Sunni vs. Shia: The religious rivalry behind the Middle East turmoil

Daily Brew
Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric explains the history behind the sectarian discord between the warring Muslim factions in Iraq.

If you pay attention to the debate over western involvement in the Middle East, you’ll eventually hear someone explain the United States and its allies have blundered into an age-old sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam.

And then they move on, as if if that’s all we need to know. The rest, presumably, is inscrutable.

But some knowledge of the roots of the Shia-Sunni divide and how it’s played out through history may be essential to understanding the complex situation today.

For most of us, our knowledge of Islam doesn’t extend much past an awareness that it is divided into different sects, much as Christianity is.

The schism between Sunnis, who make up an estimated 85 per cent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and Shiites, dates almost to the beginning of Islam. It has always had both a theological and a temporal component because Islam extended religious principles to political control.

According to an excellent overview produced last year by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the split began during a power struggle of who would lead Islam after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD. A conflict developed between those who wanted the growing religion headed by qualified leaders and those who believed authority belonged to the direct heirs of Mohammed.

The Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, ruled as caliph for five years before being assassinated. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were excluded from the succession and both were later killed. Their adherents evolved into the Shia, whose name derives from the term shi’atu Ali, Arabic for “partisans of Ali,” according to the CFR article.

Shia devotees would see the death of Hussein in a key battle at Karbala, in what is now Iraq, as a watershed, cementing a sense of grievance and martyrdom.

The Sunni, whose name comes from Ahl al-Sunna, people of the tradition or way, see themselves as the true followers of the practices bequeathed by Mohammed and his companions in faith.

According to the CFR, while the two sects share Islam’s basic tenets — including belief in one God with Mohammed as his messenger, the need for daily prayers, acts of charity and a pilgrimage to Mecca — they split on areas related to Islamic law around how  and by whom it is interpreted.

The Sunni believe authority springs from the Koran and traditions passed down from Mohammed, interpreted by religious scholars based on legal precedents, the CFR review says. Shia practice seems more top-down, believing God’s word comes through spiritual guides — Imams, the descendants of Hussein (not to be confused with imams, who lead prayers at mosques), and ayatollahs, religious leaders who are to be emulated.

Neither arm of Islam is homogeneous, having split into different sub-sects. But the the political struggle for leadership would crystallize the two groups’ distinct sectarian identities.

Shia becomes state religion of Persia

Shia Islam became the state religion of Persia, modern Iran, under the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, but significant Shia communities existed elsewhere in the Middle East.

The advent of the Ottoman Empire imposed a level of co-existence in regions controlled by the largely Sunni Turks, who supplanted the Arab Caliphate, but rivalry persisted between the Ottomans, and their successor nation states, and Shia Persia for centuries.

But the gradual decay of the Ottoman empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries would help stir the embers of the conflict between Shia and Sunni.

Under the empire, Shia and Sunni often lived side by side, even intermarrying. A series of attempted reforms in the 19th century, influenced by nationalism in Western Europe and to counter pressure from powers like Britain and France, was intended to create a greater sense of national identity and equality among the diverse groups over which the Ottomans ruled.

But the changes did little to stem the erosion of the empire, starting with the successful war for Greek independence and the rise of ethno-religious nationalism in the Ottoman-controlled Balkans. Some, such as allocating official positions and seats in a new parliament based on religion, probably made things worse.

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The reforms were marked by sectarian unrest and violence — Muslim against non-Muslim and Sunni against Shia. Rather than foster a sense of national citizenship, the situation made communal identity, whether religious or ethnic, even more important, according to historian Ussama Makdisi, a professor of Arab studies at Rice University in Houston, Tx.

In a lecture last summer on the links between modern and historical sectarianism, Makdisi said the clashes were a reaction to uncertainty caused by changes to the long-established order, however flawed. They had nothing to do with fundamental religious differences but were the result of people seeking security within their own communities, he said.

The turmoil was worst in Ottoman-ruled regions of Europe, where the friction originated between Muslim and Christian communities. The Middle East was largely spared and co-existence persisted until the First World War put an end to the empire. The Allied powers, principally Britain and France, redrew the map of the region, carving out modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and other states from the remnants.

The new countries’ borders were drawn along sectarian lines in the name of religious freedom, Makdisi said, but many still contained substantial religious minorities. Britain and France maintained control in the region as the new national governments struggled to take root with limited success against ethnic and religious pressures.

Strongmen such as Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria (father and son) were able to suppress sectarian tendencies under their nominally secular Baathist Party regimes in the later half of the 20th century. But religious identity still lurked underneath: The Shia majority in Iraq chafed under the Sunni-dominated Baathist government, while the Assads and their allies belonged to the Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot.

In Lebanon, there’s been a three-way struggle among Shia (led by Iran-backed Hezbollah), Sunni and Maronite Christian factions.

The toppling of Saddam’s regime by the 2003 U.S. invasion led to the installation of a Shia-dominated government that marginalized the once powerful Sunnis, leading to a bloody rebellion and political inertia that’s rendered the Iraqi state largely ineffectual.

In Syria, what started as an Arab Spring-inspired push for democracy has in three years degenerated into a vicious civil war now being fought largely on sectarian lines.

Roots of modern Islamic sectarianism lie in 19th century

Modern sectarianism violence is the legacy of developments in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Makdisi said.

"The secularism in the Middle East is a tragedy," he told his lecture audience. "It’s not a medieval artifact, though."

The historic enmity between Persia and the Ottomans has translated into a modern struggle between Sunni-controlled states and modern Iran’s Islamic Republic, the main Shia bulwark, said Prof. Walid Saleh of the University of Toronto’s for the study of religion.

“What you see now is like a fault line that was historically there between the two empires,” Saleh, also part of the university’s department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, told Yahoo Canada News. “Now it’s shifting.”

Iran has helped prop up the Assad regime in Syria, support the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government and bankrolled sectarian-based movements such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Hamas, which rules Palestine’s Gaza Strip, used to be bankrolled by Iran but funding is said to have dried up when it refused to support Assad in Syria. Money apparently now comes from sources within Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Yemen, now sliding into a new phase of instability, is the latest venue for the proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers, said Saleh.

But doctrinal differences over religious practice seem to have little to do with the current struggles.

“How far the differences between Sunnism and Shiism can in itself be reason for political strife is really not clear,” said Saleh.

Discrimination and oppression may indeed take place, he said, but it may cloak the larger power struggle. 

It’s local grievances that get pulled into major geopolitical situations,” e said.

Syrian war highlights political-religious connection

The Syrian civil war is a strong example of how religion and politics intersect.

“The only people who were willing to sustain the conflict were the religiously motivated people,” said Saleh. “You end up with a conflict that started as a civil society movement, very quickly degenerating into a sectarian fight now.”

Whether sectarianism is the cause or the consequence of this kind of conflict is a matter for debate, he suggested. 

Makdisi, in his lecture last summer, also played down the religious component of regional powers’ meddling.

In an 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Makdisi said the Saudis and their Gulf State friends were willing to find a sectarian pretext to intervene in Syria, for example, but their involvement has more to do with maintaining stability for their oil production, he argued.

"Thus the sectarian dimension cannot and must not be isolated from the far more obvious and salient secular geopolitical one," he wrote.

"It is politics that pushes sectarianism, that provides it with the enabling context, and that now encourages and legitimates the devastating violence across sectarian lines that is ravaging Syria and Iraq and Lebanon."

Western intervention muddies the waters still further.

“The nature of the interference in a country manages to either upset the balance that is already there or reverse the balance,” Saleh said. “In Iraq, it [the U.S.-led invasion] reversed the balance. The Sunnis were in control, then you wake up the next day and the Shiites are in control.”

Sectarianism, once unleashed, cannot be easily restrained. The U.S. discovered that in Afghanistan, where their support of anti-Soviet jihadists in the 1980s sowed the seeds for the rise of the Taliban, Makdisi noted. The mushrooming growth of the fundamentalist Sunni Islamic State last year perhaps provided a similar lesson to Sunni-led governments in the region.

"Sectarian elements on the ground do not necessarily respect hierarchy," Makdisi wrote. "They are unpredictable."

The chaos that causes us to wring our hands does have threads reaching back almost 1,400 years. But the solutions won’t necessarily be found there.

"It’s about power politics," Makdisi told his Houston audience, "but above all else the failure of imagination in the modern world."