Free Research Paper On Sunni Versus Shia: A Fractured Religion

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Muslim, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Syria, Church, Iraq, Politics

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/01/08

ISIS and the War in Iraq

In their attempt implement a radical Islamic state, Sunni militants continue to terrorize Syria and Iraq amidst various civil wars in the region over growing tensions between sectional factions. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS in the media and political discourses, have indeed terrorized these regions in order to establish and implement an Islamic State guided by stringent sharia law. This militant Islamic group is estimated to have approximately 30,000 fighters in all of its branches and ranks, composed of fundamentalists along with mercenary jihadists. Intelligence officials estimate that ten percent of ISIS members come from western countries. By March of 2015, branches of ISIS were operating in Libya and Egypt, and Bolo Haram, an Islamic sect in Nigeria, promulgated its allegiance and loyalty to ISIS (Cockburn 5). The so-called “War on Terror” waged by the United States under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has failed miserably and has ironically consolidated and fortified ISIS rather than dismantle them and similar militant groups. Understanding the guiding philosophy of ISIS will elucidate how American foreign policy fomented a ripe environment in the Middle East for militant groups to vie for hegemony in the region as well as around the globe.

Since its inception, Islam has never been a homogenous religion, as it has two main branches: the Sunni and the Shia. This religious chasm centers on spiritual as well as political differences of opinion regarding who succeeded the prophet Muhammad following his death in 632 AD. Shia Islam, the largest sect, derives its name from "Shi'at Ali," which loosely translates to "Party of Ali." Ali was the cousin and son-in law of Muhammad who Shi'ites contend was the appointed successor by Muhammad to disseminate his teachings (Peters 7). Beyond this historical division, differences in core tenets and perceptions regarding the political role of Imams as well as hadiths feature prominently Although the two branches possess similarities regarding the major beliefs and doctrines, some critical differences are apparent in various historical, political, and religious matters. Conflicts and tensions between the Sunnis and the Shias mirror those that have manifested themselves between the Protestants and the Catholics in the modern era.
The historical division between Sunnis and Shias hark back to the seventh century because Muhammad did not have any male heirs to sustain the spiritual and political leadership he had established along the Arabian Peninsula in which Islam emerged as the hegemonic religion during his lifetime. In is nebulous who would succeed him. Individuals who believed that a devout member of the Quraysh tribe, Muhammad's original tribe, should become Islam's next year, were categorized as Sunnis. Conversely, those who believed that Muhammad's successor had to be related to him by blood formed the Shias, as they argue that Muhammad had requested that his cousin Ali replace him upon his death in Muhammad's teachings. Indeed, Ali later became the fourth caliph and was respected by Sunnis and Shias alike. However, the Shias view Ali as the most significant religious and historical figure after Muhammad. Muhammad's father-in-law, friends and advisor Abu Bakr became the first Muslim spiritual leader known as the Caliph after a congregation of the faithful voted him into that position. Similar to Muhammad, Abu Bakr came from a Quyash tribe, which was a significant factor in those who wanted him to rise to power. However, the Shias decried Baker's leadership role (Peters 3). Modern Islamic spiritual leaders and theologians continue to debate the succession issue following Muhammad, as there is no objective and unbiased evidence that has come to light (Peters 5-7). The Shia Twelvers reject the initial three Sunni caliphs, thereby downplaying their role in the development of Islam by viewing Ali as the first true imam of Islam. Thus, the diverging opinions about when and who were was supposed to assume power operates as a fundamental source of conflict between the two branches of Islam. One example is the murder of imams according to the Shia Twelvers at the hands of Sunni caliphs (Peters 45).
Beyond this historical division, different perceptions and are unequivocal in the tensions between the Sunnis and the Shias. Shia Islam views imams as the divinely-ordained spiritual leaders who were devoid of Ismah, or sin. As the direct descendants of Muhammad, their interpretation of theological issues are viewed as holy and final in the same way that Catholics perceive the Pope. Conversely, Sunni Muslims view imams as significant spiritual prayer leaders within the community, but they did not consider the imams as infallible or worth of veneration after they were deceased in the same way that Shia Muslims did. Thus, Sunni ideology eschews mysticism within its perception of the caliphs despite the fact that caliphs are still widely respected. Moreover, Sunnis and Shias embraced different hadiths, or a collection of documents about Muhammad's life and his teachings as documented by a litany of narrators. The Koran functions as the authoritative text, thereby superseding the authority of the hadiths. Nonetheless, hadiths are still deployed in Islamic law in order to settle disputes. Each branch embraces and rejects certain hadiths, which also functions as a divider between the two branches (Peters 56-60).


