See L. Hazleton, After the Prophet (2009).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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"Some believe the war has strengthened the takfir thinking and may spread Sunni-Shia strife elsewhere.
"Even those who kill people with suicide bombing, these shall meet the flames of hell.
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`
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.