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