What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

kabaWith the events in Syria and Iraq, it became important to trace the source of the conflict between the two main currents of Islam Shi’ism and Sunnism . This source, which flows for more than a millennium, can not seem to dry up. She gave birth to multiple streams, often contrary, who designed the Middle East today.

This article aims to outline the contours of this tumultuous landscape. We will see that the eternal conflict between Shiites and Sunnis is nothing less than a war of succession between two currents that claim the legitimacy of the legacy of the prophet. This article will give you the necessary light to understand the war in Syria against DAECH . It will also comprdnre geographical distribution that we see today between the two communities:

Islam card
Distribution map between Shiites and Sunnis

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

The schism: 657

The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (or Muhammad), had no son. At his death (632), he had completed the union of Arab tribes, but he also had vacated the post of Caliph (etymologically « he who comes after » (the prophet)). The Arab tradition was that the choice should bear on « one of his relatives, » without elaborating …

Two personalities of the nascent Islam seemed then meet this requirement:

1. Ali bin Talib, originally of the Shiite branch of Islam

He is the son of Abu Talib , the Prophet’s uncle. Ali is a cousin of Mohammed . It is also his son: he married one of the daughters, Fatima , whom he had two son, Hasan and Husayn. It is, according to Shiite tradition, the first faithful to embrace Islam after Khadija , the first wife of the Prophet.

2. Abu Bakr , the origin of the Sunni branch

He was the father of Aisha , the wife (then 6 years old) Mohammed married in 622 and became her « favorite wife ». First companion of the Prophet, he joined the Medina during the Hegira (622). Shortly before his death, the Prophet gave him the conduct of prayer. It is, according to Sunni tradition, the first faithful to embrace Islam after Khadija , the first wife of the Prophet.

tree of Islam
Mapping Islam – Sunni branch – Shiite branch

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of the Sunnis

Abu Bakr became the first Caliph (632-634), in an election organized by Omar Ibn al-Khattab (close friend of the Prophet). The companions of Ali (etymologically Shiites) did not recognize the validity of the election. A bou Bakr spread the influence of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and Syria. He was also at the initiative of writing the Koran.

Two other Caliphs succeeded him, taking each turn, the title of « successor of the Prophet »

  • Omar or Umar (634-644), originally the Muslim calendar, and
  • Othman or Uthman (644-656), whose election was described by Shiites of « coup », whose sole purpose was to prevent Ali to become Caliph.

The Shiites were persecuted and sought refuge on the eastern territories (Persia), which are still predominantly Shiite (Iran, Iraq in particular), as shown in the map below.

Prescribed goods

The first hours of Islam were therefore organized by the Caliphs , according to a tribal pattern, that of Abu Bakr . The first four Caliphs of Islam were labeled ar-Rashidun , that is to say, etymologically « well managed » or « of accepted by all Muslims. »

Battle of Siffin

Ali, the fourth caliph and first Imam of Shiites

Ali was forced into hiding until the murder of Uthman in 656. Ali then returned to the front of the stage. He took to turn the title « Caliph », the fourth name. His reign lasted only 5 years. He was assassinated in 661.

The break became final in 657 (during the caliphate of Ali), at the Battle of Siffin (now Iraq). Fought:

  • Shiites , under the command of Ali (the son of the prophet then Caliph) and;
  • Sunnis , under the authority of Mu’awiya (or Muawiya), governor of Damascus and cousin of the former caliph Othman murdered. Muawiya also had the support of his powerful family, the Umayyads .

The Battle of Siffin first turned to the advantage of Ali . But Muawiya turned tactician He asked his soldiers to hold on to the tip of their spear a page of the Koran and of appealing to « arbitration of God. » Ali could not refuse … And Arbitration (biased Muawiya) was not favorable.

Muawiya then took the title of Caliph (not recognized by the partisans of Ali) and pushed its advantage to Egypt, initiating future conquests of Islam.

Time of war

Ali was assassinated in 661 and his tragic death closed the parenthesis of the « Well-Headed » and opened;

  • Sunni side, that of the Umayyads (Dynasty Muawiya which will itself be overturned by that of the Abbasids );
  • Shiite side, that of the eleven Imams (initiated by Ali).

The assassination of Ali also opened the era of wars between Muslims continues today.

The succession of Ali

A few years later, the second son of Ali (Hussein or Hussain) said the Shiite torch, hoping restore the legitimacy of his father. He took up arms, but little organized, he was overwhelmed by the armies of Muawiya . Encircled, he was killed by Yasid (son of Muawiya) in 680 and buried in Karbala in Iraq .

The commemoration of his « martyrdom » and that of his family is one of the holiest days of the Shiite calendar and Kerbala non-less holy place. The gap between the two communities dug a little more to reach abyssal depths, that nothing and nobody could fill. The Shiites went underground.

