Dr. Elmira Akhmetova

The conflict in Syria, which began in 2011 as peaceful demonstrations against the Ba’ath government of Bashar Al-Assad within the context of the Arab Spring protests, has soon turned into a civil war allegedly pitting the Shiah Alawites against the Sunni Muslims. According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research report released in February 2016, at least 470,000 people were killed since March 2011 with 1.9 million wounded (reaching a total of 11.5% of the entire population wounded or killed), many of whom were civilians and children.[1] As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimated 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced.[2] The real figure is likely to be even higher, especially after the Russian military involvement in the conflict. The emergence of DAESH as a dominant extremist militant group of Syrian opposition caused many brutalities and transgressions that violate the core principles of Islam and humanity. The evils of sectarianism and tribalism became rampant and are now threatening the fabrics of society and state in the entire MENA region.

Analyses of the roots of sectarian conflict in the Middle East tend to look at the historical schism between Sunnis and Shias as the fundamental driving factor behind contemporary tensions existing in the entire Muslim world. Discussions on the existence of a “1,400 Year War” between Sunni and Shiah Muslims are today increasingly common. No doubt, differences between Sunnis and Shias, which started at the early years of Islamic caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), regarding his legitimate successor, are real and cannot be denied. Despite some disagreements between Sunni and Shiah interpretations of the Shari’ah, yet, scholars from both sides have long engaged in dialogue and influenced the religious thought of one another for centuries. As a legacy of this, today the greatest seats of learning in Islam also teach Shiah theology as an integrated school of thought.[3]

Historically, ordinary Sunnis and Shias have lived together side by side in peace and harmony, intermarrying and living in the same neighbourhoods up to the 21st century. A Toronto-based writer and analyst on issues related to Middle Eastern politics, Murtaza Hussain, observed that even where Sunnis and Shias have exerted power through distinct political structures, the argument that this has equated to conflict does not stand up to even a cursory analysis.[4] While the Sunni Ottoman Empire (1299-1924) and the Shiah Safavid Empire (1501-1736) experienced their share of conflict, they also lived peaceably alongside one another for hundreds of years, even considering it shameful as Muslim powers to engage in conflict with one another. The prevailing claims that these two empires have been in a perpetual state of war and animosity throughout their existence are absurd. In early Safavid rule, for example, Sunni nobles continued to feature as courtiers, bureaucrats and prayer leaders. The confrontation between an established empire, that of the Ottomans, and the newly formed Safavid empire was not about their religion, but rather it was an Ottoman reaction to the political aspirations of the Safavids, who nurtured expansionist design with regards to Anatolia.  It is also a fact that each of these empires conducted extensive religious propaganda against each other. Yet, the Ottoman-Safavid conflict should be considered within the framework of the entire geopolitical pattern of the Middle East and Transoxania at the end of the fifteenth century and the sixteenth rather than within the simplistic framework of Sunnism versus Shiism.[5]

There are also considerable Shiah minorities in South Asia. Until the end of the twentieth century, however, there was no history of any large-scale Sunni-Shiah conflict. Also, by the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman-Safavid enmity has subsided and, since the early eighteenth century, with a few brief periods when internal turmoil in Iran invited Ottoman interference, relations between the Ottomans and the successors of the Safavid empire and, later, between the Republic of Turkey and Iran have been peaceful and even friendly. The clashes between Sunni and Shiah Muslims in the past have been the exception rather than a norm. It is illogical, therefore, to examine the present-day tensions between the Sunnis and Shias in the framework of Christian religious wars happening in Europe. In the history of Sunni-Shiah relations, there are no analogies to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The tangible manifestation of the concept of Ikhtilaf (the recognition and tolerance of disagreement among the scholars over juristic issues) in Islam opens ways for the tradition of diversity and pluralism in religious and intellectual assessment. At present, there are at least seven different recognized schools of jurisprudence throughout the Muslim world under the Sunni and Shiah branches of Islam. All these schools, incorporating equally valid interpretations of the Shari’ah, are united into one nation, which believes in One God, one Scripture and one Shari’ah. The conflict brewing between certain Sunni and Shiah political factions in the Middle East today, therefore, has little or nothing to do with religious differences. It is more about modern identity politics, power and privilege.

The gradual rise in sectarian tension at present times, which had begun in the early 1970s and escalated following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Afghan Wars (1979-2001), is a product of very recent global events. It was mainly related to competition for influence and power in the region, notably between Iran and the Arab countries, especially Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In that competition, both sides tried to exploit religion as an instrument in their politics, contributing to a sharp rise in sectarian tensions in the entire Middle East. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and its aftermaths also played a sizeable part in this respect. The part of Israel in destabilizing the Middle Eastern countries should also be taken into consideration.

Declaration of the US-led global ‘war on terror’ as a result of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States initiated a new chapter in Sunni-Shiah rivalry. Western powers and their local allies have sought to exacerbate the false divisions between Sunni and Shias in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, and at this moment in Syria in order to perpetuate conflict and maintain the Middle East being divided, unstable, corruptible and incapable of asserting itself.

