Know Your Muslims:
How to Distinguish Between Shia and Sunni

Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shi’a? If you don’t have clue you’re not alone. Jeff Stein, the National Security editor for Congressional Quarterly, posed that simple question to two Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI.
None of them knew the answer.
While I’m no expert on the politico-religious differences of the Middle East, I have—unlike many of the people we pay to know such information—read a few books on Islam (I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History). I also know how to use Google well enough to put together this brief Q and A on the “least you need to know” for distinguishing between Shi’ites and Sunnis.
Do Sunnis and Shi’ites have the same beliefs in common? Mostly, at least on the basics. For Christians, the Nicene creed is often viewed as the basic statement of faith, the essentials agreed upon by all orthodox believers. Muslims have a similar creed (shahadah) roughly translated as, “”There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The Shi’a, however, tack on an additional sentence: “…Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.”
Who is this Ali? Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the reason these groups don’t get along (the terms Shi’a and Shi’ite come from condensing Shiat Ali, “partisans of Ali”). After Muhammad died, the leadership of the Muslim believers (the Ummah) was the responsibility of the Caliph, a type of tribal leader/Pope. The Sunnis respect Ali and consider him the fourth Caliph while the Shi’a contends he was cheated out of being first. Sunnis, following the tradition of the period, thought the Caliph should be chosen by the community while Shi’ites believe the office should be passed down only to direct descendants of Muhammad.
So the leader of the Shi’ites is descended from Muhammad? Somewhere around 873 AD, the Muhammad blood line came to an end with Muhammad al-Mahdi. For the leader-electing Sunnis this was no big deal. But for the Shiites, who believed that the office of Chief Religious Leader (i.e., Imam) was hereditary gig, this posed a bit of a problem. So instead of accepting the idea that the last Imam died, they claimed he was just “hidden.”

Al-Mahdi was obviously very good at hiding because he stayed out of sight for centuries. After awhile the Shi’ites realized that he might not be coming back anytime soon and decided that Al-Mahdi’s “spiritual power” had passed on to the ulema, a council of twelve scholars who could elect a supreme Imam. (The late Ayyatollah Khomeni is probably the only supreme Shi’a Imam that you’d recognize by name.)
Which group is bigger? Around 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni while only about 15 percent are Shi’a. Iran is predominantly Shi’a while Saudi Arabia, and almost all other Arab countries, are Sunni.
And al Qaeda is…? Members of al Qaeda are part of a strict, legalistic version of Sunni known as Wahhabism.
So the 9/11 hijackers would be…? The hijackers where al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is Sunni. Ergo, the hijackers were Sunni Muslims.
Can you be a Shi’ite and be in al Qaeda? Probably not. Wahhabis view Shi’ites as heretics. They also say that same about many other groups of Sunnis, though, so Shi’ite Muslims shouldn’t take it personal.
What about Hezbollah? Hezbollah is a Shi’a political/terrorist group. It’s easier to remember which group they belong to if you keep in mind that they are backed by Iran.
So Hamas would be Shi’a too? Uh, no. Hamas is a Sunni political/terrorist group.
How do you tell them apart? Hezobollah is in Lebannon (the country north of Israel) while Hamas is in Israel (since the state of Palestine doesn’t exist on the map). They do share a common bond, though, in their hatred of the U.S. and Israel.
It’s probably more complicated than that, isn’t it? Definitely. But with this information you’ll know more than anyone on the House Intelligence Committee.
(HT: Get Religion)
Update: Ten minutes after I hit the Post button, I find that Dean Barnett has also written a better and more comprehensive FAQ on Shiites and the Sunnis.
Theoretically related: The Know Your Evangelicals Series

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Paul

    I am more than a bit shocked that our leaders dealing with international politics and national security don’t know that basic information. Just a few hours of research about Muslim culture would have turned that up. I find it both sad and frightening.

  • lily

    I,too, am shocked. I don’t think it is important to understand thhe docturnal diffferences but it is important to understand the relative popularity of the different divisions of Islam annd whichh nations are populated by which division. For example the “80 percent solution” (besides being immoral) is also stupid in view of the fact that the vast majority of Moslems are Sunni, as are the Saudi Arabians. If Bush decides to side with thhe Shiites in Iraq we will truly be onn the road to disaster.

