Essay On The Origins Of Sunni-Shia Conflict

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Muslim, Islam, Religion, Middle East, Syria, Church, Prophet, Conflict

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2021/03/23


In Islam, Sunnis and Shias are the two principal sects into which Muslims are divided. As far as Sunnis are concerned, they are present throughout the world in large majorities (around eighty to ninety percent). Conversely, Shia populations are mostly concentrated in Bahrain, Iraq, and Iran. Moreover, they are also present in Yemen, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in large numbers. The two mentioned sects have different distinctive beliefs and practices that distinguish them in a number of ways. Although both Sunnis and Shias are followers of Islam, their views and conducts differ a lot.

Sunni-Shia Conflict

In addition, they are also renowned for their deep-rooted conflicts and rivalries that originated after Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) death. The issue concerning the leadership of the Muslim community (successor of the Prophet) sparked the longstanding contention among these two sects. The strife among them is further fuelled by their strong differences in their varied laws, rituals, religious organization, doctrines, and theological structure. It rather astonishes one that even though Sunnis and Shias follow the same God, same Prophet, and same Holy Book; their leaders have always been involved in competing with each other stressing on the genuineness of their respective beliefs. It is worth-mentioning that “from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Pakistan, many recent conflicts have emphasized the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart” (“Sunni, Shia Conflict rooted in Dispute over Prophet's Successor”, 2014).

Sunnis and Shia – The Differences

In order to understand the origins of the disputes and conflicts among the discussed sects, it is significantly important to know about their different characteristics, principles, and practices. To begin with, Sunni Muslims consider themselves to be Islam’s conventionally orthodox and purist branch. The term “Sunni” is derived from Arabic word “Ahl al-Sunna". It means the people of the belief/tradition. In this context, the tradition denotes the practices derived from examples of Prophet Muhammad’s conduct or information related to his actions from his companions.
Sunnis hold every prophet mentioned in the Holy Quran with highest regard. However, they demonstrate particular respect and reverence for Prophet Muhammad as Allah’s final Prophet. Quite the opposite to Shia sect, the Sunni religious leaders and intellectuals have almost always come under the control of the state as a tradition. In addition, traditional Sunni Muslims put great emphasis on an organized and structured Islamic law system and adhere to the well-known four schools of law i.e. Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Sahifi.
On the other hand, Shia Islam is followed by collective communities as Shia or individuals as Shii. In fact, it is derived from Shīʻatu ʻAlī which means followers of Ali. Ali was the cousin as well as son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). According to Shia belief, Ali is considered the only true, eligible candidate to be the Caliph of Muslims after Muhammad’s demise. In the early phase of Islam, Shia sect consisted of political people who regarded themselves to be the faction of Ali. They claim that the Islamic community’s leadership is the right of Ali and his descendants.
If the historical incidents are explored and analyzed, it becomes crystal clear that the martyrdom of Ali was the direct consequence of civil wars, violent events, and conspiracies. As a result, such negative happenings tarnished Ali’s caliphate. Afterwards, Hassan and Hussain (Ali’s sons) were deprived of their lawful right to accede to the position of Caliph. It is believed that the Umayyad dynasty’s first leader, Muawiyah, poisoned Hassan.
Similarly, Hussain was also brutally killed along with his family members at Karbala. All the mentioned events strengthened Shia’s point of view about martyrdom and grieving rituals. They also demonstrate an exceptionally unique messianic element in their faith. It is worth-mentioning that Shia sect has a hierarchal series of clerics who have expertise in practicing autonomous and constant analysis of Islamic texts according to their unyielding understanding and interpretations.

