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A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is

December 17, 2018

On April 25th, Dr. John McHugo began by covering the decades following the death of the Prophet Muhammad which ended with civil war engulfing the Muslim community. This crucial historical background is necessary to understand how Muslims became divided between those who found guidance in the recollections of the Prophet’s Companions, and those who sought it through the Prophet’s family and descendants. In time, these two groups developed into what we now call Sunnis and Shi’is. The two groups were not always confrontational towards each other. They also overlapped and cross-fertilized.

In the sixteenth century, Iran (hitherto a majority Sunni country) was converted to Twelver Shi’ism by its Safavid rulers. For a while, sectarian feeling was a factor in the hostilities between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, but the sting was taken out of this in the eighteenth century.

From the nineteenth century onwards Sunnis and Shi’is were generally allies against the political, economic and cultural invasion of the West. Islamic unity across the sects became increasingly urgent, while nationalism made sectarian differences less important. Yet the divide never went away. It exploded from the 1970s onwards after the oil price boom and the Islamic revolution in Iran.

As Wahhabi and Salafi preaching against Shi’is spread, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran used communities as proxies in their struggle for hegemony. Simultaneously, sectarian politics became entrenched in Iraq after 2003, whilst a Salafi jihad in Syria demonized the Shi’i Alawi minority from which the president and many of his henchmen came.

But all is not lost. The dangers of sectarian politics have become clear. People power movements that have taken to the streets in many Middle Eastern cities in 2011 and on a number of subsequent occasions recognize this. The future need not be bleak.