Therefore, stability and peace in the region depend on the quality of Sunni-Shiah relations. Until the followers of these two branches of Islam adopt a more humane and civilized attitude toward each other, which had been dictated by their religion and practiced for long centuries, there will be almost no chance for peace and prosperity in the Middle East. Within the last fifty years, a series of noteworthy attempts were made on the parts of Sunni as well as Shiah scholars and politicians at reconciliation and harmony between these two groups of Muslims. In the late 1950s, for instance, the Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut of Al-Azhar and Ayatollah Muhammad Taghi Ghomi of Iran established very good personal and scholarly relations, which serves as an exemplary meeting point between the two schools of Islam. Following these efforts, Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut issued a fatwa in 1958 declaring the Shiah Ja’fari school as legitimate in Islam.

Also, on 3 March 2007 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held an extraordinary summit meeting, displaying mutual warmth with hugs and promised a thaw in relations between the two regional powers. On 6 February 2013 Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, then-secretary-general of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), stated to Ahram Online that rapprochement between different Muslim sects is essential.  He also said that, “The conflict in Syria is not either a sectarian conflict, although some tries to make it look so.”[6]

Another important step was recently undertaken by HE Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981-2003), and HE Syed Muhammad Khatami, the former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1997-2005). On 22 May 2013, they called a Media Conference in Malaysia to launch A Joint Appeal to Sunnis and Shi’as to end violence, bloodshed and killing between Sunni and Shiah Muslims. Yet, these noteworthy endeavours could not find any considerable media interest or attention from the international community; and their encouraging results remained unnoticed. In reality, many segments of the Arab and the international media, not excluding Al-Jazeera, have today been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shiah Islam.

Respecting the reality that good and proper relations between Shiah and Sunni Muslims are the solution to stability in the entire region, several steps can be taken to prevent sectarian conflict from spreading. First, in order to amend the situation, religious scholars, academicians, activists, and politicians from Sunni and Shiah communities should propagate the fundamental values of Islam such as peace, tolerance, freedom, and respect for human dignity. The sincere commitment to the Qur’anic core principles of wasatiyyah (moderation), peace, equilibrium, dignity, justice and freedom in all aspects of life may bring more balance and security to Muslim societies in particular and mankind in general. Adhering to this, the validity in principle of reasoned disagreement (ikhtilaf), or pluralism of ideas and interpretations, in religious and intellectual matters, should be recognised as the fundamental essence of Islam in dealing with different schools of thought. At the same time, the tactics of manipulation of religious or sectarian differences for political and economic purposes, as well as the false images of self-righteousness and rejection of one another in academic spheres should be prohibited as an immoral attitude, which opposes the very basic values of Islam.

Secondly, Muslim governments, whether Sunni or Shiah, shall respect the rights of their citizens regardless of their religious beliefs. Hence, nation-states with Sunni majority should treat their Shiah citizens as equals, and countries with Shiah majority should do the same regarding their Sunni minorities.

In addition, more voices should be raised from Muslim scholars and religious leaders to reject crude myths about a 1,400 year sectarian war between Muslims. This absurdity should be stopped. Otherwise, the strategy of divide-and-conquer may eventually result in untold crimes against humanity and Islam. Ongoing bloodshed in Syria today should be recognized as a civil war, and not to be simplified as a continuation of 1,400 year-long conflict between Sunni and Shiah Muslims.

Lastly, the super powers should not manipulate the ideological differences existing in the Muslim world in the pursuit of their political agenda. All human beings, regardless of their ethnic origins, religious and educational backgrounds, and geographical locations, should be respected as equals, and their dignity, well-being and security should be granted.

*The writer is faculty member, Department of History, International Islamic University Malaysia.

The article was originally posted in Current Affairs Forum KIRKHS, https://currentaffairsforum.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/sunni-shiah-rivalry-myths-and-reality


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/11/report-on-syria-conflict-finds-115-of-population-killed-or-injured (accessed 12 June 2016).

[2] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2015/03/left-syria-150317133753354.html.

[3] Murtaza Hussain, “The Myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia War,” Al Jazeera,http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/07/2013719220768151.html (accessed 26 August 2013).

[4] Murtaza Hussain, “The Myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia War,” Al Jazeera,http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/07/2013719220768151.html (accessed 26 August 2013).

[5] See, Adel Allouche, The Origins and Development of the Ottoman-Safavid Conflict (906-962/1500-1555) (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1983), 4-5 and 146-148; and Shireen Hunter, “Sunni-Shia Tensions are More About Politics, Power and Privilege than Theology,” Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University,http://acmcu.georgetown.edu/135390.html (accessed 4 September 2013).

[6] Dina Ezzat, “OIC Chief: We Need Shia-Sunni Dialogue”, Ahram Online,http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/64183.aspx (accessed 9 September 2013).