Sunni-Shia Conflict: History And Contemporary Challenges (Part II) – Analysis


Theological differences

Theological differences between Sunnism and Shiism exist, but in practice they are not as great as one might conclude, if the fundamental problem of the line of succession to the Prophet is invented.

Both denominations accept the five pillars of Islam – the practical duties of every Muslim: 1) Shahadat (witness of belonging to Islam), 2) Namaz (worship), 3) Ramadan fasting, 4) Zakat (cleansing – setting aside part of one’s wealth for charitable purposes) and 5) Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime). Also, both factions accept the Koran and the Sunnah. Both Sunnis and Shiites recognize one God (Tawhid), the existence of angels, God’s prophets, preparation and belief in the Last Day. (To read Part I, click here)

The fundamental difference that distinguishes the Shias from the Sunnis is the belief in the infallible leadership of the Imam and the emphasis on social justice.

The attitude towards imams is very different. Sunnis do not believe in the concept of an Imam in the same way as Shias. Imams are the leaders of the community in Shia Islam, they are considered the sacred source of faith and moral guidance. Shiites believe in imams as spiritual and moral leaders of the ummah who are the successors of the Prophet Muhammad and have special authority in the interpretation of faith. Sunnis, on the other hand, choose the leaders of their religious communities, such as the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There is also a difference in the relationship to hadiths. Sunnis place great importance on hadiths (reports of the actions and words of the Prophet Muhammad) and follow schools of Sunni Islam that have different methods of interpreting hadiths. Shias have their own hadith collections and often differ on which hadiths they accept as authentic. Also, Shiites attach more importance to mukabela (the mosque reading of the Koran). There is a different view of historical events. Sunnis have their own version of historical events, including the events surrounding Muhammad’s death and the election of the first caliph, which differs from the Shia view.

Furthermore, certain practices that exist in Shia Islam do not exist in Sunnis. Shiites have their own religious rites and practices, including special religious days and rituals to mourn and remember the imams (eg the Day of Ashura). The idea of social justice is more prevalent among Shiites. Since in most Muslim countries the Shiites were a minority throughout history, with the exception of Persia, the prevailing opinion was that they should be conservative and their lives should be regulated by imams in accordance with Islamic laws. It is about the fact that Shiite imams did not interfere in daily politics like Sunni imams, but rather sought to achieve social justice (adl). The Shia clergy emphasize justice and equality more than anything else, rather than the struggle for political power.

Sunni legal schools of Islam

The division into Sunnis and Shias is not the only one in Islam as there are further divisions in both factions. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not have an intermediary between man and God in the form of a priest. However, the specificity of Islam is that it has different schools of learning and thought that are based on the study of the Koran, Hadith and Sunnah.

In Islam, it is normal for some believers to adhere to one school of Islam, and others to another. As arguably the leading Islamic faction, the Sunnis have created several legal schools. The Hanafi Madhhab, schools of reason, are represented in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Albania and BIH. The Shafi madhhab is present in Egypt, Somalia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. The Shafi school is official with the governments of Brunei and Malaysia. The Hanbali Madhhab prevails mainly in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and parts of Oman. Today, the Maliki Madhhab is followed mainly by Arab Muslims in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and in part of the Persian Gulf.

Shia legal schools of Islam

Unlike the Sunnis, the Shiites follow a line of Imams who descend from the House of the Prophet. Accordingly, the lines of the successors of Muhammad – his descendants (sayeds) form a privileged layer in the Shiite communities. However, there are further divisions among Shias based on how many Imams they follow.

The largest Shia faction are the Jafaris or Imamites, followers of the 12 Imams. The Jaferi school is the most represented Shiite school and prevails in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Albania, Bulgaria, part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In addition to the Jafaris, there are also Zaidis (Zeids) who prevail in S. Arabia and Yemen. Ismailis are present in the Far and Middle East and Africa (Tanganjiki, Kenya, Uganda, etc.).

In addition to the above, there are also smaller Shiite groups such as the Batinis, the Nizarites, etc. In addition to the Shiite and Sunni denominations, there are others. The Ibadi school of Islam, which is the official school of Islam in Oman, has already been mentioned. There are also Ahmadiyya schools in India, Quranists, Mahdawis (India, Baluchistan). Of course, in addition to all the mentioned Islamic schools, there is also a supra-denominational Sufi school. Sufism or Dervishism is a mystical and ascetic teaching in Islam.

Current state

Today, the Sunnis are the overwhelming majority. Of about 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide, Sunnis make up about 85%, and Shiites only about 15%. Sunnis are the majority in the vast majority of Muslim countries. Shiites make up the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. There are as many of them as there are Sunnis in Lebanon. Shiites are a significant minority in Yemen (35-40%), Turkey (10-15%), Kuwait (20-25%), Pakistan (15%), Syria (13%), Saudi Arabia (5-10%), Afghanistan (15%), Chad (21%). Shia Muslims currently make up 36% of the total and 38% of the Muslim population of the Middle East.

Apart from constant conflicts, Sunni and Shiite Muslims in many regions currently live together in peace. In regions where inter-factional relations are relaxed, such as Azerbaijan and Kuwait, it has become common for members of the two factions to marry each other and pray in the same mosques.

It is interesting that due to the conflict between the Shia leader Ali and the anti-Ali Sunni caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, Muawiya and Yazid, hardly any Shia will give their child the names of the Sunni leaders. On the other hand, hardly any Sunni will give their child the names of Shiite leaders such as Ali, Hussein, Hasan, Abbas, Zainab. Exceptions are Sufi Muslims for the reason that many Sufis in the Balkans and Turkey worship Sufi Iranian greats such as Rumi, Hafez, Saadi.