Eleven Imams succeeded, giving birth to some other branches of the tree of Shiite Islam such as:

  • of Yazidites, after the 6th Imam Yazid el Abidine ;
  • Fatimid Alawites (located in Syria) and Druze (located in Lebanon), after the 11th Imam Hassan al-Askari.

The twelfth Shia Imam

The Shias still await the coming of the 12th Imam (the Mahdi ), who held just before the end of the world. The Muslim profession of faith is this: « God is one and Muhammad is his Prophet. » The Sunnis stop there. A profession of faith, the Shi’ites add « and Ali is the Imam of Allah « . Here we see the principal role of the Imam in Shia while Sunnis prefer direct contact with God.

Umayyad map
Umayyad Caliphate map

Simplifying to the extreme, we could assimilate in their profession of faith:

  • the Sunnis to the Lutherans and Calvinists (Protestants), because of their rejection of the clergy, this useless intermediary and profiteering between God and men;
  • and Shia to Catholics very attached to a structured clergy, headed by the Ayatollah.

The wars of religion in France before the coronation of Henry IV (and his famous Edict of Nantes who inaugurated religious tolerance) closely resemble the incessant conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis.

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

The expansion of Sunni Islam

It started under the caliphate of Omar and Othman (Syria, Iraq, Persia, Jerusalem, Egypt) and continued under the dynasties Umayyads and Abbasids . In the east, they go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, in the Caucasus. To the west, they will take the Christians of North Africa; they will cross the Strait of Gibraltar, invade Spain and will finally stopped at Poitiers by Charles Martel (732), the grandfather of Charlemagne. The Caliphate of Cordoba Sunni Umayyad lasted until the eleventh century.

Sunni authority on the Middle East will occasionally challenged by:

  • the Crusaders (following the call of Pope Urban II in the eleventh century) of Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, driven by Saladin, the leader of particularly brilliant Kurdish war;
  • Byzantium , heir to Rome following the conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century;
  • the Mongols in the thirteenth century that will go up to Jerusalem.

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites? Ottomans to Today

1453 – the fall of Constantinople

In the fifteenth century, the Sunni tribe of Oghuz (the Ottomans) took control of Anatolia (now Turkey). They gradually extended their influence throughout the Muslim world. Under the command of Mehmet II (7th sultan of the Ottoman Empire), they took Turkey (Anatolia at the time) and in particular the Byzantine capital Constantinople (1453).

Meanwhile in Persia (Iran), another dynasty was born: the Safavids who imposed it on Shiism .

The map of the current division of the Muslim world was final.

1918 – sharing between French and British

Nasser at the A Time

During the Great War, the Ottomans chose (under duress by Kaiser Wilhelm II) on the wrong side: the defeated Germany.

In 1916, the British instrumentèrent Arab forces who want to get rid of the Ottoman yoke. They promised them some independence, they will never have and that will be the starting point of Arab nationalism, which will live its apogee under the chairmanship of Colonel Nasser (1954) in Egypt.

The Ottoman Empire was boneless (by the Treaty of Sevre 1920 ).

The Maghreb, Syria Lebanon were awarded to French (agreement of Sykes-Picot ); Iraq and Egypt (among others) to the British .

The war between Shiites and Sunnis continues

Inside the Sunnis, different sensibilities began to distinguish; more radical sensibilities in their reading of the Koran. These groups are the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (which Hamas calls itself) and the Salafis or Wahhabis located in Saudi Arabia.

1950 – nationalism (Sunni) Arab

Arab nationalism, tinged with Marxism-Leninism, was born with the arrival to power of Nasser colonel in Egypt. Religious issues went to second place. This Arab nationalism embodied in particular:

  • in the Algerian FLN ;
  • in the action of Mustapha Kemal (Atatürk said, the father of the Turks) who imposed secularism on Muslim land of Turkey since 1920.
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In Palestine, Fatah of Yasser Arafat in was another illustration. The idea was to create a large Arab nation. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the successive defeats of the Arab armies against the Jewish state will end the beautiful idea and provoke a violent downturn on religious identity.

Egypt and the Sunni Muslim Brothers

The Muslim brothers are Sunnis (like most Egyptians). They were born in 1927. They soon attracted the youth of Egypt, urban, middle class. In 1945, they take a much more religious color, more violent (especially in 1949 following the murder of their supreme leader Hassan al-Banna).

Egypt today – Sunni: 90% – Christians (Copts): 6%

Before NASSER, the brothers were seen by Americans as a regional ally against communism. At that time, Uncle Sam had hoisted the Reds at the top of the list of enemies to fight. Any alliance against this enemy was then authorized, even with dictators (especially in South America) or religious groups, as brothers (though refractory to Western society) or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

After the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser , the brothers came into conflict with the Egyptian government. In 1954, an attack against the Rais ( Nasser ) was assigned. NASSER put leaders in jail! They waited his successor ( Anwar Sadat ) to regain freedom (1970).

