What Is the Sunni-Shia Divide?

What Is the Sunni-Shia Divide?

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Though the two main sects within Islam, Sunni and Shia, agree on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam, a bitter split between the two goes back some 14 centuries. The divide originated with a dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic faith he introduced.

Today, about 85 percent of the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are Sunni, while 15 percent are Shia, according to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations. While Shia represent the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, and a plurality in Lebanon, Sunnis are the majority in more than 40 other countries, from Morocco to Indonesia.

Despite their differences, Sunni and Shia have lived alongside each other in relative peace for most of history. But starting in the late 20th century, the schism deepened, exploding into violence in many parts of the Middle East as extreme brands of Sunni and Shia Islam battle for both religous and political supremacy.

The Aftermath of Muhammad’s Death

The roots of the Sunni-Shia divide can be traced all the way back to the seventh century, soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632. While most of Muhammad’s followers thought that the other elite members of the Islamic community should choose his successor, a smaller group believed only someone from Muhammad’s family—namely his cousin and son-in-law, Ali—should succeed him. This group became known as the followers of Ali; in Arabic the Shiat Ali, or simply Shia.

“The essence of the problem is that Muhammad died without a male heir, and he never clearly stated who he would want to be his successor,” says Lesley Hazleton, author of After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Sunni-Shia Split in Islam. “This was important, because by the time he died, he had basically brought all the tribes of Arabia together into a kind of confederation that became the ummah—the people or nation of Islam.”

Eventually the Sunni majority (named for sunna, or tradition) won out, and chose Muhammad’s close friend Abu Bakr to become the first caliph, or leader, of the Islamic community. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph (or Imam, as Shiites call their leaders), but only after the two that preceded him had both been assassinated.

Ali, himself, was killed in 661, as the bitter power struggle between Sunni and Shia continued. At stake was not only control of Muhammad’s religious and political legacy, but also a great deal of money, in the form of taxes and tributes paid by the various tribes united under the banner of Islam. This combination of money and power would only grow. Within the century after Muhammad’s death, his followers had built an empire that stretched from Central Asia to Spain.

Battle of Karbala and Its Lasting Significance

In 681, Ali’s son Hussein led a group of 72 followers and family members from Mecca to Karbala (present-day Iraq) to confront the corrupt caliph Yazid of the Ummayad dynasty. A massive Sunni army waited for them, and by the end of a 10-day standoff with various smaller struggles, Hussein was killed and decapitated, and his head brought to Damascus as a tribute to the Sunni caliph.

“It was obviously intended by the Ummayads to put the definitive end to all claims to leadership of the ummah as a matter of direct descendence from Muhammad,” says Hazleton of Hussein’s death, and the death of all the surviving members of Muhammad’s family, at Karbala. “But of course it's not what happened.” Instead, Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala became the central story of Shia tradition, and is commemorated yearly as Ashoura, the most solemn date on the Shia calendar.

The Sunni-Shia Divide Into the 21st Century

In addition to Karbala, the NPR podcast Throughline identified three key milestones that would sharpen Sunni-Shia divisions by the end of the 20th century. First came the rise of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, which transformed Iran (through force) from a Sunni center into the Shia stronghold of the Middle East. In the early 20th century, the victorious Allies divided the territory held by the former Ottoman Empire after World War I, cutting through centuries-old religious and ethnic communities in the process. Finally, in 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran produced a radical brand of Shia Islam that would clash violently with Sunni conservatives in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the decades to follow.

Amid the increasing politicization of Islam and the rise of fundamentalists on both sides of the divide, sectarian tensions intensified in the early 21st century, especially amid the upheavals caused by two Persian Gulf Wars, the chaos that followed the U.S.-backed ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime in Iraq, and the mass uprisings across the region that began with the Arab Spring in 2011.

Sunni-Shia divisions would fuel a long-running civil war in Syria, fighting in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, and terrorist violence on both sides. A common thread in most of these conflicts is the ongoing battle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for influence in the oil-rich Middle East and surrounding regions.

Despite the long-running nature of the Sunni-Shia divide, the fact that the two sects coexisted in relative peace for many centuries suggests their struggles may have less to do with religion than with wealth and power.

“Neither of them are representative of the vast majority of Sunni Muslims or the vast majority of Shia Muslims around the world,” says Hazleton of the fundamentalist regimes governing both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“When society breaks down, you fall back on old forms of identity, and Shia and Sunni are 1,400-year-old forms of identity.”

Sunni and Shia muslims: Islam's 1,400-year-old divide explained

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran fundamentally boil down to two things – the battle to be the dominant nation in the Middle East and the fact the countries represent the regional strongholds of two rival branches of Islam.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy known as the House of Saud, with 90 per cent of the population adherents of their leaders’ faith. The Islamic Republic of Iran, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly Shia, with up to 95 per cent of nationals belonging to the denomination.

Both countries are major oil producers but while Saudi covers a significantly larger land mass, Iran’s population is more than twice the size.

It is the theological divide that really drives the wedge between the two countries, however, with each unable to accept the legitimacy of the other nation’s dominant faith.

What caused the Sunni-Shia divide?

The Sunni-Shia conflict is 1,400 years in the making, dating back to the years immediately after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632.

The Prophet died without having appointed a successor leading to a massive split over the future of the rapidly growing religion – chiefly whether the religion’s next leader should be chosen by a kind of democratic consensus, or whether only Mohammed’s blood relations should reign.

The arguments are complicated but essentially boil down to the fact that Sunni’s believe the Prophets’ trusted friend and advisor Abu Bakr was the first rightful leader of Muslims or “caliph”, while Shias believe that Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was chosen by Allah to hold the title.

Both men did eventually hold the title – Abu Bakr first until his death, and Ali fourth after two previous caliphs were assassinated – but the schism really hit over who should come next. While Sunni Muslims argue that their interpretation of Islam follows the Sunnah (ways of Mohammed), Shias argue that Ali was the rightful first caliph and only his descendants could claim to be the true leaders of Muslims.

The tension is not eased by a Hadith in which the Prophet was quoted as saying: “My Ummah (community) will be fragmented into seventy-three sects and all of them will be in the Hell fire except one.” Inevitably both Sunnis and Shias claim to be the one “pure” Islamic sect.

What does each group believe?

As with any division that lasts over a thousand years, the Sunni-Shia split led to each denomination developing its own unique cultures, doctrines and schools of thought.

While followers of either group range from the moderate to the extremist, Sunnis are largely focussed on the power of the God in the physical world, while Shias look more towards the rewards of the afterlife and as such place significant value in the celebration of martyrdom.

What is the geographical split of Sunnis and Shias?

The vast majority of the Muslims in the world are Sunni, amounting to as much as 85% of the religion’s adherents. They are spread all over the globe – from Morocco to Indonesia - and make up the dominant religion in North Africa and the Middle East.


Only lran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain have a Shia majority, although there are also significant Shia populations in Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria and Qatar.

Despite being members of the religious minority, the Saudi-backed Kingdom of Bahrain has long been ruled by the Sunni House of Khalifa. Equally Iraq was ruled by the Sunni Saddam Hussein for more than 20 years, during which time he brutally oppressed Shia Muslims.

The current conflict in Iraq is fuelled by sectarian rivalries too, which embattled President Bashar al-Assad and his family members of the Shia Alawite-sect, while many of the insurgent groups in his country – including the Islamic State terror group – are Sunni adherents.

And of course the current civil war in Yemen has become a sectarian proxy war, with Iran backing the Shia Houthi rebels who overthrew the country’s Sunni-dominated government, while a Saudi-led coalition has since intervened to reinstall the Sunni leadership.

The Sunni-Shiite Divide Explained With Extremely Useful Maps And Timelines

"If we want to understand the Middle East, if we want to understand why conflicts are happening the way they are, and how these conflicts may be resolved, we cannot take our eyes of the Shiite-Sunni conflict, says Vali R. Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in a video from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The video is part of an interactive infoguide produced by CFR, that is an in-depth look at the roots of a divide which is at the heart of many of the violent conflicts currently engulfing the Middle East.

"The Shiite-Sunni divide is a political and religious divide around who was the rightful heir after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad in early Islam. Yes, it's remote history, going back to the seventh century, but for millions of Muslims around the world, it's what defines them- sectarianism," says Ed Husain, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at CFR, in the overview.

Take a look back at the origins of the schism with this interactive timeline:

To see how this ancient dispute has been playing out in the modern word, this timeline starts with Iran's Islamic revolution and goes up to the present day:

Where are these tensions most prevalent? Take a look at the map to see the countries dominated by sectarian conflict and click on the countries to see more about their demographic makeup.

Sunni-Shiite Divide

Christians have their Protestants and Catholics, Jews their Orthodox and Reform. Muslims are split, too, into Sunnis and Shiites. What began as a dispute over who was entitled to lead Islam following the death of the Prophet Mohammad in A.D. 632 led to differing theologies and worldviews for Sunnis and Shiites. The schism has pitted empires, nations and neighbors against each other intermittently for 14 centuries. In the many civil wars in the Mideast today, it is sometimes a driving force and sometimes an aggravating factor. Local struggles are aggravated by the਌ompetitionꂾtween Sunni and Shiite powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Situation

Tensions between the regional rivals have escalated since Iran negotiated an international agreement on its nuclear program that released the country from crippling economic sanctions. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has threatened to take the fight “inside Iran,” and leaders in Iran blame the Saudis for helping to foment anti-government protests there that began in late December. Yemen’s civil war has been intensified by the two powers backing opposing sides along Sunni-Shiite lines. Syria’s਌ivil war, sparked by a popular revolt against dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2011, quickly devolved into a sectarian conflagration. Syria’s conflict, in turn, re-ignited the Sunni-Shiiteਏighting in Iraq that bled that country in the mid-2000s. Since the 2003 ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, when power shifted from minority Sunnis to majority Shiites in a country traditionally seen as a potent force in the Arab world, Sunnis in the Mideast have expressed anxiety about rising Shiite influence. Many Sunnis fear that Iran is trying to establish what Jordan’s King Abdullah called a Shiite crescent, encompassing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Unease over Shiite power has been exploited by extremist groups, notably the jihadist Islamic State, whose ideology is rooted in Saudi Arabia’s 200-year-old puritanical Wahhabi movement. Wahhabis regard themselves as Sunnis, though many Sunnis consider them outside the fold. The Sunni-Shiite schism also provokes violence between Muslims in such places as Pakistan, Nigeriaਊnd Indonesia. About 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shiites form a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, which is ruled by Sunni royals. Where Sunnis are a majority or dominate government, Shiites frequently complain of discrimination, and vice versa. According to a 2012 poll, roughly 24 percent of non-Shiites around the world reject Shiites as fellow Muslims the figure is 7 percent for Sunnis. 

The Background

Mohammad’s followers quarreled over whether he should be succeeded by a blood relative or someone chosen by the community on the basis of merit. In the event, his companion Abu Bakr was chosen as the first successor, or caliph. The prophet’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, the candidate of those who would become Shiites, was selected the fourth caliph in 656. After he was assassinated by a zealot, Shiites followed separate leaders, or imams, from Mohammad’s bloodline, whom they believed were divinely appointed. The schism deepened in 680 when the Sunni caliph’s army killed the third imam, Ali’s son Hussein, an event Shiites mark in an annual rite of mourning. Most Shiites believe there were 12 rightful imams, the last of whom went into hiding in the ninth century and will return as the messiah subgroups broke off at the fifth and seventh imams. In the absence of an imam, Shiites believe that distinguished scholars are broadly empowered to interpret religious knowledge for the community. Sunnism rejects divine claims on behalf of anyone apart from Mohammad and the other prophets in the Koran. Many Sunnis disapprove of the Shiite practice of revering Mohammad’s relatives — making shrines of their graves and feast days of their birthdays. Sunnis believe religious authority comes directly from the Koran and the traditions of Mohammad. Their scholars have less latitude to interpret Islam.

The Argument

Friction between Sunnis and Shiites undoubtedly arises in part from genuine offense over the others’ beliefs. Yet today’s conflicts are largely fueled by political agendas. The issue is less how Muslims should observe their faith than who should have power. In the case of archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, the support — or perceived support — of one for fellow Sunnis or Shiites elsewhere tends to attract the intervention of the other on the opposite side. Even the unapologetically murderous Islamic State has a political purpose in targeting Shiite civilians. It seeks to sow chaos to destabilize societies in pursuit of its ultimate goal: a global caliphate.

Monotheism according to Freud: a comparative glance

If Ashura rings a bell for the Christian reader, it should. The similarities between Hussein and Jesus are too many to miss: both were powerless, decent men who rose up against the powers that be, and by an act of sacrifice debunked the tyrant’s claim to faith. Both deaths were tragic enough to spark centuries of mourning, and beget new religious doctrines. The story of Jesus and the Jews, therefore, might give us some clue regarding the roots of the current conflict in the Islamic world.

Sometime in 1939 in London, when the persecution of Jews in Germany had reached an unprecedented high and the second world war was to engulf Europe, the old heartbroken Sigmund Freud, having fled his beloved Vienna for London to spend his last years in exile, sat down to pen the last installment of his study of Judaism.

In the second part of the book Freud reiterates the core ideas of Totem and Taboo, describing how the killing of the father at the hand of ancient brothers founded human society. In Moses and Monotheism, he takes patricide as the foundation of monotheism as well, contending that the monotheistic god is the murdered father elevated to divine status. He also draws a brief comparison with Islam, claiming “the inner development of the new religion, however, soon came to a standstill, perhaps because it lacked the profundity which, in the Jewish religion, resulted from the murder of its founder.” The Shias would beg to differ: for them, the murder of Hussein and his family in Karbala is no less compelling than the crucifixion is for Christians.

