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The Sunni-Shia Divide

The Sunni-Shia Divide

A CFR InfoGuide Presentation

Sectarian conflict is becoming entrenched in a growing number of Muslim countries and is threatening to fracture Iraq and
Syria. Tensions between Sunnis and Shias, exploited by regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, could reshape the future
Middle East.

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and
Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that
threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq,
and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have
also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the

Islams schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesnt explain all the political,
economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism
through which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the
leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to
further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance
between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon,
Bahrain, and Yemen.
Alongside the proxy battle is the renewed fervor of armed militants, motivated by the goals
of cleansing the faith or preparing the way for the return of the messiah. Today there are
tens of thousands of organized sectarian militants throughout the region capable of
triggering a broader conflict. And despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics to
reduce tensions through dialogue and counterviolence measures, many experts express
concern that Islams divide will lead to escalating violence and a growing threat to
international peace and security.

Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. In many countries it
has become common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same
mosques. They share faith in the Quran and the Prophet Mohammeds sayings and
perform similar prayers, although they differ in rituals and interpretation of Islamic law.

Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammeds
grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni
majority. Islams dominant sect, which roughly 85 percent of the worlds 1.6 billion
Muslims follow, viewed Shia Islam with suspicion, and extremist Sunnis have portrayed
Shias as heretics and apostates.

A regional war in the Middle East draws

ever closer.


Origins of the Schism

Mohammed unveiled a new faith to the people of Mecca in 610. Known as Islam, or
submission to God, the monotheistic religion incorporated some Jewish and Christian
traditions and expanded with a set of laws that governed most aspects of life, including
political authority. By the time of his death in 632, Mohammed had consolidated power in
Arabia. His followers subsequently built an empire that would stretch from Central Asia to
Spain less than a century after his death. But a debate over succession split the community,
with some arguing that leadership should be awarded to qualified individuals and others
insisting that the only legitimate ruler must come through Mohammeds bloodline.

A group of prominent early followers of Islam elected Abu Bakr, a companion of

Mohammed, to be the first caliph, or leader of the Islamic community, over the objections
of those who favored Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammeds cousin and son-in-law. The opposing
camps in the succession debate eventually evolved into Islams two main sects. Shias, a
term that stems from shiatu Ali, Arabic for partisans of Ali, believe that Ali and his
descendants are part of a divine order. Sunnis, meaning followers of the sunna, or way in
Arabic, of Mohammed, are opposed to political succession based on Mohammeds

Ali became caliph in 656 and ruled only five years before he was assassinated. The
caliphate, which was based in the Arabian Peninsula, passed to the Umayyad dynasty in
Damascus and later the Abbasids in Baghdad. Shias rejected the authority of these rulers.
In 680, soldiers of the second Umayyad caliph killed Alis son, Husayn, and many of his
companions in Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq. Karbala became a defining moral
story for Shias, and Sunni caliphs worried that the Shia Imamsthe descendants of
Husayn who were seen as the legitimate leaders of Muslims (Sunnis use the term imam
for the men who lead prayers in mosques)would use this massacre to capture public
imagination and topple monarchs. This fear resulted in the further persecution and
marginalization of Shias.

Even as Sunnis triumphed politically in the Muslim world, Shias continued to look to the
Imamsthe blood descendants of Ali and Husaynas their legitimate political and
religious leaders. Even within the Shia community, however, there arose differences over
the proper line of succession. Mainstream Shias believe there were twelve Imams. Zaydi
Shias, found mostly in Yemen, broke off from the majority Shia community at the fifth
Imam, and sustained imamate rule in parts of Yemen up to the 1960s. Ismaili Shias,
centered in South Asia but with important diaspora communities throughout the world,
broke off at the seventh Imam. Most Ismailis revere the Aga Khan as the living
representative of their Imam. The majority of Shias, particularly those in Iran and the
eastern Arab world, believe that the twelfth Imam entered a state of occultation, or
hiddenness, in 939 and that he will return at the end of time. Since then, Twelvers, or
Ithna Ashari Shias, have vested religious authority in their senior clerical leaders, called
ayatollahs (Arabic for sign of God).

Many Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian converts to Islam chose to become Shia rather
than Sunni in the early centuries of the religion as a protest against the ethnic Arab
empires that treated non-Arabs as second-class citizens. Their religions influenced the
evolution of Shia Islam as distinct from Sunni Islam in rituals and beliefs.