  • Baggi

    I don’t think its such a big deal. It’s my job to know these sorts of things and I do. However, I can’t keep my shia, shiite (Same thing) and Sunni’s straight.
    As Joe wrote above, Ive had to learn that and more. But if someone asked me on the spot which was which, i’d probably have to guess. Not sure if its just a mental block, or what, but I have trouble remembering which is shia and which is sunni and which of the shia and the sunni are called shiite.
    But I am aware of the history and the differences and even more intimate details than that.
    I have the same trouble with individuals names. I can remember a face but have a heck of a time putting names to faces.
    So it doesn’t bother when people can’t name things that they might know a lot about, cuz I struggle with that too.

  • Chris Lutz

    Joe, nice overview of the difference between Sunni and Shia. It is a sad state of affairs when these people can’t do their jobs properly. Of course, the soon-to-be chairman of the committee asked the interviewer if he could respond in Spanish. So, maybe he’s been too busy learning his English to worry about other things at the moment. :-)
    However, I wouldn’t use Karen Armstrong for much of anything relating to Islam. One of her outlandish statements is:
    Muhammad eventually abjured violence and pursued a daring, inspired policy of non-violence that was worthy of Ghandi.
    No one seriously looking Muhammed and Islam would make such a brazenly false statement.

  • giggling

    I agree; it’s inexcusable not to know off the top of one’s head what kind of ideology the premier terrorist organization in our eyes subscribes to.
    It’s almost as if these officials don’t think religion is important to understanding groups of people.
    Joe, thanks for posting this little primer on Sunni and Shia Muslims. As Leslie Newbigen has predicted, three global forces will emerge as predominant in the 21st century: capitalism, Islam, and Christianity (sorry Darwinists, maybe you can hitch a ride with the capitalists or Muslims..).
    It is necessary to learn more about Islam.

  • ex-preacher

    I’ve read Karen Armstrong’s book, and even led a discussion group on it, but I honestly couldn’t tell you many of the differences off the top of my head. I don’t think it’s all that important for our leaders to delve into the doctrinal disputes. I think it’s far more important that they understand the relative percentages of Shia, Sunni and Kurd in Iraq and understand that Saudi Arabia is almost all Sunni and Iran is almost all Shiite.

  • SolShine7

    That’s a lot to keep straight. I’d have to go over that a few times to get it right.
    I think you should do a Know Your Chaldeans post. Chaldeans are the Christian Arabs in the Middle-East. Since I’m from Michigan I grew up around Chaledeans all my life. Some Americans want to slump all Arab looking people together not knowing that the majority of Arab immigrants in America are Chaldean, not Muslim. I wrote a post about this in my blog:

  • SolShine7
  • Blinkered Thinker

    This post should be shrunk and laminated, forming a wallet-sized cheat sheet for our policy makers.

  • Matt Phillips

    I must disagree with my learned brother, Baggi.
    We went to war in Iraq. We’ve gotten a lot of Americans killed and gotten a lot of noncombatants killed for our lack of clarity on such things.
    1. Al Qaeda is Wahhabist Sunni, which means that the women-whipping, gay-killing, hate-spreading Saudis would be their friends, except they think the Saudis are way too liberal. So what exactly was the link between Al Qaeda and secular Stalinist Saddam? There was none.
    2. Al Qaeda hates the Shia, too. The decapitation of the secularist regime and its replacement with a Shia one was bound to be an opportunity for them to make mischief, which they have seized.
    3. Because of our lack of understanding of such things, we have created a situation in which we:
    a) have to stay in there, getting our people killed and spreading joy and sunshine by killing other people, or
    b) get out, leaving an unstable situation in which the Saudis have to support the Sunnis, lest their Al Qaeda enemy take advantage of their inaction, and the Iranians seize the opportunity to spread its influence by supporting the Shia.
    Result: either way, no democracy, lots of dead people, diminished American influence, and a strengthened hand for people who hate our values.
    Yeah, I think these little details are pretty important.
    Thanks to Pastor Piper for bringing them to our attention.

