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Sunnis and Shia and Some of Their Differences

By Robert Olson

January 19, 2016

It is clear that most Americans, even Europeans, some Middle Easterners and, indeed, Muslims in general do not understand or grasp the political let alone the theological differences between Sunnis and Shia.

It is not my intent here to explain, discuss or analyze the 1,400-year history of the two major interpretations of Islam. It is also important for readers to note that scholars of Islam at times have argued there are some threescore major interpretations of various branches and schools (Madhab; Mazhab). The two major branches are Sunnism and Shiism. Sunnis have four major schools of Islamic law (Fiqh). The Shia also have several interpretations. For example, the Shia of Iran, who uphold the most widely accepted interpretation, are called Twelver Shia because they believe there are 12 religious leaders (imams) in their tradition who have been the most important in defining their belief system. Indeed, Twelver Shia share the same reverence for Ali -- the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the husband of Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet -- that all Shia do. Ali was the fourth caliph of those Muslims who came to be called Sunnis and the first imam of Twelver Shiism.

The major difference between Sunnis and Shia for the purposes of this article is that the Shia claim a direct relationship with the Prophet Mohammad, as mentioned above, because his daughter, Fatimah, was married to Ali, the cousin of Muhammad. As a result, the Shia revere Ali and believe that he, being married to Fatimah, possesses a unique status that enables him and his progeny to be the interpreters of God's will on earth.

The rub is that it was Sunni Arab tribesmen who eventually came to power in the evolving Muslim community and established the great empires of the Umayyads (661-750) and Abbasids (750-1258). In other words, military prowess trumped divine patrimony.

Iran is important because until the first decade of the 21st century, it was the only predominantly (90 percent) Shia country in the world. As a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath, Iraq came to be dominated by the Shia, who comprise approximately 23 million of the 33 million population. Sunni Arabs comprise 5 million and Kurds (Sunni) also about 5 million. The gathering of dominant power into the control of the Shia resulted in Iraq becoming the second-largest Shia-­dominated country in the world after Iran. This development also meant that Iran and Iraq are bound to have cooperative relations in spite of the fact that the Iraqi Shia are largely Arab and the Iranian Shia largely identify with the nation of Iran, although 10 percent of the population of Iran is Sunni. Fortunately for Iran, the 4 million ethnic Arabs in Iran are Shia. It is important to note that most of the Shia of Iraq are Arab. There are other Shia in Iraq as well such as Turkmens, about 50 percent of whom are Shia.

Throughout the history of Islam in predominantly Muslim countries and societies, it is the Sunnis who have prevailed because they dominated governments and constructed economic and legal systems in their favour. As a result, the Shia and Shiism, to some extent, became theological and, subsequently, political dissidents. Because of the power of Sunni Arab tribes and their expansive conquests in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, most converts to Islam favoured the Sunni interpretation of Islam. Even the sultans of the Turkic Seljuk Empire opted for Sunnism as the religiously legitimizing ideology for their empire.

This is still true today, with the exception of Iran and Iraq. It is important, however, to know that Iran, or the country that today we call Iran, was governed by a nascent empire called Safavid, which became a predominantly Shia entity in the early 16th century. The major reason for their change of theology/ideology was that they were contesting the Ottoman Empire (Sunni) for domination of the Middle East; they wanted to demarcate their differences with the Ottomans by religious interpretations rather than just geopolitical differences in order to gather more adherents and soldiers to their side.

But because of the power of the great Sunni empires (Ottoman, Mughal and Uzbek) that ruled nearly up to the 20th century, Shiism remained the minoritarian interpretation. But empires, nations, countries and societies decline, even if they are majoritarian; dissenting minorities await their opportunities.

One of the reasons (there are many other reasons) for the political and religious unrest in the Middle East seems to be the intellectual and theological stagnation among Sunni scholars, especially in the Arab countries. Middle Eastern countries were, by and large, governed and ruled throughout the 20th century by authoritarian, dictatorial and monarchical regimes who collaborated and/or acquiesced to European powers such as Great Britain and France and then to the US throughout the 20th century; they suppressed expression of thought and dissent from the ruling ethos, whether political, intellectual or theological.

A good example of the above is the Hizmet movement in Turkey, whose followers are sometimes called Gülencis after Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the movement, who lives in exile in the US. The Hizmet movement is thoroughly Sunni (although it has elements of Sufism in its theology). The Hizmet movement has many adherents in Turkey but also elsewhere among Muslim communities. Hizmet is a Sunni, largely Hanafi movement, which professes many of the same principals as the Sunni religious establishment in Turkey. Hizmet has also sought to expand religious (Hanafi) and social changes differing from that of Turkey's Sunni religious establishment (the Religious Affairs Directorate), which in turn is supported by the ruling political party. These differing religious and policy orientations contributed to the greater clash of interests between the ruling government political party, indicating the difficulty of not only seeking religious and social change but theologically based changes as well.

The Hizmet movement in Turkey, a non-Arab country, largely Hanafi, is yet another indicator of the stagnation of Sunni religious establishments. This has also been the case in many largely Arab countries and even, as just mentioned above, in non-Arab countries as well. The expansion and tenacity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) and now elsewhere, and its predecessors from 2004 onwards, is yet another indication of the challenges awaiting the Sunni religious establishments and the regimes they support, not just in the Middle East but in other parts of the world as well.

In the case of the Shia, they believe that the above-discussed situation now presents a propitious time to end the sectarian, political, bias, discrimination and brutality they have suffered at the hands of Sunnis for 1,400 years and that God is now on their side and their struggle is righteous. This is a wakeup call for Sunnism and largely Sunni countries. Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut are now dominated by the Shia. Jerusalem, the third most significant city in Islam, is governed by Jews. Dissident Shia are beginning to challenge the Sunni Saudi dynasty.

Although they represent only 10-12 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, they do represent challenges to stagnating Sunni religious establishments and the regimes and governing classes they support.

Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.