Freud reads the history of religions as torturous paths towards growing up. On top of the killing of the father, the tensions and wars that occur in early phases of religions amount to massive childhood traumas in a person. Just as traumas have an incubation period and come back to bite later in life, the historical traumas of religions lay latent for long periods, sometimes centuries. We repress traumas to make life endurable, but the repressed is bound to return. Shouldn’t we attribute a part of religious and sectarian wars in history to the traumas they underwent in their childhood?

Freud’s uncharacteristically gloomy book tells us that historical and religious scars do not fade easily. Every major development in history, at its conception, has been scar-stricken. The scar at the heart of Islam is no exception: the discontent created in the shura turned into a scratch by the war of the Camel, and a deep scar by Karbala. Traumas like that don’t simply go away, but they can be controlled, just as this trauma was contained for hundreds of years.

The history of the last two centuries in the Middle East amounts to successive blows at all the forces that contain the childhood trauma of Islam. Brutal colonialism, titular kings who did little more than pander to their western masters, any number of secular dictators whose blind brutality empowered reactionary clerics, severely damaged centuries of peaceful coexistence across the Islamic world.

The disastrous invasion of Iraq was the last straw. It tore apart the last tissues that held this battered body together. Just as the emergence of Hitler ruined peaceful existence in the already suffering Europe, and opened up the scar at the heart of Judeo-Christian societies that originated in the crucifixion of Jesus at the hand of his fellow-Jews, Bush’s invasion of Iraq served as the match in a barrel of dynamite.

Therefore, Shia-Sunni tension is as inevitable and integral to Islam as any other religious, sectarian tension is integral to any other religion. Thanks to the sheer amount of violence heaped upon the Middle East for centuries, the childhood trauma of Islam has exploded onto its surface.

The catastrophe is traveling along sectarian lines, and world leaders are watching it transfixed. Every now and then they come up with cosmetic peace plans, which never work, because this kind of scar will not be healed by political maneuvering and sly brinksmanship. Only fundamental commitment to peace on all sides can bring this to an end. In the absence of honest cooperation across warring factions, the scar will continue to bleed, until the body is irrecoverably dead.

Amir Ahmadi Arian is an Iranian writer and translator, PhD graduate of comparative literature from the University of Queensland, currently enrolled at NYU’s creative writing program. In Iran, he has worked with various newspapers and magazines, and published more than 200 articles on the culture and politics of Iran and the Middle East.

Sunni - Shia: Brief History

Both Sunni and Shia Muslims share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith. The differences between these two main sub-groups within Islam initially stemmed not from spiritual differences, but political ones. Over the centuries, however, these political differences have spawned a number of varying practices and positions which have come to carry a spiritual significance.

The division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad , and the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.

The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet."

On the other hand, some Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself.

The Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad's death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet).

From this initial question of political leadership, some aspects of spiritual life have been affected and now differ between the two groups of Muslims.

Shia Muslims believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God. Therefore, Shia Muslims often venerate the Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession. Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and certainly no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.

Shia Muslims also feel animosity towards some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad , based on their positions and actions during the early years of discord about leadership in the community. Many of these companions (Abu Bakr, Umar, Aisha, etc.) have narrated traditions about the Prophet's life and spiritual practice. Shia Muslims reject these traditions (hadith) and do not base any of their religious practices on the testimony of these individuals. This naturally gives rise to some differences in religious practice between the two groups. These differences touch all detailed aspects of religious life: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority (85%) of Muslims all over the world. Significant populations of Shia Muslims can be found in Iran and Iraq, and large minority communities in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

It is important to remember that despite all of these differences in opinion and practice, Shia and Sunni Muslims share the main articles of Islamic belief and are considered by most to be brethren in faith. In fact, most Muslims do not distinguish themselves by claiming membership in any particular group, but prefer to call themselves simply, "Muslims."

Islam’s Sunni-Shia divide explained

The world’s Muslims fall into two major camps, Sunni and Shia, sometimes likened to Christianity’s Catholics and Protestants. But the similarity is superficial. In terms of the world’s total Muslim population, Sunnis and Shias disagree over what percentage each group owns, with Sunnis accounting for 80-90% of the total and Shias 10-20%.

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the struggle over who should succeed him made Islam’s next half-century very turbulent. In fact, three of Muhammad’s first four successors were assassinated. The Sunni-Shia division goes back to that early conflict.

Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was chosen by the larger community as his fourth successor. But a minority claimed Muhammad had appointed Ali and his family line to succeed him, and that Ali would have led from the first if powerful families hadn’t sidelined him. That minority came to be known as the Shia, from the Arabic shi c at c Ali, or “partisans of Ali.” The Sunnis, their opponents, countered that, by letting a majority of Muslim leaders decide, they followed Muhammad’s sunna, or “way” of choosing.[1]

After Ali’s assassination in 661, the split only widened. In 670, Ali’s first son Hassan was murdered. Then in 680, in what both sides agree was an act of treachery, the Sunni caliph’s representative beheaded Ali’s remaining son, Husayn, at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq. He killed most of Husayn’s companions and family with him, his infant son Ali included.

Given this history, Sunnis and Shias naturally diverge on various theological and practical issues. One defining practice of Twelver Shias, for example, is their annual ritual commemoration of Husayn and his companions’ martyrdom. The Sunni-Shia split is also marked by sharp disagreement over

  • How the schism unfolded, including which characters are heroes
  • Which hadith are accepted
  • Matters of law, on such things as marriage and divorce
  • The authority of Muhammad’s rightful successors, whether caliphs (Sunni) or imams (Shia)[2]
  • How history will play out and the role of the Mahdi, an eschatological deliverer from external evils

But despite their many differences, Sunnis and Shias agree on the centrality of Muhammad and the Qur’an to their faith. Hence, they hold similar views on most of the basics:

  • Islam’s “five pillars,” or essential practices—the creed, ritual prayers, almsgiving, Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca
  • The prophets and scriptures before Muhammad
  • The nature of the believer’s relationship to God[3] [3]
  • That salvation is earned by good deeds and loyalty to the Muslim community
  • The Last Day’s vital importance

The news media often report on violence between Sunnis and Shias in places like Iraq and Pakistan. Such violence is tragic and must not be minimized, especially with the threat of a nuclearized Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) before us. But Muslims who complain that these reports distort the picture are partly right because our news media’s business model “both assumes and heightens polarization,”[4] and most Sunnis and Shias coexist peaceably. It’s equally true, however, that Sunni-Shia rivalry will remain a destabilizer wherever either sect is considered a threat in the Muslim world. That is, as long as both versions of Islamism—Shia and Sunni—are alive and well.[5] And neither currently shows any sign of abating.

[1] Both views were seen in pre-Islamic Arabia, even as both are still present in Saudi Arabia’s tribes today. In a majority of tribes, the clans were represented by a council of leaders which chose the tribal sheikh. A minority of tribes, by contrast, took a hereditary approach to tribal leadership. Thus, it seems that pre-Islamic Arabia’s minority (who felt tribal succession should be hereditary) became Islam’s minority (Shia), after Muhammad’s death.

[2] Sunnis view their caliphs as divinely ordained political leaders, while Shias also consider their imams infallible guides in spiritual matters.