  • The Truth- Islam

    Let me correct some of the many falsities about Islam and the Arab world in the post with the following.
    No Sects-
    First let me state, that as a Muslim the Quran says there is no sects or differences in Islam. Very few so-called Sunni (coming from the word Sunnah but more on that later) believe that Shia are heretics. The difference lies in the fact that in Islam there is no clergy, as it is forbidden. This doesn’t stop people from trying to take Imam or Ayatollah (scholars) positions out of context for their personal or political reasons, they just have to be shrewd about it. A number of Ayatollahs have the backing of Arabs on the street because of their politics. Indeed they also had the backing of Saddam Hussein. (More on him later too.)
    The Sunnah which is the stories compiled about how the Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) is thought of as a useful guide but in no way an authoritative religious text. Sunni is really a misnomer either used as propaganda or shorthand for plain old Muslim.
    It is important to remember that there is a cultural thing going on there. Iranians were close and cross influenced culturally and historically with the people of Iraq for instance and there are an Arab Iranian minority (who tended to side with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict). Nonetheless they are two different groups (Arabs and Persians.) Iranian Islam still carries more influence of Perian culture.
    Though the Quran states that are Muslims are equal in Islam there is a strong Arab cultural influence in the religion. Christian Arabs are very quick to state their belief that the Quran is one of the greatest texts of religion to ever be written (and may also point out that they are the inheritors of Christianity as the earliest Christians were from Palestine and Damascus and many see themselves as also descendants of a certain tribes of Israel who repudiated the religious straying of their ancestors through re-embracing Islam.) Islam does not see its origins in Muhammad but in Abraham who is from Northern Iraq (Ur), picked up new adherents in Jordan and settled in Palestine.
    To that same end it is interesting that not only did Arab nationalism come to its modern incarnation from a Christian Arab source, Michel Aflaq. Another example of the outsized influence Christian Arabs have had in Baathist politics is Tariq Aziz. Aziz was long the number 2 man in Iraq and whom Saddam nominally reliquished the presidency to in 1999 (which barely registered a blip in the US press). Another example is George Habash, a Palestinian Christian “radical” was as much of the father of Hamas as anyone else. The late Yassir Arafat (himself a secularist) was from a largely Christian family and he married into another prominent Christian family. The fact that the article I am commenting on choses to call Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations says everything about the false attempts to label resistance groups in the Arab world as Muslim terrorists.
    Arab differences-
    The press and other interested parties have simplified and propagandized many things both before the war and now. The majority of Iraqi families are neither Sunni or Shia but a mixture of both. Iraq was a very modern, secular state with a high degree of geographic and social mobility (largely due to a strong educational system, gender equality enshrined into law and large middle class).
    What remains strong however is notions of anti-Israel/anti-Zionism (which many Iraqis believe triggered the war, nationalism and tribalism.) Tribalism is a very, very strong undercurrent in Arab life. One is expected to be extremely loyal to your extended family or tribe. Tribes are invariably inclusive of people of carious religions and sects; the tribe supercedes any such considerations. This idea of an extended family of hundreds even thousands of people may seem utterly alien to the stuggling nuclear family culture of America but to Arabs it is the bedrock of society.
    Saddam Hussein-
    He is nor was a Stalinist. He is the follower of the very elaborately defined Pan-Arab philosophy that is rooted in age old Arab chauvinism and nationalism that was promulgated and articulate in modern times by an Arab Christian thinker. Baathism or Arab Renaisance is a belief rooted in anti-colonialism and Pan-Arabism (most Arabs see themselves as one people rather than their recently drawn nation-states). Hussein’s hero and mentor Gamal Abdel Nasser (former president of Egypt) and other Baathist had managed to unify Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria and Yemen into the United Arab Republic, something that both every Western nation, Israel and the Soviet Union opposed virulently. Just because someone has a differing ideal than the average American is no reason to pretend that he has no ideals. During the Baathist Party’s reign in Iraq almost everyone wanted to overthow him from the outside and everyone wanted to influence Iraq. The problem was that Saddam tended to stay very independent, put down the many foreign backed plts and intrigue (sponsored from every one from the U.S., USSR, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, France, and international oil companies). He continued to support his pet causes like Arab nationalist revolution, non Arab nationalism (especially when opposed to the West), Iranian nationalism in the model of Muhammad Mossadeq, OPEC independence, and lastly but foremost Palestinian revolution. It goes without saying that Hussein believed in state control of petroleum, and often opened and closed deals in a way that even neighboring Iran would never consider. (Iran tends to be very stable and accessible and gives favorable rates to US oil companies which may be saving it from invasion right now.) The man really knew how to make enemies… His days were numbered.

  • Sten92271

    My mind is like a bunch of nothing, but I guess it doesn’t bother me. I haven’t been up to anything recently. I’ve pretty much been doing nothing to speak of.

  • Sten74251

    Not much on my mind. I don’t care. I’ve just been letting everything happen without me , but shrug. Whatever. I feel like a void.

  • Sten29846

    I just don’t have anything to say. Not that it matters. Eh. I’ve just been staying at home doing nothing, but I don’t care. That’s how it is.