Sunnis, Shiites – they’re household terms after 3+ years in Iraq. But do you know what they mean?
As October wraps up the deadliest month so far this year in Iraq for U.S. soldiers and a particularly brutal month for Iraqis, you’ll likely see more references in the media to the “sectarian split” between these two groups.
Instead of focusing on what is causing the violence, let’s simply review the groups and terms we’re likely familiar with but may not understand.
There are estimated to be about one billion Muslims worldwide. The Sunnis and Shiites (also known as Shias) are simply two different Muslim denominations, each with various beliefs.
The primary split between the two groups came in 632 when the Prophet Muhammad died and groups differed over who should become the leader of Islam. The Shiites supported a direct descendant of Muhammad as the righteous leader; the Sunnis supported an agreed upon leader.
> The BBC does a nice job of summarizing the split.
Sectarian simply means “adherent of a sect (denomination).” So when you see references to “sectarian split” or “sectarian violence” in the media, it’s referring to groups with opposing religious view points. In Iraq, it’s referring specifically to Sunnis and Shiites attacking each other.
The big picture
Globally, there are more Muslim Sunnis than Shiites, but in Iraq the Shiites dominate the population (making up about 60%). Sunnis, however, controlled Iraq for hundreds of years and remained powerful under Saddam Hussein.
Now, Shiites have the upper hand in the new Iraqi government, to include a Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. While this flip-flop in power is cause for tension, religious differences are not the only cause for violence, with tribes and groups fighting for status and power. Others simply want the U.S. out of Iraq. Splinter Shiite groups add yet another layer of complexity to the violence and unrest in Iraq, which in itself is cause for a future WeeklyDIVA.