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What’s The Difference Between Sunnis and Shiites? – Everything You Need To Know December 17, 2006

Posted by Dan in Main, Middle East, Must Read, News, Politics.

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If there is one issue surrounding Muslims that confuses Americans, it is the difference between Suunis and Shiites. Our confusion really boils down to one simple fact…. Western Religion is extremely fragmented itself. Jews and Christians have dozens of iterations of the same religion, and while the more devout sects tend to look downward at the more liberal ones, for the most part there is no killing anymore. In other words, Mormans and Catholics aren’t running around blowing each other up. So the very concept of “sectarian violence” is foreign, something for which we really have no modern reference.

So…. what is the real difference between Sunnis and Shiites? Well, both were founded by the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century when he established the first Islamic state, a theocracy in Medina (a city in western Saudia Arabia), and through him, God or Allah dictated the religion’s laws as the Holy Qur’an. Both groups of Muslims agree on this fact, and both believe the Qur’an to be the literal word of God/Allah. Where they differ is over Mohammed’s successor…

  • Suunis believe that the first four caliphs (Muslim civil and religious rulers) took Mohammed’s place as the rightful leaders of Islam.
  • Shiites believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, named Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed.

It is important to know that these rulers led the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, following the end of the First World War; their leadership ended in relatively recent history.

Another difference between Sunnis and Shiites has to do with the “Mahdi” or “the rightly-guided one” whose role is to bring a just global caliph into being. Shiites believe he has already been here, and will return from hiding soon, while Sunnis believe he has yet to emerge into the world. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is essentially the same difference between Jews and Christians. One group believes the messiah has yet to come, and the other that he has already been here, but will come back.

As with most discourse, the more we learn about each other, the more alike we find we are.



1. albert fener - February 10, 2007

when did suunis and shiites begin to kill each other over this issue?

2. Dan - February 10, 2007

Well… its funny, they didn’t really start killing each other until we removed Saddam. Violence in the region was typically targeted against the Kurds (who, without a country or government of their own, just kind of lived in the northern parts of Iraq). It was them that Saddam targeted with Chemical weapons, and it was their murder that he was tried for.

Generally, however, it is believed that the current civil war is the result of “outside influences,” such as Iran and al Qaeda, coming into the country with the goal of making the United States look as bad as possible. With the recent discovery that insurgents were using bombs supplied by Iran, this idea has gathered more weight…. however, it is pretty naive to think that all of the violence that occurs in Iraq is aimed at, or because of us.

As the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites continues, losses will mount on each side, and they will begin to attack each other in retaliation for previous strikes, not because of a foreign troop presence. We will begin to see a shift in Iraq, as violence becomes increasingly aimed at fellow civilians. This effect is only going to snowball out of control until the two groups are regularly slaughtering each other, without any real memory of why the killing began in the first place.

If you want to learn more, I suggest this article. Its the US Government’s comprehensive report on why Iraqis are killing each other.

3. A.J.G - July 17, 2007

I disagree with Dan. I believe it is in fact America and Israel causing ALL of the problems, not just between Sunni and Shiite, but just plain ALL of it. Ahmadinejad was misinterpreted in American media. He never claimed he was going to attack Israel, but America and Israel are ramping up to wipe Iran off the map.

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