In 1984, they finally authorized by Hosni Mubarak and engage in politics to the success of Mohamed MORSI. With the return of soldiers from General Al Sissi, they are promised the Egyptian playground, the « prison » cells or « underground ».

The Shiites small minority are persecuted in Egypt. The Salafist (Sunni movement that advocates the primary return to the original Islam and represented in Egypt through the party Al-Nour ) had asked MORSI to « cleanse Egypt of the Shiite vermin » … But they came quickly in conflict with the latter, because the president MORSI used for the benefit of the brothers and only brothers, the unit of the Egyptian state.

With the coming to power of General Al-Sissi , the tension is rising a notch with the Iran . The mullahs do not really appreciate its « secular posture » and especially its war against the religious movements. The strong man is seen as an obstacle to the expansion of the Shiite religious influence in the Middle East.


1979 – Revolution (Shiite) Iran

The Shah of Iran, hitherto ally of the United States of Nixon and Kissinger, and its main ally in its fight against the invading communism (Egypt of Nasser and Syria of Hafez Assad), was overthrown in 1979 by an Islamic revolution . Ayatollah Khomeini  became the spiritual leader of the Shiites . He advocated a particularly legalistic Islam and made his country the enemy of Western culture in general and the United States (and its Sunni allies in the region, that is to say, Saudi Arabia), especially .

Saudi Arabia – Sunni: 97% – Shiites: 2.5%

1980 – Iran-Iraq War and Saddam Hussein (Sunni)

On the other side of the border, Saddam Hussein , a Sunni Iraqi President began to worry. Supported by Saudi Arabia (Sunni), he launched a preventive war, that history will record under the terms of « Iran-Iraq War. » He received the support of the USA and France, frightened by the Iranian revolution and the risk of contagion. This war will be in the 80 million deaths, without changing borders. Saddam Hussein then turned his guns to the Kuwait Sunni, completing discrediting to his friends, starting with Saudi Arabia and the United States.

George Bush sent in 1990 its GI liberate Kuwait.

1980 – The Taliban (Sunnis) to Afghanistan

During the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 80s, the Pashtun Mujahideen (one of the many ethnic groups of Afghanistan) created the movement « students » in order to control, for their benefit and to the detriment of other ethnic groups in the country, Afghanistan.

They were encouraged covertly by neighboring Pakistan, which saw in this protest movement, the opportunity to invade Afghanistan by proxy militia. Indeed, Pakistan has sought at all times, the opportunity to access Central Asia. In addition, the armed wing became a major asset in the fight that Pakistan exercised against India over Kashmir.

The Taliban have recruited Sunni Islamic schools funded by Saudi Arabia (Sunni to expand influence in the region). These schools teach the origins of Islam, but also the use of weapons. Their leader is the mysterious Mullah Omar (the man with the moped).

The face of Omar is unknown. Only a small circle of faithful were able to approach him. Its status as demigod is related to his military talents and charisma. His word is law in force among the Taliban who are totally devoted to him, including when it comes to apply Islamic law in its most brutal aspects. Their objective ? Restore order and morality. Their strength and that of Omar? Represent for the population weary of clan wars.

1988 – Al Qaeda (Sunni)

Al Qaeda , a Sunni movement, was born under the leadership of Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden . It was all fighting, including one Afghan Mujahideen. This suggests that the Americans have partially funded. Al Qaeda preaches international jihad, without claiming any particular territory. His is the most glorious weapon was the bombing in 2001 against the twin towers, organized since the emirates.

2001 – The war in Iraq (2001 and 2005)

In 2005, George Bush-son completed the work begun by his father (1990) by driving Saddam Hussein, the Sunni dictator of power, and providing Iraq with vengeful Shiites. He sent indirectly Sunnis, many of Saddam’s officers in hiding. They then formed the first battalions (2013) of the Islamic State.

Iraq – Shiites: 51% – Sunnis: 46% – Christians: 3%

The American intervention had the effect of destabilizing the region by reviving old conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis, frozen far by Saddam Hussein .

With the death of Saddam (2005), a Sunni bastion fell to the heart of the Middle East. Sunni leaders, starting with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan , then saw to incorporate under their frightened eyes the famous « Arc-Shiite » grouping Syria, Iraq and Iran, even Lebanon …

Jordan – Muslim 95% (Sunni majority) – Christians: 5%

And the war moved to Syria

Driven by the Americans, these new jihadists crossed the border and settled on the land of Syria, Raqqa. Unbearable for President Alawite (Shiite) Bashar Assad, supported by:

  • the Hezbollah , the Lebanese Shiite Lebanese militia;
  • Amal (also Shiite Lebanese militia);
  • Shiite Iran, the great financier.

