Sunnis and Shiites – differences within Islam

Cultural Insights — By on August 4, 2006 at 12:01 pm

Any attempt to decipher the labyrinth of interests and alliances in the Middle East can be exhausting.  There are interests that revolve around oil, interests that center on relations with the United States or Israel, and interests that are linked to religious differences.  One of the most confusing battles might be the one between Sunni and Shiite Islam.  Al Qaeda is Sunni, Hezbollah is Shiite.  Saudi Arabia is led by Sunnis, Iran by Shiites.  None of them are real fans of Israel, but they also don’t particularly like or trust each other.  Which at least partially explains why Iraq is descending into chaos because of sectarian battles between Shiites and Sunnis.

Then again, they’re all Muslims. So what gives?  Perhaps a good analogy is that Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox are all Christians, too.  But that, unfortunately, hasn’t stopped them from having doctrinal differences or from descending into religious wars in the past.

If you’re interested in knowing a bit more about the Sunni-Shiite split, the NY Times touches on it briefly in an article in today’s newspaper:

The Sunni-Shiite rivalry dates back almost 1,400 years, to Islam’s earliest decades. After the Prophet Muhammad died, the group that became the Shiites backed his son-inlaw Ali – Shiite means partisan, as in partisans of Ali – as his rightful heir. Ali and his sons died in a series of battles lost to the caliph ruling from Damascus.

The Shiites make up about 15 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. There is little difference between Sunnis and Shiites when it comes to basic rituals like prayer and fasting, but Shiites have a more hierarchical system. Fundamentalist Sunnis label some Shiite practices – treating dead religious figures as saints, for example – as blasphemy.

For a more in-depth explanation, you can check out the wikipedia entries on Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam.  Or, if you really want to dive in and learn more overall about the conflicts in the Middle East, you might try Informed Comment, a well-respected and often-quoted blog by Juan Cole, a Professor at the University of Michigan.

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