Sunni - Shiite Split Explained

The True Cause of All Middle East Conflicts

Sunni Shia Split
An Iraqi man tries to get the attention of a paratrooper giving out boxes of food and blankets handed out by the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment June 26, 2007 in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The two major powers in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, an Arab population ruled by a Sunni majority, and Iran, a Persian population ruled by a Shia majority. The Sunni-Shiite split is represented as a religious one. It's also an economic battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will control the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes.  

How the Split Plays Out In the Middle East Today

Almost all (85 percent) of Muslims are Sunnis.

They are the majority in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq. They have large minority communities in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan. 

The United States usually allies itself with Sunni-led countries. That's because 40 percent of its imported oil passes through the Strait. However, it allied with the Shiites in the Iraq War to overthrow Saddam Hussein. 

Who's Who

Saudia Arabia - Led by the royal family of Sunni fundamentalists.  U.S. ally and major oil trading partner, leader of OPEC. In the 1700s, Muhammad ibn Saud (founder of the Saudi dynasty), allied with the religious leader Abd al-Wahhab to unify all Arabian tribes. After the Shiites took power in Iran in 1979, the Sauds financed Wahhabi-centered mosques and religious schools throughout the Middle East. Wahabism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, and Saudi Arabia's state religion.

 (Source: "Islam: Sunnis and Shias," Congressional Research Service, January 28, 2009.)

Iran - Led by Shia fundamentalists, with only 9 percent Sunni. The world's fourth largest oil producer. The United States supported the Shah who was non-fundamentalist Shia.  The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni overthrew the Shah in 1979.

The Ayatollah is the Supreme Leader of Iran. He guides all elected leaders. He condemned the Saudi monarchy as an illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, D.C., not God. In 2006, the United States asked the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran if it didn’t agree to suspend uranium enrichment. Resultant economic crisis motivated Iran to suspend enrichment in exchange for relief from the sanctions. See Nuclear Deal with Iran

Iraq -  Ruled by 63 percent Shia majority after United States toppled Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. This shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. The Shia reaffirmed their alliance with Iran and Syria. Although the United States wiped out al-Qaida leaders, the Sunni insurgents became the Islamic State group. In June 2014, they recaptured a large portion of western Iraq including Mosul. By January 2015, they ruled 10 million people. By December 2016, they lost 16 percent of the land they held and only controlled six million people. Iran backs the Shia majority against the Sunni Islamic State group. (Source: "Islamic State and the Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps," BBC, December 22, 2016.)

Syria - Ruled by 13 percent Shia minority.

Allied with Shia-ruled Iran and Iraq. Passes arms from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Persecutes Sunni minority, some of whom are with the Islamic State group. United States and neighboring Sunni countries back the Sunni, non-Islamic State group rebels. The Islamic State group also controls large portions of Syria, including Raqqa. 

Lebanon - Ruled jointly by Christians (39 percent), Sunni (22 percent), and Shia (36 percent). The 1975-1990 civil war allowed two Israeli invasions and Israeli and Syrian occupations that lasted more than two decades. Reconstruction was set back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel fought in Lebanon. 

Egypt - Ruled by 90 percent Sunni majority. It persecutes Christians and Shias. Arab Spring in 2011 deposed Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president in 2012, but he was deposed in 2013.

The Egyptian military ruled until former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won 2014 elections. In November 2016, the International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan to help Egypt cope with an economic crisis. (Source: "Egypt Profile - Timeline," BBC, November 15, 2016.)

Jordan - Kingdom ruled by 92 percent Sunni majority. Between 55-70 percent of the populations is Palestinians. Now being overrun by Syrian Sunni refugees, who could bring the war to Jordan if they are chased by Shiites bent on revenge.

Turkey - Sunni majority rules benignly over Shiite minority (15 percent). But Shiites are concerned that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming more fundamentalist like Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain - Sunni minority (30 percent), backed by Saudi Arabia and United States, rules Shia majority. Is the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which guards the Strait of Hormuz. (Source: "Sunni-Shia Split the Mid-East's New Great Divide," Toronto Star, September 6, 2013)

Afghanistan, Libya, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Yemen - Sunni majority rules Shia minority. Iran supports Shia Houthi in Yemen.

Israel - Jewish majority (75 percent) rules Sunni minority (17.4 percent). 

Sunni-Shia Split and Terrorism

Fundamentalist factions of both Sunnis and Shiites promote terrorism. They believe in jihad. That is a holy war waged both outside (against infidels) and inside (against personal weaknesses).

