Exploring the Sunni-Shia Divide


Exploring the Sunni-Shia Divide

23 Jul 2014

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has produced an interactive guide that explains the appeal of the 'schism' within Islam between Sunni and Shia, and its relevance in major political events.

Large parts of the greater Middle East are engulfed in a conflict of identity politics and historical grievances around religion and power. The Sunni-Shia divide inside Muslim communities is a millennium-old struggle that cuts across geographies, gender, class, economics, and is now vibrant in geopolitical politics with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran at the helm on either of the divide.

The InfoGuide, released on 16 July 2014 by the CFR, uses interactive storytelling to explore the history of the schism. The key features of the report are:

  • An overview video with insights from a range of experts;
  • Timelines looking at the origins of the schism to ongoing Sunni-Shia tensions;;
  • An interactive map, plotting the populations of Sunnis and Shias across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa;
Key Highlights


  • An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East;
  • Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries;

The Sunni-Shia Divide


Origins of the Schism:

  • A group of prominent early followers of Islam elected Abu Bakr, a companion of Mohammed, to be the first caliph, or leader of the Islamic community, over the objections of those who favored Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law;
  • The opposing camps in the succession debate eventually evolved into Islam's two main sects;
  • Shas, a term that stems from shi'atu Ali, Arabic for "partisans of Ali," believe that Ali and his descendants are part of a divine order;
  • Sunnis, meaning followers of the sunna, or "way" in Arabic, of Mohammed, are opposed to political succession based on Mohammed's bloodline;

Modern Tensions:

  • The civil war in Syria, which is a political conflict at its core, has exposed sectarian tensions and become the staging ground for a vicious proxy war between the region's major Sunni and Shia powers;

Practicing the Faith:

  • Shias believe that God always provides a guide, first the Imams and then ayatollahs, or experienced Shia scholars who have wide interpretative authority and are sought as a source of emulation;
  • For Sunnis, authority is based on the Quran and the traditions of Mohammed. Sunni religious scholars, who are constrained by legal precedents, exert far less authority over their followers than their Shia counterparts;

Sectarian Militants:

  • Communal violence between Islam's sects has been rare historically, with most of the deadly sectarian attacks directed by clerics or political leaders;
  • The two most prominent terrorist groups, Sunni al-Qaeda and Shia Hezbollah, have not defined their movements in sectarian terms, and have favored using anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and anti-American frameworks to define their jihad, or struggle. They share few similarities beyond the use of violence;

Flash Points:

  • Rising Militancy - Notable concern about the role of sectarian violence increased in 2013, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan;
  • Saudi-Iranian Rivalry - Saudi Arabia and Iran have deployed considerable resources to proxy battles, especially in Syria. The two sides were reported to be in talks in May 2014 to establish a dialogue for settling disputes diplomatically;
  • Humanitarian Crisis - The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions internally, and almost three million civilians, mostly Sunni, are now refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey;
  • Fractured States - The civil war in Syria and the sectarian conflict in Iraq is threatening to redraw the map of the Middle East. Most politicians and activists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon reject attempts to redraw the map of the region, but the vanishing borders and emergence of new areas of influence based on sectarian and ethnic identities are a growing existential challenge.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.

Council on Foreign Relations