[3] This applies only superficially to the Ismaili Shia (Seveners). In fact, the two largest Shia sects (Twelvers and Fivers) arguably have more in common theologically with Sunnis than with Ismailis.

[4] Ross Douthat, “How Trump Hacked the Media Right Before Our Eyes,” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/21/opinion/trump-facebook-cambridge-analytica-media.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage Accessed March 21, 2018.

[5] Islamism is the attempt to return to Islam’s militantly political roots.

Islam’s ‘Toxic’ Schism

Embodied in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunni-Shia divide is a schism that threatens to tear the Islamic world apart. Though its origins go back to the beginnings of Islam, its present toxicity is a recent development.

Shia reverence: portrait of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, on a street in Kashan, Iran.

T he words Sunni and Shia only emerged into public consciousness at the end of the 1970s. Before then – except among Sunnis and Shias themselves – the terms had been largely confined to the rarified world of Islamic Studies faculties. But in 1978 it became obvious to journalists grappling with the early stages of the Islamic revolution in Iran that the Shia clergy, dismissed as irrelevant ‘black crows’ by the soon-to-be-toppled Shah, were actually very important. Few political analysts – including those in the CIA and MI6 – knew much about them.

Since then, we have gone from one extreme to the other. Today, far too many commentators latch onto the Sunni-Shia divide as the root cause of all the difficulties currently faced by the Middle East and much of the rest of the Islamic world. This explanation is facile, if convenient. Nor is it confined to neo-conservatives or right-wing identity entrepreneurs in the West, who relish writing about a Darwinian struggle for the soul of Islam that fits in with their own preconceptions about the essentially violent nature of the religion. Indeed, Barack Obama is on record as stating that ‘ancient sectarian differences’ are the drivers of today's instability in the Arab world and that ‘the Middle East is going through a transformation going on for a generation rooted in conflicts that date back millenia’.

What truth is there in such statements? In order to answer that question, we need to establish how most Muslims became either Sunni or Shia and examine why the split is still theologically significant. Is the Sunni-Shia divide really a driver for conflict or is it in reality a convenient cloak for political disputes? I believe that the latter is the case and that we hinder our attempts at analysis by using the divide as an explanation for modern conflicts.

The origins of the split may go back to the final hours of the Prophet Muhammad's life in 632. When those close to him realised he was dying, they were forced to confront the question of who would lead the Muslim faithful after his death. The Muslims, followers of the new religion Muhammad believed had been revealed to him by God, now dominated Arabia. Yet there were different factions within the Muslim community and its roots were still shallow in many parts of the peninsula. Whoever became the new caliph, as the leader of the community came to be styled, would be faced with pressing political decisions, as well as the need to provide spiritual guidance. Moreover, his authority would never be able to match that wielded by Muhammad, since the caliph would not be a prophet.

Ali bin Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin, who had also married his daughter, Fatima, believed that the Prophet had designated him as his successor. But other leading companions of Muhammad considered Ali unsuitable. He was 30 years younger than Muhammad and therefore much younger than many of the Prophet's leading companions. Some questioned the reliability of his judgment. Perhaps most crucially, he was perceived as too close to the Muslims of Medina, the Ansar. These ‘Helpers’ were the inhabitants of Medina who had given refuge to the Prophet and his followers after they left Mecca in 622. As such, they were not members of the aristocratic Meccan tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad had belonged. Ali was repeatedly overlooked as the leadership passed in turn to three much older companions of the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. Ali accepted this state of affairs with grudging resignation but never abandoned his belief that the Prophet had intended him as his successor.

During the 24 years in which Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman ruled the polity which Muhammad had established, it turned into an empire that conquered Greater Syria, Iraq, Egypt and much of the Iranian plateau. This success was nearly its undoing. Mutinous tribesmen, dissatisfied with their share of the booty from the conquests, murdered Uthman and it was only at this point, in 656, that Ali was acclaimed as caliph.

Ali's rule was contested from the outset. Civil wars inside the Muslim community began within months. The Prophet's widow, Ayesha, stirred up a rebellion against Ali under the leadership of two other eminent companions of the Prophet, Talha and Zubair, both figures of sufficient stature to be considered potential candidates for caliph. Ali defeated them and they were both killed on the battlefield, but then he had to fight the powerful governor of Syria, Mu'awiya, who was a kinsman of the murdered Uthman. There was a pause for negotiations but, before this dispute could be resolved, Ali was assassinated in 661 and the caliphate was taken over by Mu'awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled until it was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. Their caliphate lasted until 1258, although they had to bow to the control of families of warlords from 945 onwards. Most Muslims accepted Umayyad and then Abbasid rule, but the office of caliph decayed into little more than a symbolic source of legitimacy. Whatever power the caliph may (or may not) have once had to define Islamic teaching had drained away by the middle of the ninth century.

The civil wars that shattered the Muslim community's unity during Ali's caliphate were a scandal and left a trauma. Islam was meant to bring peace and justice. Instead, it had been torn apart by violence leaving a legacy of bitterness and mistrust, as well as calls for vengeance. Some of Muhammad's closest companions had led armies against each other. As a consequence of this discord, two competing narratives of the early history of Islam emerged, which led directly to rival conceptions of how the truths of Islam should be discerned.

All Muslims accept the Quran as their starting point. The question is: how can Muslims discern the teaching and practice of their faith when the text of the Quran does not provide a clear answer to questions about doctrine and practice. Most Muslims looked to the Prophet's companions as the source of his wisdom, his customs and his practice of the faith. But this was problematic for those who believed Muhammad had intended Ali to follow him. This group saw the overwhelming majority of the companions as people who had betrayed the wishes of the Prophet after his death, when they rejected Ali. It followed that, however close those companions may have been to the Prophet during his lifetime, they were unreliable transmitters of the faith.

Ali's followers clung instead to a belief in the Prophet's family as the source for the true teaching of Islam, especially Ali and his direct descendants through Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. In each generation, the head of the House of Ali became known as the Imam (not to be confused with the more general title given to a prayer leader by Sunni Muslims). He was deemed to be sinless and to have a direct connection with the Divine that meant his interpretation of the faith would always be the true one. Such ideas were anathema to the majority of Muslims, who believed Ali had not been chosen by the Prophet as his successor.

These are the two communities we now call Sunni and Shia. Sunnis are those who revere the companions of the Prophet and see them as the transmitters of his practice or custom (sunnah in Arabic) Shias are the partisans of Ali and his descendants through Fatima (Shi'ah means faction or party). The differences between them go back to their incompatible interpretations of the early history of Islam and each can find justification for its position in the historical sources. The Shia see Sunnis as betrayers of the true Islam, while Sunnis see the Shias as a group who have brought factional strife into their religion. Although most Shia clerics discourage this today, there have been many periods of history when Shia have cursed Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman as well as other important Sunni figures such as the Prophet's widow Ayesha. For their part, many Sunni scholars throw up their hands in horror at the Shia veneration for the Imams, which they see as a form of idolatry.

