monarchy, with Sunni dominating the ruling class and military and disproportionately represented in the business and landownership. "Al Wifaq, the largest Shi'a political society, won the largest number of seats in the elected chamber of the legislature. However, Shi'a discontent has resurfaced in recent years with street demonstrations and occasional low-level violence."

Bahrain has many disaffected unemployed Shia youths and many Shia have protested Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah's efforts to create a parliament as merely a `cooptation of the effendis`, i.e. traditional elders and notables. Bahrain's 2002 election was widely boycotted by Shia. Mass demonstrations by Shia have been held in favor of full fledged democracy in March and June 2005, against an alleged insult to Ayatollah Khamenei in July 2005.


An example of governments working "to drive wedges between Sunnism and Shiism" was found in Nigeria in 1998 when the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha accused Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zak Zaki of being a Shia. This despite the fact that ther are few if any Shia among Nigerias Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization.

Saudi Arabia & Salafis

Shia and the Saudi state

While Shia make up only between 8-15% of Saudi Arabia's population, they form the majority of the residents of the eastern province of Hasa where much of the petroleum industry is based, and make up the majority of the work force there. Between 500,000 and a million Shia live there, concentrated especially around the oases of Qatif and Al Ahsa. Majority of Saudi Shia belong to the sect of the Twelvers

Saudi Arabia being an absolute monarchy generally recognizes no rights by law or plurality to any political participation outside the ruling family and its supporters. And being an absolute monarchy, the ruling elite have tried to portray a homogenous society in culture and religion. Since the religion of the rulers is Wahhabi, they have tried to create a uniform wahabi society thus leaving out Shi'as, Sufis and other Sunnis from the homogenous mainstream.

Relations between the Shia and the Wahhabi Sunnis are inherently strained because the Wahhabis consider the rituals of the Shia to be the epitome of shirk, or polytheism. In the late 1920s, the Ikhwan (Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud's fighting force of converted Wahhabi beduin Muslims) were particularly hostile to the Shia and demanded that Abd al Aziz forcibly convert them. In response, Abd al Aziz sent Wahhabi missionaries to the Eastern Province, but he did not carry through with attempts at forced conversion. In recent decades the late leading Saudi cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz, issued fatwa denouncing Shia as apostates, and according to Shia scholar Vali Nasr "Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, even sanctioned the killing of Shias, a call that was reiterated by Wahhabi religious literature as late as 2002.

Government policy has been to allow Shia their own mosques and to exempt Shia from Hanbali inheritance practices. Nevertheless, Shia have been forbidden all but the most modest displays on their principal festivals, which are often occasions of sectarian strife in the gulf region, with its mixed Sunni-Shia populations .

According to a report by the Human Rights Watch:

"Shia Muslims, who constitute about eight percent of the Saudi population, faced discrimination in employment as well as limitations on religious practices. Shia jurisprudence books were banned, the traditional annual Shia mourning procession of Ashura was discouraged, and operating independent Islamic religious establishments remained illegal. At least seven Shi'a religious leaders-Abd al-Latif Muhammad Ali, Habib al-Hamid, Abd al-Latif al-Samin, Abdallah Ramadan, Sa'id al-Bahaar, Muhammad Abd al-Khidair, and Habib Hamdah Sayid Hashim al-Sadah-reportedly remained in prison for violating these restrictions.

And Amnesty International adds:

"Members of the Shi‘a Muslim community (estimated at between 7 and 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population of about 19 million) suffer systematic political, social, cultural as well as religious discrimination.

As of 2006 four of the 150 members of Saudi Arabia's "handpicked" parliament were Shia, but no city had a Shia mayor or police chief, and none of the 300 girls schools for Shia in the Eastern Province had a Shia principal. Saudi textbooks "characterize Shiism as a form of heresy ... worse than Christianity and Judaism.

Forced into exile in the 1970s, Saudi Shia leader Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar is said to have been "powerfully influenced" by the works of Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e Islami and by their call for Islamic revolution and an Islamic state.

Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Shia in Hasa ignored the ban on mourning ceremonies commemorating Ashura. When police broke them up three days of rampage ensued -- burned cars, attacked banks, looted shops -- centered around Qatif. At least 17 Shia were killed. In Feb. 1980 disturbances were "less spontaneous" and even bloodier. Meanwhile broadcasts from Iran in the name of the Islamic Revolutionary Organization attacked the monarchy, telling listeners, `Kings despoil a country when they enter it and make the noblest of its people its meanest ... This is the nature of monarchy, which is rejected by Islam.`

By 1993, Saudi Shia had abandoned uncompromising demands and some of al-Saffar's followers met with King Fahd with promised made for reform. In 2005 the new King Abdullah also relaxed some restrictions on the Shia. However Shia continue to be arrested for commemorating Ashura as of 2006. In December 2006, amidst escalating tensions in Iraq, 38 high ranking Saudi clerics called on Sunni Muslims around the world to "mobilise against Shiites". In return, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi in 2007 responded:

The Wahhabis ignore the occupation of Islam's first Qiblah by Israel, and instead focus on declaring Takfiring fatwas against Shias.
Saudi Sunni
A large fraction of the foreign Sunni extremists who have entered Iraq to fight against Shia and the American occupation are thought to be Saudis. According to one estimate, of the approximately 1200 foreign fighters captured in Syria between summer 2003 and summer 2005, 85% were Saudis.

Another reflection of grassroots Wahhabi or Saudi antipathy to Shia was statement by Saudi cleric Nasir al-Umar, who accused Iraqi Shais of close times to the United States and argued that both were enemies of Muslims everywhere.

Al Qaida

Some Wahabi groups, often labeled as takfiri and sometimes linked to Al Qaeda, have even advocated the persecution of the Shi'a as heretics Such groups have been allegedly responsible for violent attacks and suicide bombings at Shi'a gatherings at mosques and shrines, most notably in Iraq during the Ashura mourning ceremonies where hundreds of Shias were killed in coordinated suicide bombings, but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However Al-Qaida deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video message directed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, of Al-Qaida in Iraq, not to attack civilian targets but to focus on the occupation troops. His call seems to have been ignored, or swept away in the increasing tensions of Iraq under occupation.

Efforts to foster Sunni-Shia unity

In a special interview broadcast on Al Jazeera on February 14, 2007, former Iranian president and chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and highly influential Sunni scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, "stressed the impermissibility of the fighting between the Sunnis and the Shi’is" and the need to "be aware of the conspiracies of the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken [Islam] and tear it apart in Iraq."

Even on this occasion there were differences, with Rafsanjani openly asking "more than once who started" the inter-Muslim killing in Iraq, and Al-Qaradawi denying claims by Rasanjani that he knew where "those arriving to Iraq to blow Shi’i shrines up are coming from”.

International Islamic Unity Conference

Saudi-Iran Summit

In a milestone for the two countries' relations, on March 3 2007 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held an extraordinary summit meeting. They displayed mutual warmth with hugs and smiles for cameras and promised "a thaw in relations between the two regional powers but stopped short of agreeing on any concrete plans to tackle the escalating sectarian and political crises throughout the Middle East."

On his return to Tehran Ahmadinejad declared that

"Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies' conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front.

Saudi officials had no comment about Ahmadinejad's statements, but the Saudi official government news agency did say:

"The two leaders affirmed that the greatest danger presently threatening the Islamic nation is the attempt to fuel the fire of strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and that efforts must concentrate on countering these attempts and closing ranks, "

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said

"The two parties have agreed to stop any attempt aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the region.

Persecution of Shia Muslims



  • Nasr, Hossein (1972). Sufi Essays. Suny press. ISBN 978-0-87395-389-4.

Further reading

  • The Arab Shia: The Forgotten Muslims, by Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1999, ISBN 0-312-23956-4
  • Shi'a Islam, by Tabatabaei and Nasr, SUNY Press, 1979.
  • Don’t Fear the Shiites: The Idea of a Teheran-Controlled »Shiite Crescent« over the Greater Middle East is at Odds with Reality, by Michael Bröning. In: International Politics and Society, 3 /2008, pp. 60-75.

See also

External links

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