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Thematic Guide to the Sunni-Shiʿa Conflict

Christoph Marcinkowski, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia


Historical Background

After Muḥammad's death in 632 CE, the Muslim community (ummah) was sharply divided over who should lead them. Revelation had ceased, and some in the community believed that Muḥammad did not appoint someone who should succeed him as political leader, and instead left it to the ummah as a whole to decide. This faction could be referred to as "proto-Sunnis." Another faction held the view that Muḥammad did in fact appoint a successor, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib. It was this group that would later be known as "the Shīʿīs."

Already during the lifetime of Muʿāwiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty (r. 661–750), his supporters had styled themselves as ahl al-sunnah wa 'l-jamā'ah, "People of the Prophet's Way and Community," effectively appropriating the right to speak on behalf of the entire Muslim community and stamping the adherents of ʿAlī as heretics. Today, the term is still often applied by Sunnis as a means of referring to themselves as the supposed guardians of Islamic orthodoxy. Consequently the terms "Sunni" and "Shīʿa" are highly politicized and rather empty categorizations that tell us little about the actual beliefs held by their respective followers.

The differences between the Shīʿat ʿAlī and the supporters of the Umayyads were not only political. Also in contention was the issue of how to apply and interpret what was to develop later on into Islamic law. It is important to keep in mind that these basically political differences between the Ahl al-Bayt (i.e., the early Shīʿīs) and those who rejected their claims have also shaped the respective Shīʿī and Sunni views on various key issues, in particular the interpretation of ḥadīth. Subsequently, both "denominations," Shīʿīs and Sunnis, developed their own corpus of ḥadīth and legal literature.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

Shīʿīs in general believe that the Ahl al-Bayt and their progeny were the most authentic source of religious knowledge. They believe that by Muḥammad's direct order, ʿAlī was the rightful leader of the Muslims after Muḥammad's death. Consequently, the view of the Twelver Shīʿīs (Ithnā ʿAsharīyah)—the most dominant subgroup within Shiism—is that the appointment to the imamate does not happen as an act of arbitrary selection by humans but rather through "divine designation" (naṣṣ).

In short, the main differences between Shīʿīs and Sunnis until the early Umayyad period, which could also be considered as the formative period of political Shīʿism, focused on the question of leadership; that is "the imamate" (imāmah). As a result of this, Shīʿism split up into numerous subdivisions, most of them united in their reverence of ʿAlī as the head of their movement in history, but often differing on the particular approach to be followed.

Throughout Islamic legal literature—Shīʿī as well as Sunni—the leader of the ummah is typically referred to as imam. Presently, "imam" has come to refer exclusively to the head of a Shīʿī stream. The issue of the "legitimate" line of the imamate and the question of how to respond appropriately (resistance or quietism?) to Umayyad and subsequently Abbasid rule, perceived by Shīʿīs as tyrannical and illegitimate, contributed to the "branching out" of the Shīʿī movement.

Twelver Shīʿism, for instance, which believes in twelve infallible imams as successors of Muhammad in the leadership of the ummah, does not differ significantly from the tenets and prescriptions of the Sunni "five pillars of Islam" such as daily ritual prayer and fasting. However, there are several aspects of devotional and other practices that continue to cause ruptures between Sunnis and Shīʿīs up to the present day, such as temporal marriage and the performances of passion plays (taʿzīyah). These annual plays, which commemorate the killing of the Prophet's grandson by fellow Muslims, are the only such performances in the Muslim world, further distinguishing it from Sunnism. Additionally, the particularly brutal slaughter of the third imam, Husayn ibn ʿAlī, at the hands of Umayyad troops, added a dramatic note to the religious idea of suffering.

Another difference lies with the Mahdī, a kind of eschatological savior accepted by both groups. Similar to the Second Coming of Christ, the Mahdī, too, is supposed to "return" just before the Day of Judgment. While Sunnis believe in the coming of a Mahdī, they differ with Shīʿīs on his identity; both, however, agree that this person will bring peace and justice to the world by establishing Islam as the global religion. Importantly, the Twelvers consider the twelfth imām to be the Mahdī. He is believed to have been hidden by God from his enemies by entering into subsequent forms of occultation or concealment (ghaybah). Sunnis argue that it would be against the laws of nature for him to still be alive after more than one thousand years in concealment, though Shīʿīs point out that some of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'ān—such as Jesus and Elijah—are considered by Muslims to still be alive.

Due to the "absence" of the twelfth imām, the most learned members of the Shīʿī community are often seen by the faithful as his rightful representatives. At first glance, this elevation of a learned class of clerics is somewhat reminiscent of the development of Sunni Islam. However, in the case of the Shīʿīs, this "learned class" has had no access to public and official functions since no Twelver Shīʿī state with a religious administrative system existed. They were thus able to stay independent from political interference and to develop closer links with the faithful, by whom they were often seen as credible leaders.

