Skip Nav
The Bachelorette: Every Ridiculous Engagement Ring in the Show's History
We Love How This Couple Pregamed With Champagne on a Rooftop Before Eloping at City Hall
Women's Health
This Woman Is "F*cking Furious" Over How Her HR Department Just Period Shamed Her

Need to Know: The Sunnis, the Shiites and Their Conflict

So, Iraq. It's admittedly complicated. You hear the news, you hear about the Sunnis and the Shiites and you know there's internal conflict in the country, but you're not sure how, who, and why? Let's shake it out.

First, the Sunnis and the Shiites both practice Islam, the religion founded by Mohammed in the seventh century. They're just two branches of the Muslim religion. Here's where they differ:

The Sunnis: The Sunnis have a broader belief of who Mohammed intended to become religious heirs. They believe that heirs of the first four caliphs, (or political successors of the prophet Mohammed) should be recognized. US forces are currently working with non-extremist Sunni groups in Iraq. Interestingly, Osama bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim, as are 90 percent of the Muslim world. In Iraq, only 35 percent of the population is Sunni. To find out about the Shiites and the conflict, please,


The Shiites: Their narrower view of legitimate religious leaders, means that they only recognize heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali. Since they experienced the disappearance of a religious leader, the Twelfth Imam in 931, the Shiites believe they have suffered. Until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 the Shiites didn't believe they were living under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.

Here's one more difference: For Shiites, the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” who they think will bring a global Muslim caliphate into being, has already come and will return from hiding. For Sunnis, he has yet to arrive.

Why all the fighting? In addition to the above difference in belief, the Shiites have closer ties with Iran which is also Shiite. The Shiites also control the areas of Iraq that include the oilfields. Also, the Shiites were an oppressed majority under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. George H. W. Bush, after the first Gulf War, encouraged the Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis, provoking violence. When Saddam Hussein was removed, a power vacuum was created and is one of the main causes of the struggle taking place today.


Join The Conversation
beingtazim beingtazim 9 years
jovian - my family ARE muslim, although they are Ismaili Muslim,a particular (and rather liberal) sect of Shi'a muslim which you can read about here: anyway, for you to make such a pun means that you are pronouncing it incorrectly: it is not 'sunny' but 'sooney'. yes, i am upset that you are pronouncing it incorrectly more than anything. :) I think it is really important for people to know that not all muslims believe the same thing, and bringing up that there are different sects is a good thing for increasing awareness and limiting stereotypes; after all, there are many different branches of Christianity, too.
minaminamina minaminamina 9 years
But we should remember the religious tension was heightened on purpose by the old colonial empires - hence the reason it's so dire now. And, jovian, I'm not Muslim, but I don't find your pun very amusing.
Kaysnowboarder Kaysnowboarder 9 years
Citizen this is a great post. If you want to learn more about how this all evolved you have to go all the way back to the fall of the Ottoman empire, Turkish rule. This is before World War I and after when the English and French were separating up the land. A really good book is "Dessert Queen the life and times of Gertrude Bell". Fascinating look at this English woman who was a real adventurer, was the first European woman to cross the desserts and welcomed by many of the Sheiks and tribal leaders. She was the one that drew the borders of Iraq and was basically responsible for bringing all the tribes together to form the country of Iraq. This is really the beginning of where we are today. It reads more like a novel and it is fascinating considering where our world is today.
CupcakeGal10 CupcakeGal10 9 years
Citizen, this is great! Thanks a bunch. :)
KathleenxCouture KathleenxCouture 9 years
Ah, religion. Thank you for posting this Citizen. Unfortunately this is a very complicated war and we are over there for many reasons according to different people. If you ask the government, they will tell you its because of terrorism...if you ask a christian they will say its because we need to "protect our allies with Isreal and save them from being invaded by muslims" and "we need to save them from themselves"...and if you ask the skeptics, they will say we have our own agenda with the oil over there. It's ridiculous but the truth is we extended our stay and have drifted from the actual purpose of going over there to begin with.
tiff58 tiff58 9 years
Thanks so much for posting this. I really feel like I don't know nearly enough about this, and it's a good reminder that I need to keep learning more.
CitizenSugar CitizenSugar 9 years
You're welcome! It is a huge, complicated story, so sparking more interest is great.
Kellylicious Kellylicious 9 years
Thank you for blog posts like this. Though it may only be a snippet of the story of Middle-Eastern conflict, it bring about discussion. Hopefully more people (myself included) will want to research more about it.
CaterpillarGirl CaterpillarGirl 9 years
Clarient, where does it say we, the united states, helped establish the Ba'ath party in 1963? There has been talk from a former nixon aide that the CIA helped, but that has never been documented. And lets say that back then it happened like that, there was "unintended" policies that landed Hitler into rule, we should have just let him do his thing because someone in the past made a mistake?
bransugar79 bransugar79 9 years
There is an absolute tie in between the US and the conflict in the middle east. We have been oportunistic in our approach and exploited another cultures religious beliefs to suit or foreign poilicy needs. I don't know that all the blame belongs on our shoulders as these groups did have inherent conflict with each other, but we cannot ignore our part in escalating those conflicts to such massive scales.
Megatron Megatron 9 years
Thank you for the explanation. I think the media automatically assumes people know the whole background.
JovianSkies JovianSkies 9 years
(get it, 'Sunni', 'Sunny'...??? :SIGH: nevermind....)
JovianSkies JovianSkies 9 years
Sunni almost seems like an oxymoron... I love the photo for this article, though.
danibzow danibzow 9 years
But whoa does it certainly seem like you're placing the bulk of the blame for the conflict on the shoulders or Former President Bush. I think that's oversimplifying an incredibly complicated situation.
divinedebris divinedebris 9 years
Syako, she means George H. W. Bush because it took place during the Gulf War. Citizen, it's great that you posted this. Most people don't understand what's happening over there because the news doesn't really cover this part. :D
grrlyrebel grrlyrebel 9 years
You're right nyaradzom2001, holy wars are a scary breed, especially since the very idea of it is counterintuitive.
katie_c katie_c 9 years
you say it well, nyaradzom2001. couldn't agree with you more. it's absolutely tragic.
nyaradzom2001 nyaradzom2001 9 years
I'm always surprised by how religion and tribalism can tear a nation apart and in a nation where the demography is split between certain tribes and religions you are most certainly going to find the leader favouring his own rligion or tibe which leads to resentment, which boils up and leads to violence. It startles me that what is supposed to bring peace and harmony can cause such intense divisions and hatred!
syako syako 9 years
Do you mean George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush?
Hobby Lobby Iraq Artifacts Smuggling Case Settled
From Our Partners
Latest Love
All the Latest From Ryan Reynolds