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The Difference Between Sunnis and Shiites

A Primer

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Basics

The majority of the world’s billion-odd Muslims are Sunnis. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of all Muslims follow the Shiite branch (pronounced Shi‘ite, Shi‘a or Shia). Beyond that, it gets slightly complicated: Who lives where, and why the differences and conflicts between them? The answer is less daunting than it seems.

Sunnis form the overwhelming majority in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Shiites form the majority only in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, but they constitute sizable minorities in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.

At heart, Sunnis and Shiites are like Catholics and Protestants in the commonality of some fundamental beliefs. But their differences, especially in nations where the Sunni-Shiite split is exacerbated by each other's proximity (as in Iraq and Lebanon), run so deep that intolerance and violence shadow the two groups, making coexistence difficult.

Islam's Origins

In 610 A.D., Muhammad ibn Abdallah was a successful 40-year-old Arab businessman and tradesman. Every year he retired to a cave near Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia, to pray and fast. Beginning that year on his cave retreats, he had overpowering revelation of the word of God, what would later come to be known as the Quran (which means recitation). By 610, Muhammad was preaching the Quran and directing his earliest followers to build a community, or ummah, where the practical and the compassionate (rather than the theological) was to predominate.

The year 622 marks the founding of Islam as a religion: It was the year of the hijrah, or migration, by Muhammad and his followers. They founded the first truly Islamic ummah in Medina.

By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, Islam had conquered the Arabian peninsula roughly up to what today would be Saudi Arabia's borders with Jordan and Iraq. Within a century, Islam would spread to western India, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Its furthest advance was to the heart of present-day France, where the armies of Charles Martel stopped the conquerors in 732 in the Battles of Tours and Poitiers.

The Prophet Muhammad's Succession

At Muhammad's death in 632, Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet, became his successor, or caliph. Most Muslims agreed that the most able and pious of the Prophet's followers should be his caliphs. Their followers would come to be known as the orthodox branch of Islam, or Sunnis.

A few Muslims disagreed, arguing for a line of succession based on bloodlines. To those dissenters, the succession should have immediately gone to Ali, the fourth caliph -- who took the helm after some of his followers assassinated Caliph Uthman, his predecessor. Followers of Ali would eventually form Shiite Islam.

What Sunnis and Shiites Believe

The Quran, the Prophet's hadith, or sayings, and the sunna, or customs, are central to the belief system of both Sunnis and Shiites. So are the five pillars of Islam: The recitation of the creed ("There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet"); the salat, or the recitation of prayers five times a day; zakat, or the obligatory giving of alms to the poor according to one's means; fasting from sunup to sunset during the month of Ramadan; and the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca at least once in a Muslim's lifetime, means permitting.

Sunnis and Shiites also believe in Islamic law. But its application varies.

Where Sunnis and Shiites Differ

Sunnis accept that the first four Caliphs, including Ali, were the rightful followers of Muhammad. However--rather like Protestantism in Christianity--they don't grant the kind of divinely inspired status to their clerics that Shiites do with their imams. Shiites believe imams are descendants of the Prophet.

Islam has no codified laws per se. It has various schools of law. While Sunni doctrine is more rigidly aligned in accordance with those various schools, its hierarchical structure is looser and often falls under state, rather than clerical, control. The opposite is true in Shiitism: The doctrine is somewhat more open to interpretation but the clerical hierarchy is more defined and, as in Iran, the ultimate authority is the imam, not the state.

Both Sunnis and Shiites break down into various sects that range from puritanical (as with Sunni Wahhabism, prevalent in Saudi Arabia) to somewhat mysterious (as with the Druze of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, who form an offshoot of Shiitism).

Why Can't They Get Along?

That's a loaded, condescending question best answered by raising a mirror to the more familiar: Why couldn't Catholics and Protestants get along for hundreds of years (and in straggling cases still aren't getting along?). The answer must take account of doctrinal and historical differences, however irrational those differences might seem to the objective, uninvolved eye.

The answer must also take account of the inexplicable: Religious differences are, ultimately, as impossible to settle as metaphysical questions. Peaceful societies depend on what mechanisms or institutions they have developed for channeling those differences into non-violent conflict. The Muslim scholar Reza Aslan, in "No God But God," argues that those very mechanisms are lacking in some Islamic societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Sunni-Shiite divide is pronounced. But the battle going on within Islam today is defined, in part, by the struggle for those institutions.

The Sunni-Shiite Divide

Country Sunnis Shiites & Offshoots
Afghanistan 84% 15%
Bahrain 30% 70%
Egypt 90% 1%
Iran 10% 89%
Iraq 32-37% 60-65%
Kuwait 60% 25%
Lebanon 23% 38%
Pakistan 77% 20%
Saudi Arabia 90% 10%
Syria 74% 16% (Alawites)
Turkey 83-93% 7-17%
United Arab Emirates 81% 15%
Yemen 70% 30%
Source: Congressional Research Service
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