As long as the basic point concerning these rival narratives of early Islamic history and their theological significance is understood, there is no need to delve any deeper into the struggles between medieval dynasties in order to understand the tensions between Sunnis and Shias today. It is sometimes implied that those struggles have continued into modern times, but this is entirely wrong. What has survived into our own time is the existence of rival – and, to an extent, incompatible ­– teachings as to how the doctrines and practice of Islam should be discerned.

Today, up to 90 per cent of Muslims are Sunnis. Among the Shia minority, an overwhelming majority are ‘Twelvers’. ‘Twelver Shi'ism’ teaches that the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into hiding in the late ninth century in order to escape murder at the hands of the Sunni Abbasid caliphs. He remains alive to this day but is hidden, or absent, from the world. He will reappear at the end of time to initiate a millenarian era of justice which will precede the struggle with the Antichrist and the Last Judgement. One consequence for Twelvers of the absence of the Imam until the end of earthly time is that their religious scholars have gradually taken over the Imam's role in expounding the doctrines and practice of the faith. Iran and Azerbaijan are Twelver countries, while Twelvers constitute a majority in Iraq and Bahrain and are the largest single religious sect in Lebanon. There are also significant Twelver minorities in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and among the Muslims of India.

When people talk of the Sunni-Shia divide as an issue in international politics, they are generally alluding to the divide between Sunnis and Twelvers, since that is the divide that appears to have political significance today. Other Shia groups, such as the Ismaili followers of the Agha Khan, tend to have little significance in the politics of most Muslim countries, while others, such as the Alawis of Syria (who are an offshoot of the Twelvers) or the Zaydis of Yemen (who are not) are only of political importance in the particular countries where they are located.

It is often forgotten that the Sunni-Shia divide only became explosive internationally from the 1970s onwards. Before then, Twelvers had come to be accepted by many Sunnis almost as an additional law school alongside the four great law schools of Sunni Islam. Sunnis accept these four law schools, the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi'is and Hanbalis, as equally valid in their teaching of the practice of the faith. Twelvers are sometimes described as followers of the Ja'fari law school, named after the sixth Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq (died 765). It is worth noting in passing that, as well as being a Shia Imam, he was also hugely respected by Sunnis as a teacher of Muslim doctrine and practice. Malik bin Anas and Abu Hanifa, the founders of the Maliki and Hanafi law schools of Sunni Islam, were among his pupils.

None of this means that tensions between Sunnis and Shias had been absent. After the creation of the modern state of Iraq, for instance, there were bitter struggles over whether the Sunni or Shia interpretation of the early history of Islam should be taught in schools. The majority Shia felt excluded from Iraq's predominantly Sunni elite (although between 1945 and the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 there were four Shia prime ministers). Yet in many countries, including Iraq and Syria, secular politics based on nationalist and socialist ideas seemed to be the way forward. This made questions of sectarian identity among the Muslims there less important. When India was partitioned in 1947, Pakistan was conceived as a homeland for a new nation that would have Islam as the cornerstone of its national identity. Intra-Muslim sectarianism played no part in its creation. Frequently overlooked today (and sometimes airbrushed from history) is the fact that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a Twelver Shia. So were the Bhutto family.

Why has Sunni-Shia sectarianism become so toxic? There are several reasons. The first is the tolerance of anti-Shia hate speech by the Saudi Arabian government, which, especially after it accrued massive oil revenues from 1973 onwards, has sought to export its brittle Wahhabi ideology. Saudi Arabia might see itself as promoting Muslim solidarity as a rallying point for conservatives against Arab nationalism, socialism and democracy, yet its founding ideology, Wahhabism, demonises the Shia (and Sufis) as idolaters. The second reason is the Iranian revolution of 1979. This was ‘Islamic’, although not primarily in a sectarian sense. Ayatollah Khomeini's ambition was to persuade all Muslims – Sunnis as well as Shias – to line up behind him. (That was his motive when issuing a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, for example). The spread of Iranian revolutionary ideas was seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia and all other western-aligned, conservative states with Muslim populations. As the decades passed, Saudi Arabia and Iran would both try to co-opt Sunni and Shia communities to their side in their struggle for regional power. Iran's greatest success was in the mobilisation of the Twelvers of Lebanon and the formation of the political and paramilitary organisation, Hezbollah. It also did what it could to stir up trouble for Saudi Arabia among the Twelvers of the oil-rich eastern province of the kingdom, who were always looked down on with suspicion by the Saudi monarchy and suffered discrimination. In Pakistan, as a result of Saudi influence during the military rule of General Zia ul-Haq from 1977-88, a form of strict Sunni Islam became the governing ideology of the state. This excluded the Shia and led to the sectarianisation of Pakistani politics

The third reason is the decay of Ba'athism, the ultra-secular Arab nationalist movement that came to power during the 1950s and 1960s in Syria and Iraq through a series of military coups and intrigues. Although Ba'athism pledged to remove religion from politics entirely, the manner in which Ba'athist regimes came to power ended up having the opposite effect. Military dictators have to build up power bases with patronage. Men like Saddam Hussein in Iraq (a member of the Sunni minority) and Hafez al-Assad in Syria (a member of the Shia Alawi minority) promoted family members, childhood friends from their own town or village, people from their own tribe and province and, almost inevitably, co-sectarians. It should be no surprise that Saddam's Republican Guard were recruited from (Sunni) tribes near the president's home town, or that the Alawis of the mountains where Hafez al Assad grew up supplied a disproportionate number of his secret policemen.

In both countries, democratic life ended in the late 1950s or early 1960s and the dictators were as brutal as expediency required. No wonder, then, that toxic sectarian politics should have found fertile soil in each of them. In Syria, this occurred when militant Sunni Islamists, who denounced Alawis and Ba'athists as apostates, took on the regime in Hama in 1982 and subsequently infiltrated the abortive revolution after 2011. In Iraq, Shia opposition to Saddam led to the growth of religion-based political parties linked to Iran, while the re-introduction of democratic elections after the 2003 invasion led to the flourishing of sectarian parties. The perfect storm created in both countries incubated ISIS with its extreme anti-Shia rhetoric. In Iraq, some Sunnis who felt excluded from the new order were tempted to fight under its banner, which also attracted a number of talented former army officers. In Syria, where those killed by ISIS are only a fraction of the number killed by government forces, some Sunnis could see ISIS as the lesser of two evils.

Yet sectarianism is a blind alley. The ideals of the Arab Spring in 2011 and similar movements were non-sectarian. The sectarian identity entrepreneurs who have set up groups like Al Qaidah and ISIS may succeed in manipulating enough people in their communities to destabilise the region for years to come, but in the end the ideals which shook the Arab world in 2011 showed that the people of the region wish to travel in a different direction. Those ideals such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the wish for a modern, corruption-free economy (all summarised by the protesters by the one word karamah, ‘dignity’) still bubble away beneath the surface.

John McHugo is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi‘is (Saqi, 2017).