Sunnis dominated the first nine centuries of Islamic rule (excluding the Shia Fatimid
dynasty) until the Safavid dynasty was established in Persia in 1501. The Safavids made
Shia Islam the state religion, and over the following two centuries they fought with the
Ottomans, the seat of the Sunni caliphate. As these empires faded, their battles roughly
settled the political borders of modern Iran and Turkey by the seventeenth century, and
their legacies resulted in the current demographic distribution of Islams sects. Shias
comprise a majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, and a plurality in Lebanon,
while Sunnis make up the majority of more than forty countries from Morocco to

Modern Tensions
Irans Islamic Revolution in 1979 gave Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the
opportunity to implement his vision for an Islamic government ruled by the guardianship
of the jurist (velayat-e faqih), a controversial concept among Shia scholars that
is opposed by Sunnis, who have historically differentiated between political leadership and
religious scholarship. Shia ayatollahs have always been the guardians of the faith.
Khomeini argued that clerics had to rule to properly perform their function: implementing
Islam as God intended, through the mandate of the Shia Imams.

Under Khomeini, Iran began an experiment in Islamic rule. Khomeini tried to inspire
further Islamic revival, preaching Muslim unity, but supported groups in Lebanon, Iraq,
Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Pakistan that had specific Shia agendas. Sunni Islamists, such as
the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, admired Khomeinis success, but did not accept his
leadership, underscoring the depth of sectarian suspicions.

Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shia minority of roughly 10 percent, and millions of adherents of
a puritanical brand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism (an offshoot of the Sunni Hanbali
school) that is antagonistic to Shia Islam. The transformation of Iran into an overtly Shia
power after the Islamic revolution induced Saudi Arabia to accelerate the propagation of
Wahhabism, as both countries revived a centuries-old sectarian rivalry over the true
interpretation of Islam. Many of the groups responsible for sectarian violence that has
occurred in the region and across the Muslim world since 1979 can be traced to Saudi and
Iranian sources.

Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in the 19801988 war with Iran and sponsored militants in
Pakistan and Afghanistan who were primarily fighting against the Soviet Union, which had
invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but were also suppressing Shia movements inspired or
backed by Iran.
The transformation of Iran into an agitator for Shia movements in Muslim countries
seemed to confirm centuries of Sunni suspicions that Shia Arabs answer to Persia. Many
experts, however, point out that Shias arent monolithicfor many of them, identities and
interests are based on more than their confession. Iraqi Shias, for example, made up the
bulk of the Iraqi army that fought Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and Shia militant groups
Amal and Hezbollah clashed at times during the Lebanese civil war. The Houthis, a Zaydi
Shia militant group in Yemen, battled the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaydi,
several times between 2004 and 2010. Then, in 2014, the Houthis captured the capital
Sana'a with ousted president Saleh's support.

For their part, both mainstream and hard-line Sunnis arent singularly focused on
oppressing Shias. They have fought against coreligionists throughout history, most recently
in the successive crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Iraqs 1990 invasion of
Kuwait, and Saudi Arabias battles against al-Qaeda (
organizations-and-networks/al-qaeda-k-al-qaida-al-qaida/p9126) and related Sunni
militant groups. Sharing a common Sunni identity didnt eliminate power struggles among
Sunni Muslims under secular or religious governments.

But confessional identity has resurfaced wherever sectarian violence has taken root, as in
Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion removed Saddam Hussein, a dictator from the Sunni
minority who ruled over a Shia-majority country. The bombing of a Shia shrine in Samara
in 2006 kicked off a cycle of sectarian violence that forced Iraqis to pick sides, stirring
tensions that continue today.
In the Arab world, Shia groups supported by Iran have recently won important political
victories. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has ruled since 1970,
relies on Alawis, a heterodox Shia sect that makes up about 13 percent of Syrias
population, as a pillar of its power. Alawis dominate the upper reaches of the country's
military and security services and are the backbone of the forces fighting to support the
Assad regime in Syrias civil war. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq unseated Saddam
Hussein and instituted competitive elections, the Shia majority has dominated the
parliament and produced its prime ministers. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and
political movement, is the strongest party in Lebanon. The Houthis, Shia militants in
Yemen tenuously linked to Iran, have toppled the country's internationally recognized
government. Iran, a majority Shia country, has seen its regional influence swell as its allies
in these countries have accumulated power.

