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Lesson Plan: Sunni-Shiʿa Conflict

Christoph Marcinkowski
Principal Research Fellow
International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia

Course: Political Science, Religion, Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies
Syllabus Section: Islam in the Middle East


With the help of this lesson plan, the student will:

  1. 1. Gain an introduction to the basic differences between Sunni and Shiʿa sects of Islam
  2. 2. Understand the main aspects of creed and practice of Shiʿa Muslims
  3. 3. Explore the major political implications for the contested leadership among Muslims
  4. 4. Consider the social issues behind the Sunni-Shiʿa conflict in the Middle East


Immediately after the death of the founder of Islam, Muḥammad, in 632 CE, the Muslims differed on who should be their political and religious leader. Muḥammad was seen by all of them as the last prophet sent by God to mankind, but the Muslim community, the ummah, was still in need of leadership or succession (khilāfah, "caliphate"). The majority argued that Muḥammad did not appoint a successor (khālifah, "caliph") and that the ummah was therefore entitled to elect one. The early proponents of this idea can be considered the "proto-Sunnis." A minority, the "proto-Shīʿīs," argued that Muḥammad actually did appoint a successor, and that there is even scriptural evidence for this in the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. They hold that Muḥammad did specifically appoint his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib to this position (see Madelung, The Succession, and Marcinkowski, Shiʾite Identities, Part I).

I. Basic Differences between Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims: Beliefs and Practices

There are several aspects of devotional practice that continue to cause ruptures between Sunnis and Shīʿīs to the present day. Although the tenets and prescriptions of Twelver Shīʿīs do not differ significantly from the Sunnite "five pillars of Islam" (arkan al-Islam), Shīʿīs do categorize their precepts differently, dividing them into Usūl al-Dīn, "Roots of Religion" or matters of belief, and Furūʿ al-Dīn, "Branches of Religion" or "legal" matters.

Arkan al-Islam, "The Five Pillars"

  • Shahādah: professing monotheism and accepting Muḥammad as Gods last messenger. It is a set statement, normally recited in Arabic.
  • Šalāt: the Islamic obligatory ritual prayer, five times a day.
  • Sawm: fasting in the month of Ramaḍān.
  • Zakāt or alms-giving: the practice of charitable giving by Muslims based on accumulated wealth, obligatory for all who are able to do so.
  • Ḥajj: a pilgrimage that occurs during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Ḥijjah to the holy city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if he or she can afford it.

Usūl al-Dīn, "Roots of Religion"

  • Tawḥīd (Oneness): the Oneness of God, monotheism.
  • ʿAdl (Justice): the Justice of God. According to Twelver Shīʿī thought, God is bound by his own promise of justice. This concept is not shared by mainstream Ashʿarī Sunnism as they see in it a contradiction to his omnipotence. However, the Muʿtazilīs—followers of an almost extinct line of Sunnite theological thought—agree with it.
  • Nubuwwah (Prophethood): the belief in the prophethood of Muḥammad and all the other prophets mentioned in the Qurʾān. This includes also the belief in their infallibility (ismah), which the Sunnis do not accept.
  • Imāmah (political and spiritual leadership): God has appointed specific leaders to lead and guide mankind—a prophet appoints a custodian of the religion before his death. Imāms do not receive Revelation but do share the prophetic attribute of infallibility.
  • Maʿād: belief in the Afterlife, bodily Resurrection and the Day of Judgment.

Furūʿ al-Dīn, "Branches of Religion"

  • Šalāt (Prayer): obligatory prayers five times a day, namāz in Persian.
  • Sawm (fasting): fasting during the month of Ramaḍān.
  • Ḥajj (Pilgrimage): performing the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during lifetime.
  • Zakāt (Poor-rate): paying the poor-tax.
  • Khums (the "Fifth"): paying another tax. Khums is of special significance for securing the financial independence of Twelver Shīʿīs clerics, thus enabling them to take a more active stand in public life and politics than their Sunnite colleagues, who are today mostly employed by the state.
  • Jihād (literally "struggle"): struggling "for the sake of God." Traditionally, in Shīʿīa as well as Sunnite pertinent literature, this is usually presented as referring to the "inner struggle" or "greater jihad" (al-jihād al-akbar) against the evil within one's soul in every aspect of life. The "lesser jihad" (al-jihād al-a?ghar) is the one usually in Western literature referred as "holy war."
  • Al-Amrbiʾl-Maʿrūf: literally "commanding [and enforcing] what is good," thus also putting into action the stipulations of Islamic law.
  • Al-Nahīʿan al-Munkar: literally "forbidding what is evil," connected with the previous point.
  • Tawallā: loving the family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt) and their followers, i.e. the Shiʿites.
  • Tabarrā: dissociating oneself from the enemies of Ahl al-Bayt and the Shīʿīs.

II. Basic Differences between Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims: Political and Religious Leadership

  • Meaning of the Term shīʿah. In Arabic, the word shīʿah conveys the meaning of "party," "partisans," "group," or "supporters" and the like. In early Islamic history, that is, the period immediately following the death of Muḥammad in 632, the term shīʿah appears to have been used in this very sense, i.e. "partisans" or "followers."
  • Leadership. Shīʿīs place special emphasis on political as well as spiritual leadership. The leader of the Islamic ummah is mostly referred to as Imām by Shīʿīs; the term caliph is more particular to Sunnis. More commonly, this term is used when referring to the head of a particular branch of Shiʿism.
  • Special Emphasis of the Shiʿa Muslims on Legitimacy. The main differences between Shīʿīs and Sunnis until the early Umayyad period—which could also be considered the formative period of political Shīʿism—focused on the question of leadership, i.e. "the Imamate" (imāmah). Shīʿīs in general, regardless of which particular sect, believe that Muḥammad's family (i.e. Ahl al-Bayt and the Imāms from their progeny) were the most authentic source of Islam after Muḥammad. They also believe that by Muḥammad's direct order, ʿAlī was appointed successor on many occasions, that he was the rightful leader of the Muslims after Muhammad's death, and that to follow Muḥammad's true sunnah one must support ʿAlī's succession. Moreover, in the view of most Shīʿīs, the appointment to the Imamate does not happen as an act of arbitrary selection but through "divine designation."