The conflict between the two branches of Islam, began the Prophet’s death, continued.

Syria today – Sunni: 75% – Alawite (Shiite): 11% – Christians: 10% – Druze: 4%

Tensions in Lebanon

As already mentioned, sectarian tensions are fueled by two giants Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite). The rule applies to Lebanon.

Lebanon today – Sunni: 22% – Shiites: 25% – Druze (the Shiites): 8% – Christians: 41%

Saudi and Qatar support the Lebanese Sunni militias against their Shiite counterparts ( Hezbollah – Amal). Thus, Saudi Arabia, by interposed credits, she supports the Lebanese government in perpetual conflict with the Hezbollah .

2010 – DAECH (Sunni)

Al Qaeda now seems stalled, replaced by local groups, such as:

These groups are attached to the control of a territory, a state where Islamic sharia would apply without restriction. They claim over large portions of territory in Syria and Iraq, rebuilding the Caliphate and in particular the disappearance of the border created by the British and French in 1920.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the self-proclaimed new caliph, continuing another Abu Bakr, the first Caliph.

AQ versus EI.PNG
constellation jihadist

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

Shiites today

There are a majority in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq. They constitute 1/3 of the population in Lebanon (the Hezbollah ), the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are only 10% in Saudi Arabia (but mainly in the oil areas).

Shiites are in power:

  • in Iran since 1979;
  • in Syria , following the coup (1970) of Hafez Assad (an Alawite), which his son Bashar succeeded in 2000;
  • in Iraq (since the fall of Sunni President Saddam Hussein in 2003).

The Shiite minority, who feel oppressed in a mainly Sunni Muslim world, so look towards Tehran.

Saudi Arabia, dominated by the Saud family associated with Wahhabis (who advocate an original Islam) is the sworn enemy of Iran. The race to the Iranian nuclear weapon may cause an escalation of Saudi Arabia.

In short, the question of Israel aside, we can consider that the conflicts in the Middle East are summarized in this Sunni-Shia rivalry.

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

Shiite society

The Imam (there were eleven in history, until 873) is a central character, not just a driver of prayers, as among the Sunnis . It is directly descended from Ali and, as such, is deemed infallible (as the pope among Catholics). While Shiite owes allegiance.

The clergy is very structured (as among Catholics). The faithful is guided in the conduct of his faith by an Ayatollah who is known for his science. The best known (in the world West anyway) was Khomeini (died 1989) who was the origin of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran .

Sunni society

Among Sunnis , Calif exercise the two powers, spiritual and temporal. That’s why we royalties in Sunni countries. Among Shiites, the powers are separated. Well, almost … The Leader of the Revolution is still at the top of the ladder, above the President. It is consulted on almost everything.

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

The contribution of a surfer

Until 632 AD and as the Prophet Muhammad was alive, Islam formed one and the same current. At his death divergent views emerged. Those who choose Ali, son of the prophet become Shiites. Those who choose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion, become the Sunnis.
The consequences of this division were crucial: a very different organization of clergy and ultra-mainstream that imposed and provoked very strong reactions.
The most famous Iranian Ayatollah, Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini , Supreme Leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran established in 1979, after the fall of the Shah.


Shiites recognize 12 imams , reputed infallible in interpretation of the Quran. For them, the Qur’an is a human work and they have a very hierarchical clergy. More political power to reckon with the power, distinct, religious authorities (in the case of the ayatollahs in Iran, for example).


In contrast to the Sunnis, the Quran is a divine character. In addition, they are faithful to the « Sunnah » that is, the actions of the prophet. Through the Sunna, Sunnis try to imitate the Prophet. Finally they agree that the political and religious authority are rendered within the same individual (as in Morocco, where the king is Commander of the Faithful).

A majority Sunni

Sunnis are super-majority in the Muslim world, they represent 85% of Muslims.
The Shiites, however the majority in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Alawites (including claims to Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian dictator) is a branch of Shiism and are the majority in Syria.
Regional rivalries in the Near and Middle East have reinforced the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites and lead to hardening of the current crisis.
We, as Christians and members of MCR must understand these differences to better understand the current crisis and avoid falling into false always dubious interpretations ..

The case Yéminite

An illustration of the fratricidal war between Shiites and Sunnis.

The Houthis are Shiites organized militia in a country which borders predominantly Sunni (South) Saudi Arabia.

On the road to the capital Sanaa, the Houthis, supported by Iran, clashed with Sunni militias backed by Saudi Arabia, but also Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A blitz allowed them to take the capital.

South Yemen is still in the hands of the Sunnis, especially the big city Aden.


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