Sunni and Shia Muslims: What’s the difference, and why are they fighting?

Multiple layers of context and controversy can make understanding the conflict a daunting task

As a student of Middle Eastern studies, people often ask me, “So what’s the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, and why are they always fighting?”  It is a complex and sensitive topic, thick with controversy and historical context. Here, I hope to provide you a concise overview of the answer, while conveying the depth and seriousness of this issue for over a billion Muslims on this planet.


A Brief History

Most Muslims you will meet are Sunni.  They account for roughly 90% of the global Muslim population, while Shia Muslims, or Shiites, comprise about 10%. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims—two denominations of the same faith—is really a question of succession after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE.  Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be God’s messenger, founded the Islamic faith in Arabia.  After years of persecution, fighting battles, and winning converts, Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia into a single religious entity, starting what would become one of history’s largest empires.

The revered leader of the new and rapidly growing Muslim faith, Muhammad never chose a successor, nor did he detail any rules for succession.  This is where the schism was born.  Put simply, Muslims became divided over who should be the next Caliph, or leader, of the Islamic community.  The majority of Muslims (later known as Sunnis) believed the next Caliph should be chosen by election, while a smaller group (later known as Shiites) believed the next leader must be related to Muhammad by blood—they chose Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. This disagreement led to several battles and finally to Ali’s murder.  Ali’s supporters, the Shiites, then broke off and separated themselves from the majority of Muslims, believing that they had been betrayed.  They refused to recognize the authority of the elected Sunni Muslims leaders, calling themselves the “Party of Ali”, or “Shiatu Ali”, hence the name “Shiites”.

For Shiites, the Caliph had spiritual authority and represented an infallible manifestation of God on Earth, explaining the need for a blood relation to the Prophet.  For Sunnis, the function of Caliph was much more political, while spiritual authority (besides the Qur’an) came from the consensus of the Muslim community, called the umma.  The core beliefs of each sect are generally the same—belief in one God, Muhammad as God’s messenger, adherence to the Qur’an and the Five Pillars of Islam, and viewing Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets, for instance—but over time, doctrinal differences have emerged.  This sectarian division within the Muslim faith has become one of the greatest sources of conflict in the Middle East ever since.


How Does the Divide Affect Regional Politics?

While the root of this divide is almost 1,400 years old, conflicts continue to this day between the two groups.  Every new struggle or violent episode resonates deeply within the Muslim community, fuelling the fire of sectarian strife.


  • Syrian Uprising: Syria is 75% Sunni, but it is dominated by Alawites, a Shia sub-sect comprising less than 15% of the country’s population.  The current uprising has reawakened tensions between the two groups, resulting in full-blown sectarian conflict between the ruling powers—President Bashar al Assad’s Alawite family and the Alawite-dominated Army—and the majority Sunni rebels.


  • Bahrain Uprising, 2011-12: The tiny Gulf state has a Shia majority, but is dominated by a Sunni monarchy, military, and ruling class.  When Shiites in the country began protesting for representation and equal rights in 2011, the kingdom and its Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia brutally put down the rebellion, killing scores of civilians.  America’s defence interests regarding neighbouring Shia Iran, as well as its alliance with Saudi Arabia, stifled the international response, leaving Bahrain and its human rights crimes largely out of the media spotlight.


  • Iraq War, 2003: Shia Muslims, a majority in Iraq but previously ruled and persecuted by the Sunni minority, stepped into power after Saddam Hussein’s removal.  They targeted Sunnis through government death squads and torture, while Sunnis retaliated via suicide attacks and bombings on mosques and civilians.  US forces have had to intervene to grant Sunnis some power.  The Iraq war has controversially amplified Sunni-Shia violence in the region.


  • Hezbollah: Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based Shiite militant organization, funded by Iran and Syria.  Hezbollah has pledged to fight alongside Syria’s Assad regime against foreign intervention.  This alliance and the group’s lifeline from Iran reveal its (and Iran’s) prioritization of sectarian alliances over Islamic unity.  According to the CIA World Factbook, “The rise of Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon—backed by Iran—is challenging the traditional Sunni powers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”


Our Role: Understanding the Context

Like any historic feud, the Sunni-Shia divide is much more complex than it looks on the surface.  It is shaped by geopolitics, and is often fueled and manipuated by leaders looking to score easy power points.  Recent uprisings and power struggles awaken ancient animosity, and foreign invasions often intensify them. The future may not be bright yet, but for the sake of every moderate Muslim out there, the least we can do as outsiders looking in is try to understand the source of their struggles.

For more information on this topic, check out these great links:

  • Part one of a highly reputed PBS documentary on the Islamic Empire
  • An Al Jazeera documentary on the silenced revolts in Bahrain
  • The BBC provides an in-depth history of the Sunni-Shia split
  • comparison chart listing some primary differences between the sects
  • “What Is the Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims–and Why Does It Matter?” A thorough report by the History News Network
  • Are Sunnis on the rise? The Economist takes a look at regional Sunni-Shia strife
  • The CIA World Factbook breaks down world religions—scroll down for Islam


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