The Islamic State group - Sunnis that have claimed territory in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Make money by selling low-cost oil on "their" land. Evolved from al Qaida in Iraq. Feel they have the right to murder or enslave all non-Sunnis. Opposed by Syrian leadership (Assad, who is backed by Russia), and by Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.  (Source: "Absolute Evil, Absolute Folly," Forbes, December 28, 2015. " Al-Qaida Linked Groups Expand Into Lebanon," Al Jazeera, January 26, 2014.)

al-Qaida - Sunni. Want to replace non-fundamentalist governments with authoritarian Islamic states governed by religious law (sharia). Believe Shiites want to destroy Islam and recreate Persian Empire. Restoring Palestine by eliminating Israel is considered a holy undertaking. Condemn those who don't agree with narrow Sunni beliefs. Attacked the U.S. on 9/11

Hamas - Sunni Palestinians. Intent on removing Israel and restoring Palestinian country. Iran supports it.

Hezbollah - Iran-backed Shiite defender in Lebanon.  Now attractive even to Sunnis because it beat Israeli attacks in Lebanon in 2000. It also launched successful rocket attacks against Haifa and other cities. Recently sent fighters to Syria with backing from Iran. Al-Qaida worries it will restore Persian Empire.

Muslim Brotherhood -  Sunni. Predominant in Egypt and Jordan. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna to promote networking, philanthropy and spreading the faith. It grew into an umbrella organization for Islamist groups in Syria, the Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. (Source: Bernard Haykel "The Enemy of My Enemy Is Still My Enemy," The New York Times.)

Sunni-Shia Split and Nationalism

The Sunni-Shia split is complicated by the nationalistic schism between Middle East countries. Arabs descend from the Ottoman Empire (15th - 20th century) while Iran descends from the Persian Empire (16th century).

Arabian Sunnis worry that the Persian Shiites are building a Shiite Crescent through Iran, Iraq and Syria. They see this as a reemergence of the Shia Safavid dynasty in the Persian Empire. That's when Shiites conspired to resurrect Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and then the world. The “Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy” refers to two sub-groups. The Sassanians were a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty. The Safavids were a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736. Although Shiites in Arab countries ally themselves with Iran, they don't trust Persians either. (Source: "Shia-Sunni Split," BBC.  "The U.S. Role in the Sunni-Shi'ite Conflict," Gatestone Institute, May 17, 2013.)

Sunni-Shia Split and U.S. Involvement in Middle Eastern Wars

The United States receives 20 percent of its oil from the Middle East. That makes the region of economic importance. As a global power, the United States has a legitimate role in the Middle East of protecting the Gulf oil routes.  Between 1976-2007, the United States spent $8 trillion doing just that.  That dependence has lessened as shale oil is developed domestically, and reliance on renewable resources increases. Nevertheless, America must protect its interests, allies and its personnel stationed in the region. (Source: "United States Cost of Military Projection in the Persian Gulf," Princeton University, January 7, 2010.)

A Brief Timeline of the U.S. Wars in the Middle East:

Iran Hostage Crisis - Following the 1979 revolution, the United States allowed the deposed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi into the country for medical treatment. To protest,  the Ayatollah let the U.S. Embassy be overrun. Ninety people were taken hostage, including 62 Americans. After a failed military rescue, the United States agreed to released the Shah's assets to free the hostages. (Source: "Iran Hostage Crisis Fast Facts," CNN, March 17, 2014.)

Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) - Iran fought a war with Iraq that led to clashes between U.S. Navy and Iranian military forces between 1987 and 1988. The United States designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism for promoting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite this, the United States financed the Nicaraguan “contras” rebellion against the Sandinista government by secretly selling arms to Iran. This created the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, implicating the Reagan Administration in illegal activities.

Gulf War - In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led forces to free Kuwait in 1991.

Afghanistan War - The United States removed the Taliban from power for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. 

Iraq War (2003 - 2011) - The United States invaded Iraq and replaced Sunni leader Saddam Hussein with a Shiite leader. President Obama removed active-duty troops in 2011. It renewed airstrikes in 2014 when the Islamic State group beheaded two American reporters. 

Arab Spring - Revolt of people who were tired of high unemployment and repressive regimes. They called for democracy.

Syrian Conflict - Began in 2011 to overthrow Bashar al-Assad as part of the Arab Spring movement.

History

The Sunni-Shite divide occurred in 632 AD when the prophet Muhammad died. Sunnis believed that the new leader should be elected, and chose Muhammad's advisor, Abu Bakr. "Sunni" in Arabic means "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet." 

Shiites believed that the new leader should have been Muhammad's cousin/son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. As a result, Shiites have their own Imams, who they consider holy. They consider their Imans to be the true leaders, not the state.  "Shia" comes from "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." 

Sunni and Shiite Muslims have many beliefs in common. They affirm that Allah is the one true God, and that Muhammed is his prophet. They read the Quran, and adhere to the following five pillars of Islam.

  1. Sawm - Fast during Ramadan (the ninth lunar cycle in the Islamic calendar).
  2. Hajj - Pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, at least once.
  3. Shahada - Pledge the faith.
  4. Salat - Pray.
  5. Zakat - Give charity to the poor.