Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sunnis and Shiites

If you pay attention to the news, it’s nearly impossible to go a day without hearing about Sunnis and Shiites. Assuming you start out knowing nothing about them, it only takes a few news stories to figure out the most pertinent facts: they’re Islamic groups that seem to hate each other. But the news outlets never tell you anything about why Sunnis and Shiites don’t get along. If you want to understand that, you have to do a little research of your own.

The best and most succinct description I’ve read comes from Thomas L. Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem

The Muslims of the world have long been divided between Sunnis, who are the majority, and Shiites. In the seventh century, shortly after the death of Islam’s founder, the prophet Muhammad a dispute arose over who should be his successor as spiritual and political leader, known as caliph. One group, the majority, argued that Muhammad’s successor should be appointed through the process of election and consensus by the elders of the community, as was the tradition of the desert. Sunna in Arabic means tradition, and those who held this view became known as the Sunnis.

A minority faction, however, argued that Muhammad’s successors should come exclusively from his own family and their descendants. They insisted, therefore, that his first cousin and son-in-law—Ali—be appointed as leader of the community. Those who held this view became known in Arabic as the Shia or “partisans,” of Ali. The Shiites were clearly influenced by the notion of divine-right monarchy of pre-Islamic Persia (Iran). The Sunnis eventually defeated the supporters of Ali and installed their own chosen caliphs. Nevertheless, the Sunni-Shiite split has continued down through the ages of Islam, and a whole body of theological and even cultural differences developed, distinguishing Shiites from Sunnis. Summarizing these differences, Islam expert Edward Mortimer observed in his book Faith & Power: “Sunni Islam is the doctrine of power and achievement. Shi’ism is the doctrine of opposition. The starting point of Shi’ism is defeat: the defeat of Ali and his house…. Its primary appeal is therefore to the defeated and oppressed. That is why it has so often been the rallying cry for the underdogs in the Muslim world … especially for the poor and dispossessed.”

Iraq happens to be one of only two Islamic countries (Iran is the other) where the Shia constitute a majority of the population (about 60 percent). This does nothing to help explain the Iran-Iraq war but does help illuminate why many other Islamic states seem supportive of the Sunni insurgency.

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