Succession Conflict

It was in 632 C.E. that the Islamic world had to endure the greatest loss of Prophet Muhammad’s life. It would not be incorrect to state that since his death, Islam and Muslims have gone through a religious and political split still apparent in the divided Islamic world. The most significant of all such divides is the split of Sunni and Shi’ite communities. It needs to be understood that Islam has a theocratic nature whereby it stresses on the combination of politics and religion. It requires its followers to uphold the religious law and principles contained in the Holy Quran for ruling the Islamic state and society. The dispute between Shias and Sunnis is principally a result of this theocratic nature of their religion. The Muslim world was affected by this nature in a number of ways.
Two of the effects were associated with the mission of Muslim Arabs for spreading Islam throughout the world. These missions resulted in the swift conquests of vast empires that stretched from the Indian continent to Spain. The successful occupations also affected Muslim world tremendously. First, the Arab leaders were suddenly able to accumulate great riches and power. However, a majority of these leaders started practicing corruption. Their tyranny made them oppress and subjugate poor Arabs and new converts. Second, the aforementioned conquests made it possible for the Arabs to come in close contact with Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslim communities who believed in the arrival of a savior in the future.
It was the same time when Muslims divided into two groups as a result of the dispute over the succession of Islam’s Caliphate. The first group comprised of Abu Bakr’s followers. Abu Bakr was the first adult male who converted to Islam and one of the most pious companions of the Prophet Muhammad. The second group considered Ali to be the best candidate for Caliphate being the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis considered “that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community” (Fetini, 2009). Therefore, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph of Islam. As acknowledged by others, I also believe that it was this fundamental political division that became the starting point of the longstanding conflict between Sunnis and Shias.
Ali could not become the succedding Caliph as Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, Prohet Muhammad’s uniquely puritanical companion. After Umar’s martyrdom, Uthman was granted the Caliphate. Once again, Ali was not given the opportunity to become the Caliph of Muslims as Uthman was favored by the influential Umayyad clan. Customarily, a lot of relatives were appointed by Uthman after coming into power. They were given high positions for controlling the consistently expanding Islamic empire. However, one of Uthman’s relatives turned out to be involved in corrupt and fraudulent activities. When his complaints were brought before Uthman, it resulted in the breaking out of a severe dispute and concluded with the murder of Uthman. Later, Ali became the fourth Caliph of Islam. Nevertheless, Muawiyah (Syria’s governor), went ahead leading Umayyad relatives of Uthman in revolt. Consequently, Ali was also murdered in 661 C.E. The Caliphate ended with Ali’s martyrdom and Umayyad dynasty was founded by Muawiya that ruled Islam till 750 C.E.

Martyrdom of Hassan and Hussain

Nevertheless, the disagreement over Caliphate had vanished by now as a lot of Muslims held the belief that Mohammed had actually designated only Ali and his descendants as the future Imams (leaders) of Islam. It would not be incorrect to state that it was this belief that merged with the budding dissatisfaction over Umayyad sleaziness and repression and became the originating factor of the divide and conflict between Sunni and Shias. It is significant to note that the intensification of the dispute increased due to two major events after the death of Ali. Hussain led a revolt in 680 C.E. against Muawiya. However, as mentioned before, he and 70 of his family members were brutally killed at Karbala, a city in Iraq. For this reason, Shia sect considers Karbala as the holiest city.

Dispute over Twelve Imams

Moreover, Shia Islam has a dominant branch known as Twelvers. This branch believes that Ali, Hasan, Hussain, and a series of nine descendants of Hussain are the leaders of Muslims, known collectively as Twelve Imams. A majority of Shia consider that Muhammed ibn al-Hassan is the twelfth Imam who is still alive. According to them, God has hidden Muhammed ibn al-Hassan until his preferred time. Shia texts elucidate that their twelfth Imam will come along with Jesus for the restoration of just rule in the world. They refer to him as ‘Mehdi’ meaning the one who is rightfully guided. Sunnis completely reject Shia’s concept that God has granted supernatural knowledge to these Imams. Thus, the two discussed branches of Islam are also separated due to this difference over the importance and divine worthiness of Imams. No Sunni cleric believes in the authenticity of the divinity of Imams. Sunnis reject the idea of Imams’ possession of divine quality claiming that it is a sinful belief to be associated with normal human beings. Islam only stresses upon the divineness of Allah. Sunnis absolutely negate Twelver Shiism claiming that “it is based "on a creed that the full word and meaning of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's message will only be made manifest, or real and just, upon the return of the 12th Imam, this messianic figure" (as qt in Fetini, 2009).
There are a number of divisions within Shia sect itself that have made changes in the Islamic teachings extraordinarily even to the extent of killing and murdering as lawful. Sunnis do not support such ideas.


As far as my opinion is concerned, Sunnis thought pragmatically while considering, nominating and making Abu Bakr the first Caliph of Islam. The religion and its followers were in dire need of an authoritative, knowledgeable, and proficient person who could lead them wisely. Although every one of the companions of the Prophet was special and unique in his own way, Abu Bakr was the best option at that time. The demand of Shia to make Ali the Caliph was not pragmatic. It was idealistic. Even though Ali was competent, brave, conversant, and proficient in his own capacity; Islam and Muslims needed the composed individual like Abu Bakr who could lead them in absence of their beloved Prophet.
There have been a number of warfare and armed conflicts since this rivalry originated. According to a number of historians, the conflict that was initially political in nature evolved into the acquirement of resources in the contemporary times. The ongoing rivalry crystal clearly indicates that the Sunnis and Shias are divided as ever. It is inopportune that no Islamic leader or cleric or government has been powerful enough to settle the isses among Sunnis and Shias.


Fetini, A. (2009, September 16). Understanding the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from,8599,1924116,00.html
Sunni, Shia conflict rooted in dispute over Prophet's successor. (2014, June 17). CBC Radio-Canada. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

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