Sunni-Shi’a conflict: divine versus government authority

Robert Olson
Robert Olson

It is clear that most Americans, even Europeans, some Middle Easterners and, indeed, Muslims, do not understand or grasp the political, let alone, theological differences between Sunnis and Shi’a.

The major difference is that Shi’a claim a direct relationship with the prophet Mohammad because his daughter, Fatimah, was married to Ali, the cousin of Mohammed.

As a result, Shi’a revere Ali and believe that he, being married to Fatimah, possesses sanctity and divinity that enable him and his progeny to be the divine interpreters of God’s (Allah’s) will on Earth.

The Shi’a, then, have a blood relationship with Mohammad who was the messenger of Allah. The Sunnis do not.

The rub is that it was Sunni Arab tribesmen who eventually came to power in the evolving Muslim community and established the great empires of the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasids (750-1258).

In other words, military prowess trumped divine patrimony.

Iran is important because until the first decade of the 21st century it was the only predominantly (90 percent) Shi’a country in the world.

As a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath, Iraq came to be dominated by Shi’a who comprise approximately 23 million of the 33 million population. Sunni Arabs comprise 5 million and Kurds (Sunni) also about 5 million.

The gathering of dominant power into the control of Shi’a resulted in Iraq becoming the second-largest Shi’a dominated country in the world after Iran.

This development also meant that Iran and Iraq are bound to have cooperative relations, in spite of the fact that Iraqi Shi’a are largely Arab and Iranian Shi’a largely identify with the nation of Iran, although 10 percent of the population of Iran is Sunni. Fortunately for Iran, the 4 million ethnic Arabs in Iran are Shi’a.

Throughout the history of Islam in predominantly Muslim countries and societies, it is Sunnis that have prevailed because they dominated governing and constructed economic and legal systems in their favor.

As a result, the Shi’a became theological and, subsequently, political dissidents.

Because of the power of Sunni Arab tribes and their expansive conquests of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, most converts to Islam favored the Sunni interpretation of Islam.

This is still true today with the exception of Iran and Iraq. It is important, however, to know that the country that today we call Iran, was governed by a nascent empire called Safavid, which became a predominantly Shi’a entity in the early 16th century.

The major reason for their change of theology or ideology was that they were contesting the Ottoman Empire (Sunni) for domination of the Middle East; they wanted to demarcate their differences with the Ottomans by religious interpretations rather than just geopolitical differences in order to gather more adherents and soldiers to their side.

But because of the power of great Sunni Empires (Ottoman, Mughal and Ozbek) that ruled nearly up to the 20th century, the Shi’a remained the minority interpretation.

But empires, nations, countries and societies decline, even if they are in the majority; dissenting minorities await their opportunities.

In the case of Shi’a, they believe that now is a propitious time to end the oppression, bias, discrimination and brutality they have suffered at the hands of Sunnis for 1,400 years and that Allah is now on their side and their struggle is righteous.

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of a number of books on the region.

Related: Jan. 6 Associated Press article, “Mideast tensions; Iraq walking fine line with tensions in region”