Sunni governments, especially Saudi Arabia, have increasingly worried about their own
grips on power, a concern that was exacerbated during the protest movement that began in
Tunisia in late 2010. The Arab Awakening, as the uprisings are known, spread to Bahrain
and Syria, countries at the fault lines of Islams sectarian divide. In each, political power is
held by a sectarian minorityAlawis in Syria and a Sunni ruling family in Bahrainwhere
Shias are the majority. In Yemen, Houthi rebels have expanded their territorial control,
which Saudi Arabia perceives as a potential beachhead for Iran on the Arabian peninsula,
along vital shipping routes in the Red Sea and in territory abutting Saudi Arabia's own
marginalized Shia minority.
Practicing the Faith
Sunnis and Shias agree on the basic tenets of Islam: declaring faith in a monotheistic God
and Mohammed as his messenger, conducting daily prayers, giving money to the poor,
fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to
There are divisions even over the precepts of Islam, but the main difference relates to
authority, which sparked the political split in the seventh century and evolved into
divergent interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law, and distinct sectarian identities.

Shias believe that God always provides a guide, first the Imams and then ayatollahs, or
experienced Shia scholars who have wide interpretative authority and are sought as a
source of emulation. The term ayatollah is associated with the clerical rulers in Tehran,
but its primarily a title for a distinguished religious leader known as a marja, or source of
emulation. Irans supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was appointed by an elected body of
Iranian clerics, while maraji (plural of marja) are elevated through the religious schools in
Qom, Najaf, and Karbala. Shias can choose from dozens of maraji, most of whom are based
in holy cities in Iraq and Iran. Many Shias emulate a marja for religious affairs and defer to
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iran for political guidance. For Sunnis, authority is based
on the Quran and the traditions of Mohammed. Sunni religious scholars, who are
constrained by legal precedents, exert far less authority over their followers than their Shia

Both sects have subdivisions. The divisions among Shias were discussed above. Four
schools comprise Sunni jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali, the latter
spawning the Wahhabi and Salafi movements in Saudi Arabia. Sunnism, a broad umbrella
term for non-Shia Islam, is united on the importance of the Quran and practice of
Mohammed but allows for differences in legal opinion.
Dear Karbala, dear Najaf, dear Kadhimiyah,
and dear Samarra, we warn the great powers
and their lackeys and the terrorists, the great
Iranian people will do everything to
protect them.


Sectarian Militants
Violence between Islams sects has been rare historically, with most of the deadly sectarian
attacks directed by clerics or political leaders rather than erupting spontaneously.
Extremist groups, many of which are fostered by states, are the chief actors in sectarian
killings today.

Two of the most prominent terrorist groups, Sunni al-Qaeda and Shia Hezbollah, have not
defined their movements in sectarian terms, and have favored using anti-imperialist, anti-
Zionist, and anti-American frameworks to define their jihad, or struggle. They share few
similarities beyond the use of violence. Hezbollah has developed a political wing that
competes in elections and is part of the Lebanese government, a path not chosen by al-
Qaeda, which operates a diffuse network largely in the shadows. Both groups have
deployed suicide bombers, and their attacks shifted from a focus on the West and Israel to
other Muslims, such as al-Qaedas killing of Shia civilians in Iraq and Hezbollahs
participation in the Syrian civil war.
Conflict and chaos have played a role in the reversion to basic sectarian identity. In Iraq,
for instance, remnants of Hussein's Baathist regime, as well as militants whose
organization would eventually become the self-proclaimed Islamic State, employed Sunni
rhetoric to mount a resistance to the rise of Shia power. Sunni fundamentalists, many
inspired by al-Qaedas call to fight Americans, flocked to Iraq from Muslim-majority
countries, attacking coalition forces and many Shia civilians. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who
founded al-Qaedas franchise in Iraq, evoked ancient anti-Shia fatwas, or religious rulings,
to spark a civil war in hopes that the Shia majority would eventually capitulate in the face
of Sunni extremist violence. Iraq's foremost Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, has been a voice for sectarian restraint in Iraq, and the country's Shia
community absorbed thousands of deaths before fighting back with their own militias. But,
during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and, more recently, offensives against the Islamic State,
Shia paramilitaries have been accused of possible war crimes.