Several important Muslim dynasties from the tenth century onward were Shīʿī, notably the Būyids. From their power base in Daylam (modern-day northern Iran), the group preserved Muslim scholarship and laid the groundwork for the development of Twelver Shīʿī thought and cultural identity. This precipitated the establishment of the Shīʿī Ṣafavid state in Iran (1501–1722), a watershed development in Twelver Shīʿī as well as Iranian history. For the first time in their history, Twelver Shīʿī scholars had joined the administrative fabric of the political order, for instance, as appointed religious judges. However, in contrast to their Sunni colleagues, they were not entirely dependent on the state, receiving additional income in the form of khums (the "Fifth"), an additional income tax paid by the faithful and in part received by the clerics. From the Safavid period onward it was these additional funds that enabled them to stay politically autonomous. Consequently, the collapse of the Ṣafavid state in 1722 rendered the Shīʿī clerics the sole independent entity amid a succession of rotating powers.

Contemporary Significance

Today the majority of the Shīʿīs are Twelver Shīʿīs. They are concentrated mostly in Iran (c. 90 percent), the Republic of Azerbaijan (c. 75 percent), Iraq (c. 60–65 percent), and also in Bahrain (more than 60 percent), although in Bahrain the state is under Sunni rule. In Lebanon, the Twelvers, who constitute more than 40 percent of the population, are the largest single religious group in the country. There are also large minorities in Qatar (c. 20 percent), Afghanistan (c.19 percent), Pakistan (c. 20 percent of the total population, especially around Lahore), Tajikistan (c. 5 percent), and India (especially in Oudh), and in the Deccan (Hyderabad). There are also large numbers of Twelvers in Kashmir (in both the Indian and Pakistani-occupied areas) and in the eastern, oil-producing Gulf regions of Saudi Arabia, where they are the majority (11 percent of the kingdom's total population).

Especially since the twentieth century, Sunni and Twelver Shīʿī scholars have been involved in a dialogue movement known as taqrīb al-madhāhib, or "rapprochement of the Islamic legal schools," due to a deeply felt conviction that sectarian conflicts are essentially a sociological phenomenon. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt's Sunni Al Azhar University and Iraq's Shīʿī seminaries in Najaf have entered into a dialogue that culminated in the mutual acknowledgment of each other's legal schools and belief systems as valid.

However, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shīʿism abroad has been largely instrumentalized by the regime in Tehran in order to achieve a modern, political agenda: influence over the Middle East based on a purely nationalist Iranian scheme. Accordingly, Iran's foreign policy vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors is based on mutual distrust—an issue that reaches far back into the past beyond the 1979 revolution. The Arab Gulf countries tend to see in their own Shīʿī minorities a "fifth column" of the regime in Tehran, whereas Iran is suspicious of its Sunni minorities. Policy makers in the West and Middle East, however, would be better advised to see Iran's "rise" for what it essentially is—the petty regional nationalism of a country self-consciously aware of its imperial past. This could help to rationalize international relations, especially with Iran's Sunni neighbors, as the tensions with it are largely political and not necessarily connected with Shiism. Although Shīʿīs outside Iran have been courted by Khomeini and his successors since the Revolution, previous regimes also leveraged ethnic minorities (for instance, Kurds in Iraq) in order to exercise political rather than religious hegemony in the region.


Further Reading

  • Bar, Shmuel. "Sunnis and Shiites: Between Rapprochement and Conflict." In Current Trends in Islamist Ideology: Volume 2, ed. Hillel Fradkin et al., 87–96. Washington, DC: Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World, Hudson Institute, 2005.
  • Brunner, Rainer. Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th Century: The Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochement and Restraint. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Brunner, Rainer. "Shiʿite Doctrine. iii. Imamite-Sunnite Relations since the Late 19th Century." Encyplopaedia Iranica (November 2010). Available online at http://www.iranica.com/articles/shiite-doctrine-iii (accessed on 26 April 2011).
  • Elad-Altmann, Israel. "The Sunni-Shiʿa Conversion Controversy." In Current Trends in Islamist Ideology: Volume 5, ed. Hillel Fradkin et al., 1–10. Washington, DC: Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World, Hudson Institute, 2007.
  • Faath, Sigrid, ed. Rivalitäten und Konflikt zwischen Sunniten und Schiiten in Nahost. Berlin: Forschungsinstitut der Deutshen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, 2010.
  • Gonzalez, Nathan. The Sunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East. Mission Viejo, CA: Nortia Press, 2009.
  • Halm, Heinz. Shi'ism, 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
  • Helfont, Samuel. "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Emerging 'Shia Crescent.'" Orbis 53, no. 2 (2009): 284–299.
  • Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. Shi'ite Identities: Community and Culture in Changing Social Contexts. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010.
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. "Twelver Shi'ite Islam: Conceptual and Practical Aspects," IDSS Working Paper 113. Singapore, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, July 2006. Available online at http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/WorkingPapers/WP114.pdf (accessed on 26 April 2011).
  • Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

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