Skip to main site content.
Tensions erupted some 1,383 years ago -- so where is it heading now?

Middle East tension

4 simple reasons for the ongoing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims

By Zainab Salbi on June 17, 2015

Is there hope for a resolution of Sunni and Shia tension? Only if we find a way to understand and address the fear factor.

After the bombing of the Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia that led to the killing of at least seven Shia worshippers on May 22, a young Saudi journalist interviewed the head of the mosque. The old Imam was angry and very frustrated by the attack. He kept on shouting: “Why would anybody do that? We are minding our business, staying in our community and not interfering in the country’s politics. Why would they bomb us in our mosque?” The young journalist kept on repeating “Inshallah (God willing), all will be OK and peace shall come.” But that did not calm the Imam. In fact, the more he heard the young man’s repetitive words about peace, the more frustrated he became: “What peace? We see no sign of peace. There are people who want to kill us and no one is stopping them.” The young journalist and the Imam were stuck in a circle of reality where neither knew how to address the tension between Sunni and Shia.

The optimist in me was touched by the young journalist’s effort until I saw another interview, this time with a Sunni religious cleric, also from Saudi. When asked about the bombing of the Shia mosque and what he thought of it, he said “and this will continue until the Shia stop believing in their sect and give up all their practices and beliefs. Only then will attempts of killing them stop.” The cleric’s message was clear, unapologetic, and determined. This very clarity is the reason that the Shia Imam was angry and afraid of the situation in Saudi Arabia, along with most Shia there and in other Muslim countries, most notably Iraq. The calls from Sunni extremists to kill all Shia are loud and clear and trigger old emotions of insecurity and fear in Shia populations. When that happens, Shia start their own campaign: arming themselves, fighting, and committing their own acts of aggression. So where is this tension heading?

First, consider the basic principles at odds in the Sunni-Shia divide. It all started the day after Prophet Mohammed died on June 8th, 632 A.D. — 1,383 years ago last week, as it happens.

1. Shia believe that Mohammed’s cousin Ali, who was the first-born Muslim, should have become leader after the Prophet’s death. Sunni claimed that Abu Bakr, the prophet’s father-in-law and closest and eldest confidante, should be leading Muslims. This led to a discussion of the rights of leadership and succession. In short: Shia believe that leadership should be passed through a blood-line from the prophet and Sunni believe leadership has nothing to do with blood lineage and should be based on the qualifications of a leader.

2. This tension continued and took many shapes and forms including fighting between what became known as Shias (followers of Ali) and Sunnis (followers of the other Caliphs who came after the Prophet, which many years later included Ali). The tension heightened in 680 AD, 48 years after the Prophet’s death, when a showdown took place in Karbala, a city in Southern Iraq, where the grandchildren and other male heirs of Mohammed were killed to stop them from leading a rebellion. The uprising was called for by the people, then living under an oppressive Caliph. By all accounts, that incident was a massacre, as an army surrounded 72 family members of the Prophet Mohammed and killed every man and boy without a fight. Shia commemorate the event on the Day of Ashura, when they beat themselves to atone for their inaction and betrayal of the Prophet’s family. Sunnis respond that, well, that was politics and politics is dirty.

3. The Sunni’s stance led Shia to reject politics as impure and argue that religion and the secular affairs of the state should always be separated. This is reflected in the fact that most Shia did not join government ranks of employment, leading them to occupy the extremes of wealth or poverty as they took on the merchant roles—risky ventures, with big potential payoffs but no job security—while the Sunnis became the middle class with secure government paychecks.

This separation of state and religion changed with the Iranian revolution, when Khomeini upended centuries of belief and declared that the state is the religion. This led to the first merger of state and religion in Shia history, starting with the Iranian government and followed, now, by the Iraqi government. This Shia “newness” in the political sphere is a source of criticism by mainstream Sunnis, who say that “Shia don’t have experience in leading a country,” implying that only Sunnis have the right to lead governments. Which triggers another wave of resentment by Shia.

4. This contrasting approach to political engagement has led to discord between Sunni and Shia in terms of their relationship with God. Shia believe that the religion should be interpreted in ways that reflect contemporary life and needs. Sunni argue that the religion should hew to the Quran and faithfully imitate the practices and behavior of the Prophet during his life. Sunnis believe that the individual has a direct relationship with God while Shia believe that the Imam is the mediator between the individual and God.

Such differences may be historical and are indeed playing a major role in today’s politics, but they are by no means predestined or pre- ordained. There were points in history when tensions were heightened and points in history when the tension was muted or dissolved. What drove these variations was leadership: the times when Muslim leaders encouraged the division versus the times when they suppressed it.

Today, as Sunni extremists call for Shia death, and as the Sunni religious leadership fails to condemn such extremist calls and counter them with words of peace and reconciliation, the political situation is exacerbated. The Shia leadership of Iraq, for example, should encourage a spirit of national unity in the country’s armed forces rather than a sectarian one, as it is the case today. Even with a just cause like fighting against ISIS, Shia leaders should be aware that when army members start chanting Shia slogans, Sunnis are alienated and the sectarianism within the country deepens.

We always create the very demon we are fighting against when we operate out of hatred and fear. When Shia hear calls for them to be killed, it leads even the most moderate among them (and there are plenty of moderate Shia, just as there are plenty of moderate Sunnis) to react by arming their militias and supporting any attempts to “defend” them from attacks. All of these actions fuel Iran in its support for Shia populations in various Muslim countries.

Now is the moment for Sunni and Shia leaders to call for unity and inclusion within each Muslim country. After all, Islam is one religion, with one Prophet and one God for all. Until such calls for unity are heard loud and clear, tension in the Middle East, especially between Sunni and Shia, will continue to tear the region apart. Indeed, even as I write this piece from inside Iraq, I am seeing this very scenario unfold.

Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoir Between Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit