Shi’as and Sunnis – Why the difference matters

On Saturday Iraqi Shi’a militias paraded through the streets of Baghdad in a powerful show of strength. Thousands of uniformed militiamen marched alongside trucks carrying impressive weaponry, showing their determination to stop ISIS and protect their holy cities. For the Iraqi government it comes as both a blessing and curse. While the militas will help Iraq’s demoralised army confront ISIS, it will disturb them that the militias are at least as strong as the regular army. The parade of Shi’a fighters also reinforces the sectarian differences tearing Iraq apart. But what are these differences between Sunni and Shia? Why is there such strife between them? And is this really just a religious conflict?

Shia Islam is red, Sunni Islam is green. Oman has its own branch of Islam (Ibadi)

Shi’a Islam is red, Sunni Islam is green. Oman has its own branch of Islam (Ibadi)

As most people will know, the Sunni and Shi’a are the two main branches of Islam, and split after the death of Muhammad. One group believed that the new leader of the Islamic world (Caliph) should be chosen from among the followers of Mohammad. The other believed that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, who had been raised by the side of the Prophet, was the best successor. While Ali eventually came to lead Islam, the tensions over succession ended in bloodshed at the Battle of Karbala. Ali’s son (Husayn) was killed, and the battle cemented the divide between Sunni – who followed the caliphs – and Shi’a – who followed the bloodline successors of Muhammad, known as Imams.

Over the centuries since the differences have become deeper. While both Sunnis and Shi’as believe in one God and his prophet Muhammad, the Shi’a also give a special role to the bloodline of Muhammad. Most Shi’a believe that there were 12 Imams, and that only they were the true leaders of Islam. While they are not at all seen as other gods, Shi’as remember them in their prayers. Their burial sites are among the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam, and lie in the cities of Baghdad, Samarra, Najaf and Karbala. Extremist Sunnis see this honour paid the Imams as polytheism, which would make the Shi’a infidels.

This brings us to the present day. ISIS is Salafist, which is one of the most strict and puritanical branches of Sunni Islam. They have indicated a desire to destroy the burial places of the Imams, which is an incredible insult to Shi’a. While not all Shi’a in Iraq are satisfied with the al-Maliki’s government, they will defend the shrines no matter what. The threat has also got Iran, the largest Shi’a nation, involved.

However, ISIS are no fools. They knew the reaction that would follow their threat on the shrines, and are playing a careful political game. Their ultimate goal is not to destroy Shi’a Iraq, but the nation-state of Iraq. By threatening the shrines they bring out the Shi’a militias, which weakens the Iraqi government’s control of the situation. By shattering the government’s control, ISIS hopes to make the conflict one between Sunni and Shi’a, making it far easier for them to keep control of the Sunni areas of Iraq. This is exactly the same tactic followed by al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation. By deliberately attacking Shi’a shrines, they caused immense violence and instability. This was only stopped by the creation of Sunni militas loyal to the government. After the violence dropped however, al-Maliki managed to alienate these groups and drive them back towards groups like ISIS.

Finally, I talked in my previous post about the wider conflict in the Middle East between Shi’a Iran and the Sunni Gulf states. While this religious divide is obviously crucial, it is important to remember that the Middle East is not some strange place where religion is everything. It is just as political as anywhere else. Even under the secular Shah, Iran fought the Gulf states for control of the Persian Gulf, and the Sunni states all have their own interests and priorities. However, as ISIS continue their advance on Baghdad, knowing what the Sunni-Shi’a divide is about is still essential to understanding these complex events.

Thanks to Tariq Zaidi for the information on Shi’a Islam and the history of its differences with Sunni Islam.


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