Shiʿa Subdivisions

  • As a result of these distinctions, Shiʿism split into numerous subdivisions, most of them loosely united in their reverence of ʿAlī as the head of their movement. Some of those groups, which ought to be referred to as religious "sects," ascribed rather supernatural, quasi-divine qualities to ʿAlī and their leaders. They differed often also with regard to the particular line of genealogical descent from ʿAlī.
  • Most significantly, however, Shīʿīs in general (with the exception of the Zaydis, who are to be encountered today almost exclusively in Yemen) tend to reject the claim of the Sunnis to speak on behalf of the Muḥammad and Islam, and thus reject the de facto legitimacy of the entire Sunni religious establishment. The issue of the "legitimate" line of the Imamate contributed to further branching out of the Shīʿī movement (see Halm, Shiʾism). Most Shīʿīs (but not the Zaydis) consider their Imāms infallible, sharing with the Prophet of Islam every quality, except his prophethood.
  • Perhaps the greatest issue of dispute between the two groups is the Shīʿa belief that, following a line of twelve Imāms, the last Imām (the Mahdī) will reappear—in similar fashion to the Second Coming of Christ—in order to destroy the enemies of Shīʿa Islam, which would include Sunni regimes.

Suggested Activity

Have students divide into groups. Each group should read the brief section " Pillars of Islam," contained in the Oxford Encyclopedia of The Islamic World, before discussing the following questions:

  • What are the main differences between Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims in terms of political and religious leadership?
  • What are the main differences between Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims in terms of religious beliefs and practices?
  • What are the extent of the similarities and differences between Shiʿa and Sunni schools of thought?
  • What explains the discrepancies and overlap between Shiʿa and Sunni schools of thought?
  • How similar is the prediction of the Mahdī's return to eschatological belief in Christianity? How are they different?

III. Contemporary Conflicts

Today, the majority of the Shīʿīs are Twelver Shīʿīs. They are concentrated mostly in Iran (c. 90%), the Republic of Azerbaijan (c. 75%), Iraq (c. 60–65%), and also in Bahrain (more than 60%), which is under Sunni rule. In Lebanon, the Twelvers constitute more than 40% the largest single religious group in the country. There are also large minorities in Qatar (c. 20%). Afghanistan (about 19%), Pakistan (about 20% of the total population, especially around Lahore), Tajikistan (c. 5%), and India (especially in Oudh [Lucknow], and the Deccan [Hyderabad]). They are also found in large numbers in Kashmir (in both parts of the Indian and Pakistani-occupied areas) and in the eastern, oil-producing Persian Gulf regions of Saudi Arabia, where they are the majority. Sunni-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia (and very recently Bahrain), where a vast Shīʿa majority is ruled by Sunni monarchs, fear the instrumentalization of "their" Shīʿīs by neighboring "rogue" state Iran, which is still ruled by a regime where Shīʿa clerics have significant political influence. Iran is also seen as fomenting a "Shīʿī crescent" over the other Muslim countries of the Middle East in order to dominate them politically. Given this setting, Shīʿīs outside Iran are seen by Sunni regimes as Tehran's "fifth" column. However, this view is too generalized, as Iran's political motives seem to be guided by its national interests alone, while Shīʿism serves just as a tool.

Questions for Discussion

  • How can observers differentiate between genuine religious aspirations of Shiʿa Muslims in Sunni-majority countries and attempts of instrumentalization by neighboring Shiʿa-majority countries such as Iran?
  • Aside from purely theological barriers, are there any other issues that stand in the way of rapprochement between Sunni and Shiʿa Muslim countries today?
  • Despite emerging in the heart of Arabia, the vanguard of Shīʿism now lies in modern-day Persia. What is the significance of this?
  • How much of a unifying political force is Sunnism or Shīʿism? How would relations between the above countries differ if religious affiliations were different?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

For a general overview of Shiʿa religious beliefs and practices read Christoph Marcinkowski, Shiʾite Identities: Community and Culture in Changing Social Contexts, LIT Verlag, 2010, and Heinz Halm, Shiʾism, Columbia University Press, 2004, 2d ed., Muḥammad Riḍā al-Muzaffar, The Faith of Shiʿa Islam (Dubai, n.d., repr.), Jaʾfar Sobhani, Doctrines of Shiʾi Islam. A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices (I. B. Tauris, 2002); On the historical origins of the Sunni-Shiʿa conflict read Wilferd Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, Cambridge University Press, 1998, Muḥammad Ḥusayn Āl-iKāshif al-Ghitāʾ, The Origins of Shiʾite Islam and its Principles, Ansariyan Publications, 2006, and S. H. M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam, Oxford University Press, 1979. On attempts of dialogue read Rainer Brunner, Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th Century: The Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochement and Restraint, Brill, 2004. For political manifestations of contemporary conflict read Nathan Gonzalez, The Sunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East, Nortia Press, 2009, and Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

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