Syrias civil war, in which a quarter million people have been killed and eleven million
more than half the country's prewar populationdisplaced, has amplified sectarian
tensions to unprecedented levels. The war began with peaceful protests in 2011 calling for
an end to the Assad regime. Decades of the Assad family's repression of Syria's majority
Sunni population and elevation of minority Alawis in government and the private sector
has sown sectarian strife. The 2011 protests and brutal government crackdown uncovered
sectarian tensions, which have rippled across the region.

Tens of thousands of Syrian Sunnis joined rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic
Front, and al-Qaedas Nusra Front, which all employ anti-Shia rhetoric; similar numbers of
Syrian Shias and Alawis enlisted with an Iran-backed militia known as the National
Defense Force to fight for the Assad regime. Sunni fighters from Arab and Western
countries initially joined the Syrian rebels before turning their guns on them in an effort to
establish their envisaged caliphate. Meanwhile Hezbollah and some Shia militias from
Iraq, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah, backed the Syrian government.
Syrias civil war has attracted more militants from more countries than were involved in
the conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia combined.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been decimated by Sunni Iraqis who joined the fight against
extremists, the U.S.-led military surge, and the death of Zarqawi, its leader, in a 2006 U.S.
airstrike, but found new purpose exploiting the vacuum left by the receding Syrian state. It
established its own transnational movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The group expanded its grip on Sunni provinces in Iraq and eastern regions in Syria,
seizing Iraqs second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014. It defied orders from al-Qaedas top
commanders to curtail its transnational ambitions and wanton violence against civilians,
which led to the militant groups expulsion from al-Qaeda in February 2014. ISIS
rebranded as the Islamic State in July 2014 and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
as caliph. The group's highly publicized killing of Western hostages triggered a campaign of
air strikes by the United States and its regional allies Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the
United Arab Emirates.

Extremist groups have come to rely on satellite television and high-speed Internet over the
past two decades to spread propaganda and attract recruits. Fundamentalist Sunni clerics,
many sponsored by wealthy Sunnis from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have
popularized anti-Shia slurs. Shia religious scholars have also taken to the airwaves,
mocking and cursing the first three caliphs and Aisha, one of Mohammeds wives.

Sectarian rhetoric dehumanizing the other is centuries old. But the volume is increasing.
Dismissing Arab Shias as Safawis, a term that paints them as Iranian agents (from the
Safavid empire) and hence traitors to the Arab cause, is increasingly common in Sunni
rhetoric. Hard-line Sunni Islamists have used harsher historic terms, such as rafidha,
rejecters of the faith, and majus, Zoroastrian or crypto Persian, to describe Shias as
heretical. Iranian officials, Iraqi politicians, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah,
routinely describe their Sunni opponents as takfiris (referring to the doctrine embraced by
al-Qaeda of declaring fellow Muslims apostate) and Wahhabis (referring to the puritanical
Saudi sect). This cycle of demonization has been amplified throughout the Muslim world.

For Sunni extremists, social media has revolutionized recruitment opportunities.

Fundamentalists no longer have to infiltrate mainstream mosques to attract recruits
surreptitiously, but can now disseminate their call to jihad and wait for potential recruits to
contact them. Shia groups can count on state support from the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian
governments to recruit militants for sectarian jihad.
Terrorist violence in 2013 was fueled by
sectarian motivations, marking a worrisome
trend, in particular in Syria, Lebanon,
and Pakistan.


Flash Points
Sunni-Shia tensions contribute to multiple flash points in Muslim countries that are
viewed as growing threats to international peace and security. The following arouse the
most concern among regional specialists:

Rising Militancy
Sectarian violence intensified in 2013 and has grown since. Extremists
were fueled by sectarian motivations
( in Syria, Lebanon,
and Pakistan, according to the U.S. State Department. After years of
steady losses for al-Qaedalinked groups, Sunni extremist recruitment is
rising, aided by private funding networks in the Gulf, particularly in
Kuwait (
463587891b57_story.html), with much of the violence directed at other
Muslims rather than Western targets. Shia militant groups are also
gaining strength, in part to confront the threat of Sunni extremism. In
2015, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, among other attacks,
bombing Shia worshippers in Kuwait; attacking Sunni and Shia mosques
in Saudi Arabia; downing a Russian passenger plane in Egypt, killing over
two hundred people; and a pair of suicide bombings in a Shia-majority
district of south Beirut that killed more than forty people.

