Relations between Sunnis and Shiites

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Islamic denominations and schools of law

Sunnis and Shiites make up the two main branches of Islam . The demographic breakdown between the two denominational groups is difficult to determine and is given differently depending on the source, but according to an assessment from 2010 , 85% of all Muslims worldwide are Sunnis and 15% Shiites. Most Shiites belong to the Twelve Shia ; there are also other sub-groups such as Ismailis and Alawis , the latter mainly in Syria.

Sunnis and Shiites both believe in the divine origins of the Quran and also agree on the meaning of the Five Pillars of Islam . Certain differences exist in religious practice, traditions and customs, often related to jurisprudence . Among other things, in the evaluation of some hadiths and on the nature of the Mahdi , the two groups have different views.

Worldwide distribution

Sunnis make up the majority in the vast majority of the Arab world , in Turkey and Europe , especially in German-speaking countries, where most Muslims come from Turkey; also in Africa , Central, South and Southeast Asia, China and the USA. The latter can be confusing, however, because the majority of US Muslims of Arab origin are Shiites and Arabs and Muslims are often equated, even though the majority of Arabs in the US belong to Christianity.

There are Shiite majorities in Iran (around 95%), Azerbaijan , Bahrain and Iraq . The Shiites in Lebanon make up 45% of the Muslim population in that country. In Yemen , too, Shiite communities have existed for centuries, estimated to be around 30% of the total population, and most of them belong to the Zaidis . In Kuwait , 30% of the population are Shiites, in Saudi Arabia 15% and in Pakistan 5%.



The split between Sunnis and Shiites is older than the Christian split between Western and Eastern Churches . It begins with the discussion about the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed after his death in 632. The later Sunnis were of the opinion that Mohammed had not named a successor and wanted to choose him. Its name is derived from Sunna (Arabic for "custom, traditional norm"). The later Shiites, however, demanded that the new caliph or imam must be a descendant of Mohammed . In their opinion, the Prophet saw the same thing and named his cousin and son-in-law Ali . The name Shiites developed from their name "Shiat Ali", Ali's party.

The disputes between representatives of different positions on the question of succession initially led to the camel battle and the battle of Siffin and intensified after the battle of Karbala . After the troops of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I killed the prophet's grandson Husain and his family, there was an outcry for vengeance in the Islamic community .

Around 750 the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty . The first Abbasid caliph as-Saffah pointed to his descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib , an uncle of Mohammed, and in this way received Shiite support.


Iran was ruled by Sunni Shafiites until the end of the 15th century , although the authors of the four Shiite books were Iranian as early as the 10th and 11th centuries . The first Safavid ruler, Shah Ismail I , made the Twelve Shiite creed as the state religion in 1501. This policy sparked a centuries-long rivalry with the neighboring Sunni Ottoman Empire , which erupted in the Battle of Tschaldiran in 1514 and in the numerous Turkish-Persian wars that followed. In today's Islamic Republic of Iran, too, Shiites form the vast majority.


According to many experts, today's conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites have nothing to do with religious issues, but with political ones.

The political scientist and peace researcher Jochen Hippler from the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen explains that the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a political core: the supremacy in the Persian Gulf. The governments use religion primarily as a "plaything". Further examples of such power struggles in the 21st century are the protests in Saudi Arabia from 2011 and the protests in Bahrain from 2011 , both as part of the Arab Spring , the Iraq war , the Syrian civil war and the formation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant , in which there were persecution against Shiites. See also Religious Group Conflicts in Pakistan .

The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein once described the Shiites as “the people of temporary marriage and fesendjan ”, a Persian dish with chicken, pomegranate syrup and walnuts. This provocative definition is an example of how quite random differences between the two groups can be dramatically hyped up in certain political situations. According to a report by Human Rights Watch , in the early years of the Iran-Iraq war , the Iraqi government arrested “thousands of Shiite Muslims for supporting the Iranian revolution in 1979. Many of those arrested have disappeared or gone missing; others died under torture or were executed. This campaign was followed by the violent expulsion of over half a million Shiites to Iran during the 1980s, after having previously sorted out numerous male family members. "

The journalist and Islamic scholar Katajun Amirpur examined, among other things, the role of religion in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in her book “The Shiite Islam” . Regarding the current situation in Iraq , she writes: “As clear as it is that the current political conflicts are linked to the age-old religious schism between Sunnis and Shiites, it is still difficult to say and distinguish between what influences whom and what is decisive is: politics or religion ”.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Changing religious and ethnic composition of the Arab communities in Dearborn, Michigan William L. Kiskowski, in: Wiley Online Library, Wiley-Blackwell , February 13, 2015
  2. ^ Yemen: The land with more guns tham people Mary Dejevsky in: The Independent , September 20, 2009
  3. International Religious Freedom Report for 2012. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US State Department (archive)
  4. Here Are Some of the Day-To-Day Differences Between Sunnis and Shiites Azadeh Moaveni in: The Huffington Post , June 25, 2014
  5. Jochen Hippler: War, Repression, Terrorism. P. 60
  6. Katajun Amirpur: The Shiite Islam .


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