Most of Islamic history was transmitted orally until after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate. [note 1] Historical works of later Muslim writers include the traditional biographies of Muhammad and quotations attributed to him—the sira and hadith literature—which provide further information on Muhammad's life. [1] The earliest surviving written sira (biography of Muhammad) is Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of God's Messenger) by Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 or 767 CE). [2] Although the original work is lost, portions of it survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham (d. 833) and Al-Tabari (d. 923). [3] Many scholars accept these biographies although their accuracy is uncertain. [4] Studies by J. Schacht and Ignác Goldziher have led scholars to distinguish between legal and historical traditions. According to William Montgomery Watt, although legal traditions could have been invented, historical material may have been primarily subject to "tendential shaping" rather than being invented. [5] Modern Western scholars approach the classic Islamic histories with circumspection and are less likely than Sunni Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians.

Hadith compilations are records of the traditions or sayings of Muhammad. The development of hadith is a crucial element of the first three centuries of Islamic history. [6] Early Western scholars mistrusted the later narrations and reports, regarding them as fabrications. [7] Leone Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas and Aisha as mostly fictitious, preferring accounts reported without isnad by early historians such as Ibn Ishaq. [8] Wilferd Madelung has rejected the indiscriminate dismissal of everything not included in "early sources", instead judging later narratives in the context of history and compatibility with events and figures. [9]

The only contemporaneous source is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays (Kitab al-Saqifah) by Sulaym ibn Qays (died 75-95 AH or 694-714 CE). This collection of hadith and historical reports from the first century of the Islamic calendar narrates in detail events relating to the succession. [10] However, there have been doubts regarding the reliability of the collection, with some believing that it was a later creation given that the earliest mention of the text only appears in the 11th century. [11]

Feast of Dhul Asheera Edit

During the revelation of Ash-Shu'ara, the twenty-sixth Surah of the Quran, in c. 617, [12] Muhammad is said to have received instructions to warn his family members against adhering to their pre-Islamic religious practices. There are differing accounts of Muhammad's attempt to do this, with one version stating that he had invited his relatives to a meal (later termed the Feast of Dhul Asheera), during which he gave the pronouncement. [13] According to Ibn Ishaq, it consisted of the following speech:

Allah has commanded me to invite you to His religion by saying: And warn thy nearest kinsfolk. I, therefore, warn you, and call upon you to testify that there is no god but Allah, and that I am His messenger. O ye sons of Abdul Muttalib, no one ever came to you before with anything better than what I have brought to you. By accepting it, your welfare will be assured in this world and in the Hereafter. Who among you will support me in carrying out this momentous duty? Who will share the burden of this work with me? Who will respond to my call? Who will become my vicegerent, my deputy and my wazir? [14]

Among those gathered, only Ali offered his consent. Some sources, such as the Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, do not record Muhammad's reaction to this, though Ibn Ishaq continues that he then declared Ali to be his brother, heir and successor. [15] In another narration, when Muhammad accepted Ali's offer, he "threw up his arms around the generous youth, and pressed him to his bosom" and said, "Behold my brother, my vizir, my vicegerent . let all listen to his words, and obey him." [16]

The direct appointment of Ali as heir in this version is notable by the fact it alleges that his right to succession was established at the very beginning of Muhammad's prophetic activity. The association with the revelation of a Quranic verse also serves the purpose of providing the nomination with authenticity as well as a divine authorisation. [17]

Muhammad not naming a successor Edit

A number of sayings attributed to prominent companions of Muhammad are compiled by Al-Suyuti in his Tarikh Al Khulafa, which are used to present the view that Muhammad had not named a successor. [18] One such example, narrated by Al-Bayhaqi, alleges that Ali, following his victory in the Battle of the Camel, gave the statement "Oh men, verily the Apostle of God (Muhammad) hath committed nothing unto us in regard to this authority, in order that we might of our own judgement approve and appoint Abu Bakr." Another, recorded by Al-Hakim Nishapuri and also accredited to Ali, states that when asked if he wished to name his successor as caliph, Ali responded "the Apostle of God appointed none, shall I therefore do so?" [19] It is also claimed that when Caliph Umar was asked the same question, he replied that if he gave a nomination, he had precedent in Abu Bakr's actions if he named no one, he had precedent by Muhammad's. [18]

Hadith of Position Edit

Prior to embarking on the Expedition to Tabuk in 631, Muhammad designated Ali to remain in Medina and govern in his absence. According to Ibn Hisham, one of the earliest available sources of this hadith, Ali heard suggestions that he had been left behind because Muhammad had found his presence a burden. Ali immediately took his weapons and followed in pursuit of the army, catching up with them in an area called al-Jurf. He relayed to Muhammad the rumours, to which the latter responded "They lie. I left you behind because of what I had left behind, so go back and represent me in my family and yours. Are you not content, Ali, to stand to me as Aaron stood to Moses, except that there will be no prophet after me?" Ali then returned to Medina and took up his position as instructed. [20]

The key part of this hadith (in regards to the Shia interpretation of the succession) is the comparison of Muhammad and Ali with Moses and his brother Aaron. Aside from the fact that the relationship between the latter two is noted for its special closeness, hence emphasising that of the former, [21] it is notable that in Muslim traditions, Aaron was appointed by God as Moses' assistant, thus acting as an associate in his prophetic mission. [22] In the Quran, Aaron was described as being his brother's deputy when Moses ascended Mount Sinai. [23] [24] This position, the Shia scholar Sharif al-Murtaza argues, shows that he would have been Moses' successor and that Muhammad, by drawing the parallel between them, therefore viewed Ali in the same manner. [22] Of similar importance is the divine prerogatives bestowed upon Aaron's descendants in Rabbinical literature, whereby only his progeny is permitted to hold the priesthood. This can be compared to the Shia belief in the Imamate, in which Ali and his descendants are regarded as inheritors of religious authority. [25]

However, there are a number of caveats against this interpretation. The scholar al-Halabi records a version of the hadith which includes the additional detail that Ali had not been Muhammad's first choice in governing Medina, having instead initially chosen an individual named Ja'far. [note 2] It was only on the latter's refusal that Ali was given the position. [26] It is also notable that the familial relationship between Moses and Aaron was not the same as that of Muhammad and Ali, given that one pair were brothers while the other were cousins/in-laws. [27] Additionally, the Quran records that Aaron had failed in his duties during his brother's absence, having not only been unable to properly guide the people, but also joining them in performing idolatry. [28] [29] [27] Finally, Aaron never succeeded his brother, having died during Moses' lifetime after being punished by God for the latter's mistakes. [27]

Event of Ghadir Khumm Edit

The hadith of Ghadir Khumm has many different variations and is transmitted by both Sunni and Shia sources. The narrations generally state that in March 632, Muhammad, while returning from his Farewell Pilgrimage alongside a large number of followers and companions, stopped at the oasis of Ghadir Khumm. There, he took Ali's hand and addressed the gathering. The point of contention between different sects is when Muhammad, whilst giving his speech, gave the proclamation "Anyone who has me as his mawla, has Ali as his mawla." Some versions add the additional sentence "O God, befriend the friend of Ali and be the enemy of his enemy." [30]