U.S. authorities have warned that the war in Syria, which has attracted
thousands of fighters from Europe and the United States, poses a long-
term threat to Western security. Islamic State attacks and foiled plots in
Europe have put the continent on edge, and the backlash against Muslims
and immigrants threatens to end the EU's open-border policy

Saudi-Iranian Rivalry
Saudi Arabia and Iran have deployed considerable resources to proxy
battles, especially in Syria, where the stakes are highest. Riyadh closely
monitors potential restlessness in its oil-rich eastern provinces, home to
its Shia minority, and deployed its forces, along with other Gulf countries,
to suppress a largely Shia uprising in Bahrain. It also assembled a
coalition of ten Sunni-majority countries, backed by the United States, to
fight Houthi rebels in Yemen. The war, fought mostly from the air, has
exacted a high civilian toll. Saudi Arabia provides hundreds of millions of
dollars in financial support to the predominantly Sunni rebels in Syria,
while simultaneously banning cash flows to al-Qaeda and extremist jihadi
groups fighting the Assad regime.

Iran has allocated billions of dollars in aid and loans

idUSBREA1K09U20140221) to prop up Syrias Alawi-led government and
has trained and equipped Shia militants from Afghanistan, Lebanon, and
Iraq to fight in Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have repeatedly
postponed efforts to establish a dialogue for settling disputes
diplomatically, discussed the conflict in Syria in October 2015 at U.S.
urging. This was a notable development though cast into doubt by a
rupture in diplomatic relations in early 2016. Both countries have
confronted the Islamic State, with Iran fighting it in parts of Iraq, while
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority countries back a U.S.-led air
campaign against the extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

Humanitarian Crisis
The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions internally, and more
than four million civilians, mostly Sunni, are now refugees in Iraq,
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The influx of more than one million mostly
Sunni Syrians into Lebanon, a state that experienced its own fifteen-year
civil war (197590), has burdened its cash-strapped government and put
pressure on communities hosting refugees. Jordan and Iraq are
struggling to provide housing and services to an impoverished and
traumatized population. Turkey has provided considerable humanitarian
aid, yet Ankara must increasingly balance the publics sympathy for and
unease toward refugees (
quagmire.aspx), the International Crisis Group reports. The spillover of
migrants and refugees into Europe spiked in 2015
(, and
countries with generous resettlement policies are bracing for a larger
influx as the wars in the Middle East continue.

Fractured States
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten to redraw the map of the Middle
East. The Assad regime has consolidated control over Syria's
Mediterranean coast, the capital of Damascus, and the central city of
Homs, which together comprise a rump state contiguous with Hezbollah's
strongholds in Lebanon, threatening the territorial integrity of Lebanon.
Other parts of the country are contested or controlled by various rebel
and Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, which seeks to dominate
the eastern regions of Syria that link to its territory in Iraq. And Kurdish
groups in northern Syria, which, like their Iraqi cousins, have long
campaigned for basic rights denied under the Ba'athist government, are
on the verge of gaining de facto independence

The United States spent more than $1 trillion in Iraq, but the country
remains in a precarious state. Sectarian tensions are mounting in Iraq as
the newly ascendant Shia majority struggles to accommodate the Sunni
and Kurdish minorities while confronting extremist Sunni groups.
Yemen, too, which was unified in 1990, is at risk of splintering again.
Most politicians and activists in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen reject
calls to redraw the map of the region, but the shifting borders and
emergence of new areas of influence based on sectarian and ethnic
identities are a growing challenge.

Sunnis had no other option but to defend

themselves and use arms. We reached a point
of to be or not to be.



Geneive Abdo ( - Fellow, Middle East Program, Stimson Center

Deborah Amos ( Middle East Correspondent, National Public Radio

Reza Aslan ( - Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside

F. Gregory Gause III ( - Senior Fellow, Brookings Doha Center

Bruce Hoffman
RESERVED. Center for Security Studies,
Georgetown University

Ed Husain - Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR

Vali R. Nasr ( - Dean, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns

Hopkins University