Country split by Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects

Liz Buckley

As insurgent attacks by a few of the minority Sunni continue in Iraq, many have thickened the line between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam in Iraq. However, few expand on the differences between the two.

The Split

The Sunnis and Shiites diverged in the early 7th century with the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., said John Robertson, professor of history at Central Michigan University and an authority on the Middle East.

“He never designated a successor for himself as leader of the Muslim community, so when he died, controversy emerged as to how to choose the new leader,” Robertson said. “The majority view was that the new leader should be chosen from within the community via discussion and consensus without regard to blood relations with Muhammad.”

The majority view is associated with the Sunnis, Robertson said.

Selecting someone related to Muhammad by blood was the minority view, Robertson said. The minority wanted to select Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Ali was initially passed up, but a faction of supporters developed around him. This faction is associated with the Shiites, Robertson said.

The whole concept of prophethood separates the two sects, said Aman Ali, president of the Muslim Student Organization and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.

Both the Sunni and Shiite Muslims are practitioners of Islam, so the two sects believe the same basic doctrine. But besides the question of prophethood, there is another major difference.

The Sunnis believe each Muslim may spiritually approach God directly, Robertson said. The Shiites believe in the importance of a divinely inspired leader and go-between.

“Shiites look to especially knowledgeable and devout religious scholars as examples to emulate and sources of authoritative rulings in religious and other matters,” Robertson said.

Sunni rule in Iraq

When the British created Iraq after World War I, they put down a Shiite rebellion and established a new monarchy under an imported Sunni Arab leader, Robertson said. The Sunni minority was wealthier and more inclined to accept British influence.

“The Shiites have remained the underdogs ever since,” Robertson said.

This created tension, and by creating tension the British Empire was able to exact control, Ali said.

The Current Government

A new government has replaced the old regime led by Saddam Hussein and other minority Sunni Muslims.

The members of the newly elected government include Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and members of other minor ethnic and religious groups, Robertson said.

“The Shiite parties will have a majority of seats in the new parliament but not enough to allow them to call the shots in the current stage of setting up Iraq’s government,” Robertson said. “The Kurds have also won a lot of influence, but they are Sunnis and by and large favor a more secular approach to government.”


The recent election in Iraq has highlighted the differences between the two Muslim sects.

“Some Sunnis see Shiites in general as inferior and heretics,” Robertson said. “The Sunni Arabs are aware of their former leading role, don’t like that the tables have been turned and don’t want to lose their position of influence.”

But the Shiites are just as determined to keep the upper hand.

Shiites in Iraq are very sensitive to their years of oppression and domination by Sunni Arabs, and a number of them hope to see a new constitution that will rely on Shiite law, Robertson said.

Contact science reporter Liz Buckley at [email protected].