Mawla has a number of meanings in Arabic, with interpretations of Muhammad's use here being split along sectarian lines between the Sunni and Shia. Among the former group, the word is translated as "friend" or "one who is loyal/close" and that Muhammad was advocating that Ali was deserving of friendship and respect. Conversely, Shi'ites tend to view the meaning as being "master" or "ruler" [31] and that the statement was a clear designation of Ali being Muhammad's appointed successor. [30]

Shia sources also record further details of the event. They state that those present congratulated Ali and acclaimed him as Amir al-Mu'minin, while Ibn Shahr Ashub reports that Hassan ibn Thabit recited a poem in his honour. [30] However, some doubts have been raised about this view of the incident. Historian M. A. Shaban argues that sources regarding the community at Medina at the time give no indication of the expected reaction had they heard of Ali's appointment. [32] Ibn Kathir meanwhile suggests that Ali was not present at Ghadir Khumm, instead being stationed in Yemen at the time of the sermon. [33]

Supporting Abu Bakr's succession Edit

Among Sunni sources, Abu Bakr's succession is justified by narrations of Muhammad displaying the regard with which he held the former. The most notable of these incidents occurred towards the end of Muhammad's life. Too ill to lead prayers as he usually would, Muhammad had instructed that Abu Bakr instead take his place, ignoring concerns that he was too emotionally delicate for the role. Abu Bakr subsequently took up the position, and when Muhammad entered the prayer hall one morning during Fajr prayers, Abu Bakr attempted to step back to let him to take up his normal place and lead. Muhammad however, allowed him to continue. [34]

Other incidents similarly used by Sunnis were Abu Bakr serving as Muhammad's vizier during his time in Medina, as well as him being appointed the first of his companions to lead the Hajj pilgrimage. However, several other companions had held similar positions of authority and trust, including the leading of prayers. Such honours may therefore not hold much importance in matters of succession. [34] [32]

Incident of the pen and paper Edit

Shortly before his death, Muhammad asked for writing materials so as to issue a statement that would prevent the Muslim nation from "going astray forever". [35] [36] However, those in the room began to quarrel about whether to obey this request, with concerns being raised that Muhammad may be suffering from delirium. When the argument grew heated, Muhammad ordered the group to leave and subsequently chose not to write anything. [37]

Many details regarding the event are disputed, including the nature of Muhammad's planned statement. Though what he had intended to write is unknown, later theologians and writers have offered their own suggestions, with many believing that he had wished to establish his succession. Shia writers, like Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid, suggest that it would have been a direct appointment of Ali as the new leader, while Sunnis, such as Al-Baladhuri, state that it was to designate Abu Bakr. The story has also been linked to the rise of the community politics which followed Muhammad's death, with a possible suggestion that the hadith shows that Muhammad had implicitly given his acceptance and permission to how the Muslim ummah chooses to act in his absence. It may therefore be linked with the emergence of sayings attributed to Muhammad such as "My ummah will never agree on an error", an idea perpetuated by theologians like Ibn Hazm and Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. [37]

Saqifah Edit

In the immediate aftermath of the death of Muhammad in 632, a gathering of the Ansar (natives of Medina) took place in the Saqifah (courtyard) of the Banu Sa'ida clan. [38] The general belief at the time was that the purpose of the meeting was for the Ansar to decide on a new leader of the Muslim community among themselves, with the intentional exclusion of the Muhajirun (migrants from Mecca), though this has since become the subject of debate. [39]

Nevertheless, Abu Bakr and Umar, both prominent companions of Muhammad, upon learning of the meeting became concerned of a potential coup and hastened to the gathering. When they arrived, Abu Bakr addressed the assembled men with a warning that an attempt to elect a leader outside of Muhammad's own tribe, the Quraysh, would likely result in dissension, as only they can command the necessary respect among the community. He then took Umar and another companion, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, by the hand and offered them to the Ansar as potential choices. He was countered with the suggestion that the Quraysh and the Ansar each choose a leader from among themselves, who would then rule jointly. The group grew heated upon hearing this proposal and began to argue amongst themselves. Umar hastily took Abu Bakr's hand and swore his own allegiance to the latter, an example followed by the gathered men. [40]

Abu Bakr was near-universally accepted as head of the Muslim community as a result of Saqifah, though he did face contention as a result of the rushed nature of the event. Several companions, most prominent among them being Ali ibn Abi Talib, initially refused to acknowledge his authority. [38] Ali himself may have been reasonably expected to assume leadership upon Muhammad's death, having been both the latter's cousin and son-in-law. [41] The theologian Ibrahim al-Nakhai stated that Ali also had support among the Ansar for his succession, explained by the genealogical links he shared with them. [note 3] Whether his candidacy for the succession was raised during Saqifah is unknown, though it is not unlikely. [43] Abu Bakr later sent Umar to confront Ali to gain his allegiance, resulting in an altercation which may have involved violence. [44] Six months after Saqifah, the dissenting group made peace with Abu Bakr and Ali offered him his fealty. [45] However, this initial conflict is regarded as the first sign of the coming split between the Muslims. [46] Those who had accepted Abu Bakr's election later became the Sunnis, while the supporters of Ali's hereditary right eventually became the Shia. [47]

Subsequent succession Edit

Abu Bakr adopted the title of Khalifat Rasul Allah, generally translated as "Successor to the Messenger of God". [48] This was shortened to Khalifa, from which the word "Caliph" arose. The use of this title continued with Abu Bakr's own successors, the caliphs Umar, Uthman and Ali, all of whom were non-hereditary. [49] [50] This was a group referred to by Sunnis as the Rashidun (rightly-guided) Caliphs, though only Ali is recognised by the Shia. [41] Abu Bakr's argument that the caliphate should reside with the Quraysh was accepted by nearly all Muslims in later generations. However, after Ali's assassination in 661, this definition also allowed the rise of the Umayyads to the throne, who despite being members of the Quraysh, were generally late converts to Islam during Muhammad's lifetime. [51]

Their ascendancy had been preceded by a civil war among the Sunnis and Shi'ites known as the First Fitna. Hostilities only ceased when Ali's eldest son Hasan (who had been elected upon his father's death) [52] made an agreement to abdicate in favour of the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah I, resulting in a period of relative calm and a hiatus in sectarian disagreements. This ended upon Muawiyah's death after twenty years of rule, when rather than following the previous tradition of electing/selecting a successor from among the pious community, he nominated his own son Yazid. This hereditary process of succession angered Hasan's younger brother Husayn, who publicly denounced the new caliph's legitimacy. Husayn and his family were eventually killed by Yazid's forces in 680 during the Battle of Karbala. This conflict marked the Second Fitna, as a result of which the Sunni-Shia schism became finalised. [50]

The succession subsequently transformed under the Umayyads from an elective/appointed position to being effectively hereditary within the family, [53] leading to the complaint that the caliphate had become no more than a "worldly kingship." [51] The Shi'ite's idea of the succession to Muhammad similarly evolved over time. Initially, some of the early Shia sects did not limit it to descendants of Ali and Muhammad, but to the extended family of Muhammad in general. One such group, alongside Sunnis, [54] supported the rebellion against the Umayyads led by the Abbasids, who were descendants of Muhammad's paternal uncle Abbas. However, when the Abbasids came to power in 750, they began championing Sunni Islam, alienating the Shi'ites. Afterwards, the sect limited the succession to descendants of Ali and Fatimah in the form of Imams. [41]

