Sunnis and Shiites: Behind the Split

Washington's view of Shiism is outmoded, many say.

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Shiites account for just 10 to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. But to U.S. foreign-policy makers, they cast a giant shadow as the extremist boogeymen of Islam. They assumed that villainous role with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, led by the fiery Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To American eyes, Shiites were radical, antiwestern, zealous, and drawn to martyrdom—characteristics that raised the specter of suicide bombers. The emergence in mid-1980s Lebanon of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah helped cement that view.

But in a world where Islamic terrorism is now mainly a Sunni Muslim phenomenon, Washington's perception of Shiism is outmoded and should be scrapped, many scholars say. This is particularly true, they say, if U.S. policies in Iraq—where Shiites make up 60 percent of the population—and elsewhere in the Middle East are to succeed. Islam's minority sect is destined to play a major role in that volatile region—a fact highlighted by Iraqi elections in which the faction led by Shiite clergy won a majority of the votes.

Outside of Persian Iran and Arab Iraq, Shiites are repressed majorities in Bahrain and Lebanon. In a few other countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, they are sizable minorities. Who are the Shiites? And how do they differ from Sunnis? The answers go back centuries, and they provide clues as to how the sect may handle its newfound political power.

The Sunni-Shiite divide is nearly as old as Islam itself. Put simply, Shiites believe that the caliphs, or temporal successors to Muhammad, should come from his family line. The Sunnis, by contrast, believe that a caliph need only be a believer. The Sunnis prevailed and became the vast majority of the world's Muslims.

Over the centuries, differing theologies emerged within the two sects. Unlike the Sunni mainstream, Shiites admire martyrs, believe in saints, and honor the tombs of holy men. They tend to be more demonstrative in worship, some of them even participating in rites of self-flagellation. In their most significant departure from Sunni Islam, Shiites accept the authority of an infallible spiritual leader named by God. (Sunnis take direction from the consensus of the community.) No one today is actually recognized as the imam, as this leader is known; Shiites believe that the last imam has been alive for 1,000 years but that humans cannot perceive him. In the absence of a real physical authority, individuals such as Khomeini sometimes emerge to assume the imam mantle.

Yet Khomeini and other clerics shouldn't be confused with the sacred Imams of Shiite history. "They are small i as opposed to large I," explains Amira Bennison, an expert in Islamic history at the University of Cambridge. Earthly imams are prayer leaders and interpreters of the Koran whose duty is to temporarily assume the powers of the real Imams. Iran's Shiite clerical hierarchy provided a useful scaffolding for the erection of political parties and structures. And analysts note that Iraq's Shiite clergy—led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—is likewise relatively cohesive and politically astute.

No such clerical lines of authority exist among Sunnis. That's because Sunnis consider the Koran a divine text that needs no further interpretation. Shiites, on the other hand, believe the Koran should be interpreted for modern times—a distinction that deeply separates the sects. In countries where Sunni and Shiite communities abut, there has been sectarian violence, and Shiites are often treated like second-class citizens. Timothy Winter, an Islam expert at the University of Cambridge, says the denigrating of Shiism began in the early 20th century with the re-emergence of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Sunni movement. "To Wahhabis, [Shiites] are not Muslims at all."

While Shiites admire Imams who were martyrs, Bennison and Winter say they're not prone to emulate them. "Historically, Shiism has been the quietist form of Islam," Winter says, mainly because they believe they will receive justice with the reappearance of the Imam. Yet, it is now the Sunnis who have become radicalized. And suicide bombers today typically are young Sunni men and women.