The impact of the Iranian Revolution

Although the Iranian Islamic Revolution was technically Shia, it was not only Shia but pan-Islamic – it was made for all Muslims and all oppressed people in the world. The Iranian revolution motivated Islamic radicals around the world to attempt to carry out Islamic revolutions to establish Islamic republics and Sharia rule. In its essence, it was anti-colonialist and directed against the imperialism of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

Although the revolutionized Shiite Iran sent a message to the rest of the world to free itself from tyranny, the supreme leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, emphasized that he does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries or export the revolution, although there have been certain attempts. Such an Iranian attitude enabled good relations with other countries.

Nevertheless, the Iranian Revolution undoubtedly inspired the radicals to attempt a revolutionary coup, and most of them were Sunnis. This is how the Sunni Mujahideen in Afghanistan managed to overthrow the USSR in the 1980s. It is interesting that despite the conflict between the two denominations, Sunni and Shia countries usually jointly support the struggle of Muslims against non-Muslims. Good examples are the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Nagorno-Karabakh and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. In all these wars, as can be seen these days during the latest round of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, despite theological and political differences, both Riyadh and Tehran support the Muslim cause.

Sunni-Shia wars

Although in the West secularism has taken off and there are no more religious wars, as was the case between Catholics and Protestants in the Middle and Modern Ages (eg the Thirty Years’ War), in the Middle East it is quite different. In this troubled area of the world, religion is still a factor that determines political and social processes. Religion is extremely important and merciless wars are fought over it.

Many outside the region do not understand this. According to some information, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US secret services did not take into account that the regime of Saadam Hussein relied on 30% Sunnis who ruled with about 60% Shiites! The Americans were obviously not interested in this, which was a huge mistake that resulted in new wars, ethnic cleansing and liquidations where the smaller number of Sunnis fared disastrously. Similarly, American policymakers did not take into account the protection of Shiites and Christians when they unreservedly supported the Sunni movements that spearheaded the 2011 Arab Spring.

In Syria, the revolution was led by fierce Sunni Muslims against the multicultural regime of Bashar al-Assad. Assad ruled with the help of 13% Alawites (a branch of Shiism) and members of other minority faiths over about 74% Sunnis. The Americans did not take into account what fate awaits Alawites, Christians (10% of the population), Yazidis, Jews and other non-Sunnis when radical Sunni Islamists take over. They did not take over power in Damascus, but mass crimes, murders and ethnic cleansing of Shiites, Christians and other minorities took place. If the Assad government had fallen, there would have been massacres of epic proportions and millions would have been killed or displaced.

A large part of the Syrian “moderate opposition”, which was unreservedly supported by the West, cooperated openly with ISIL, Al-Nusra and other radical terrorist organizations, and Western politicians have long turned their heads to this only in order to overthrow Assad. The war resulted in 2020 Syria being ethnically cleansed of Jews who were killed or forced to flee.

The war in Yemen is similar because at its core is the Sunni-Shia conflict. Unfortunately, this war is not talked about much in the West, because the EU and the USA do not have any special interest there. In recent years, Yemen has seen major terror directed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who assisted their Sunni allies in ousting the minority Shiite Houthi movement from power. Similar Sunni-Shia wars were fought in Lebanon.

The danger of a great war

Saudi Arabia and Iran play a role in all Sunni-Shia clashes because they lead proxy wars through the forces on the ground. In recent years, the situation in the Middle East has not been overly encouraging, although diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran were normalized through China in March of this year. Shiites are thus discriminated against in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, as well as Sunnis in Iraq and Iran. All these divisions threaten a big intra-Muslim war in the Middle East. If such a big war were to happen, one pole would be led by Riyadh and the other by Tehran. Even some politicians from Turkey and Pakistan declared that in a big war the two branches of Islam would not stand aside but would intervene in favor of their denomination. It would be particularly unpleasant in Lebanon, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians live.

It is certain that a great war would lead to the persecution of Shiites in Sunni states and Sunnis in Shiite states. Europe would be swept by a new never-before-seen wave of refugees (several million), which would further destabilize the fragile foundations on which the European Union functions, such as the Schengen zone, freedom of movement, and the open door policy. Such a big war would thoroughly shake the Middle East and push it back several decades, and it would also have a negative impact on the rest of the world, since there are important sources of oil and gas and the Suez Canal, through which 12% of the world’s trade and 30% of the world’s container traffic passes.

Taking this into account, it is completely illogical that the West generally aligns itself with the Sunni camp, which is far more bellicose and dangerous than the Shiite one, because Iran (even though it is ruled by a mullah) does not in principle export the Islamic revolution, as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE do.


The solution to avoid a big intra-Muslim war as well as small wars between Muslims lies in the only logical solution: intra-Islamic dialogue. Clerical leaders of both Islamic denominations (imams, ulema, muftis) should sit down at the table and relax tensions according to the principle “yours is yours and mine is mine” and find ways of cooperation and coexistence.

In addition to the clerical leaders, the political leaders of the Muslim countries should also make an effort to find good agreements with the aim of advancing the Islamic world as a whole and the Middle East. The region already has enough other challenges to deal with in the 21st century, such as social inequalities, weather disasters and interest tensions that go beyond religion.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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