With the exception of Zaydis, [55] Shi'ites believe in the Imamate, a principle by which rulers are Imams who are divinely chosen, infallible and sinless and must come from the Ahl al-Bayt regardless of majority opinion, shura or election. [56] They claim that before his death, Muhammad had given many indications, in the Event of Ghadir Khumm in particular, that he considered Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his successor. [57] For the Twelvers, Ali and his eleven descendants, the twelve Imams, are believed to have been considered, even before their birth, as the only valid Islamic rulers appointed and decreed by God. [58] [59] Shia Muslims believe that with the exception of Ali and Hasan, all the caliphs following Muhammad's death were illegitimate and that Muslims had no obligation to follow them. [60] They hold that the only guidance that was left behind, as stated in the hadith of the two weighty things, was the Quran and Muhammad's family and offspring. [61] The latter, due to their infallibility, are considered to be able to lead the Muslim community with justice and equity. [62]

Zaydis, a Shia sub-group, believe that the leaders of the Muslim community must be Fatimids: descendants of Fatimah and Ali, through either of their sons, Hasan or Husayn. Unlike the Twelver and Isma'ili Shia, Zaydis do not believe in the infallibility of Imams nor that the Imamate must pass from father to son. [63] They named themselves Zaydis after Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Husayn, who they view as the rightful successor to the Imamate. This is due to him having led a rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate, who he saw as tyrannical and corrupt. The then Twelver Imam, his brother Muhammad al-Baqir, did not engage in political action and the followers of Zayd believed that a true Imam must fight against corrupt rulers. [64]

One faction, the Batriyya, attempted to create a compromise between the Sunni and Shia by admitting the legitimacy of the Sunni caliphs while maintaining that they were inferior to Ali. Their argument was that while Ali was the best suited to succeed Muhammad, the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar must be acknowledged because Ali had recognised them. [63] This belief, termed Imamat al-Mafdul (Imamate of the inferior), is one which has also been attributed to Zayd himself. [65] [note 4]

The general Sunni belief states that Muhammad had not chosen anyone to succeed him, instead reasoning that he had intended for the community to decide on a leader amongst themselves. However, some specific hadiths are used to justify that Muhammad intended Abu Bakr to succeed, but that he had shown this decision through his actions rather than doing so verbally. [18]

The election of a caliph is ideally a democratic choice made by the Muslim community. [66] They are supposed to be members of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad. However, this is not a strict requirement, given that the Ottoman Caliphs had no familial relation to the tribe. [67] They are not viewed as infallible and can be removed from office if their actions are regarded as sinful. [66] Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali are regarded as the most righteous of their generation, with their merit being reflected in their Caliphate. The subsequent caliphates of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, while not ideal, are seen as legitimate because they complied with the requirements of the law, kept the borders safe and the community generally united. [68]

The Ibadi, an Islamic school distinct from the Sunni and Shia, [69] believe that leadership of the Muslim community is not something which should be decided by lineage, tribal affiliations or divine selection, but rather through election by leading Muslims. They see the leaders as not being infallible and that if they fail to maintain a legitimate government in accordance to Islamic law, it is the duty of the population to remove them from power. The Rashidun Caliphs are seen as rulers who were elected in a legitimate fashion and that Abu Bakr and Umar in particular were righteous leaders. However, Uthman is viewed as having committed grave sins during the latter half of his rule and was deserving of death. Ali is also similarly understood to have lost his mandate. [70]

Their first Imam was Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi, who was selected after the group's alienation from Ali. [71] Other individuals seen as Imams include Abu Ubaidah Muslim, Abdallah ibn Yahya al-Kindi and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz. [72]

Ömer Taşpınar

Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, in their excellent book, “Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East,” provide a compilation from politicians, journalists and experts who never tire of repeating this mantra of timeless Sunni-Shiite hatred. For instance, US senator Ted Cruz has suggested that “Sunnis and Shiites have been engaged in a sectarian civil war since 632, it is the height of hubris and ignorance to make American national security contingent on the resolution of a 1,500-year-old religious conflict.” Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the US senate, has observed that what is taking place in the Arab world is “a religious conflict that has been going on for a millennium and a half.” US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, a former senator himself, has also embraced this narrative: “First is a Sunni-Shiite split, which began as a struggle for political power following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. That’s going on around the world. It’s a huge factor in Iraq now, in Syria and in other countries.’’ Even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserts that the “main issue in the Middle East is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad – Shiites or Sunnis.”

To be sure, this schism has deep historical roots. The rift indeed began shortly after the death of Prophet Mohammad and was centered on the question of rightful succession. Yet, linking the past to today begs a simple question: are Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon still fighting the same war going back to the early years of the faith? Is religion at the heart of their conflict? The short answer is no.

Religion only is a small part of a much bigger and complex geostrategic and political picture. The bleeding in Syria or Yemen would not stop if Sunnis and Shiites would suddenly agree on who was the rightful successor of Muhammad. Looking at the sectarianized conflicts of the Middle East through the lens of a 7th century conflict is therefore both simplistic and misleading.


How the Iran-Iraq war will shape the region for decades to come

The Iranian revolution and its legacy of terrorism

Syria and the Six-Day War: A 50-years perspective

This lazy narrative of a primordial and timeless conflict needs to be replaced by serious analysis. And that should be one that looks at what the Sunni-Shiite sectarian contest has become in the 21st century: a modern conflict in failed or failing states fueled by a political, nationalist and geostrategic rivalry.

The sectarianized wars of today’s Middle East have their roots in modern nationalism, not in Islamic theology. These sectarian conflicts have become proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two nationalist actors pursuing their strategic rivalry in places where governance has collapsed. What is happening is not the supposed re-emergence of ancient hatreds, but the mobilization of a new animus. The instrumentalization of religion and the sectarianization of a political conflict is a better way of approaching the problem, rather than projecting religion as the driver and root cause of the predicament.

Sunnis and Shiites managed to coexist during most of their history when a modicum of political order provided security for both communities. In other words, the two communities are not genetically predisposed to fight each other. Conflict is not in their DNA, and war is not their destiny.

The same goes for the nationalist rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The regional conflict between Tehran and Riyadh is neither primordial nor intractable. As late as in the 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia were monarchic allies against the nationalist republicanism of Egypt under Nasser. In short, Sunnis and Shiite are not fighting a religious war. Instead, Iranian and Arab nationalisms are engaged in a regional rivalry – particularly in Syria and Iraq – where governance has collapsed.

It is quite possible that the rise of identity politics in the West has blinded most American and European policymakers, analysts and journalists, who now focus almost exclusively on Islam without paying much attention to political, economic and social drivers of tension and conflict in the Middle East. Their false diagnosis will only fuel false prescriptions.

It is time to stop for the West to stop its obsession with Islam and begin focusing on the political, institutional and geostrategic factors behind sectarianism.

Watch the video: The Middle Easts cold war, explained