Pundits and political leaders perceive the rise of the Islamic state, also referred to as ISIS, as a religious cognate and untamed form of Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam. As the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia for the past two centuries, Wahhabism presents an austere brand of Islam predicated on the literal interpretation of the Koran. Those who do not embrace their form of Islam are considered uncivilized heathens and enemies of the state, including Shia adversaries. Such a stringent approach to the Koran has propelled many adherents to distort and misinterpret Islam, which extremists such as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden demonstrate (Schwartz). However, the radical doctrines espoused by ISIS lead many Saudis disturbed, prompting them to question the direction and ideology in Saudi Arabia itself if it is closely associated with the discourses and fundamental doctrines articulated by ISIS (Crook). The emergence of ISIS in Iraq can only be understood within the context of Wahhabism and the its role in fostering extremism. ISIS members have publically articulated their guiding principles as rooted in Wahhabist ideology, as they remain steadfastly committed to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. ISIS’ approach starkly contrasts from mainstream Islamic thought and the concept of jihad which informs the genealogy of Al-Qaeda and has fomented different manifestations of violence as a result. While Al-Qaeda developed out of an extremist tradition that perceived Muslim societies and states as having devolved into “sinful disbelief,” thereby using violence as a tool for redemption, the Wahhabi tradition calls for the murder of all non-believers as a foundational step towards purifying and preserving the sanctity of the religious community at large (Kirkpatrick). Thus, ISIS has fully grafted violence into its fundamental ideology not as a means to an end but for an end in itself, which is evident in its sensationalized media coverage of violent, sordid, and uncouth beheadings as a way to threaten the United States and other western countries as well as recruit potential sympathizers in order to effectively combat its various enemies, including the governments in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq


Current American foreign policy supports the Iraqi governments efforts against ISIS but not the Syrian regime under the auspices of Assad, a militant tyrant who has arguably waged a genocide against the Syrian people. Iraqi politicians have opined time and again that the foreign backing for the Sunni revolts taking place in Syria threatened to destabilize Syria, which has already begun to materialize. The U.S.’ contradictory stances and policies in Iraq and Syria have reinforced ISIS’ efforts in both countries. Although the United States has not yet shouldered the blame for the ascendance of ISIS in the Middle East by pointing to Iraq as the scapegoat. As a result, U.S. foreign policy towards Iraq—which shifted after the 9/11 attacks—has created an environment in which ISI can thrive and flourish.
Jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria have acutely increased in numbers and strength and have largely been ignored until 2014 by western politicians and members of the media alike. This elision has persisted in political dialogue because Western governments and their national security forces viewed jihad in very limited terms as the forces that al-Queda firmly controlled. Such a limited view of the jihadist threat, which took root in Bush’s political rhetoric in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, presents a narrative that America has been successful in its war on terror which eschews that actual realities and situation on the ground in the Middle East. Such a view unequivocally inores the fact that al-Quaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has publically criticized ISIS for exacerbating sectarian tensions and for the excessive violence it wages against all those who disagree with their brand of militant Islam. Syrian jihadi rebels who did not affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda have testified that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US” (). Thus, the U.S. naively deceived itself by arguing that only those who are associated with al-Qaeda pose a danger. In fact, jihad groups that were ideologically in line with al-Qaeda were viewed by ISIS as moderate and thus more supportive of western goals in the region. As such, it is unequivocal that throughout the twenty-first century, the notion term “al-Qaeda” has not remained static and rather has been flexible when trying to pinpoint the enemy.
Iraqi opposition to western forces invaded Iraq mounted beginning in 2003, and American officials blamed attacks on al-Qaeda despite the fact that nationalist groups and Baathist adherents were responsible for them. Propaganda in the United States disseminated in order to reify such false notions, as it persuaded well over half of the American populace that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was justified because somehow Saddam Hussein was directly connected to the 9/11 attacks despite the dearth of evidence to prove it. Ironically, such false renderings and accusations ironically benefited al-Qaeda through hyperbole regarding its role in resisting western occupation. Indeed, jihadist groups that operationally were similar to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden’s brand of Islam were rendered dangerous until recently


All Muslims adhere to the teachings of Muhammad, their prophet, as written in the Koran, yet different sects have embraced idiosyncratic beliefs and traditions that operate on a continuum ranging from moderate to fundamentalist branch subsets within each branch. These differences have manifested themselves and fueled physical violence waged against one another by the Sunnis and the Shias. These differences are explicit in countries such as Iraq, unlike in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan where people more often identify as Muslim rather than by the sect they belong to. The intractable divide between Sunnis and Shias has persisted into the present day and has undergirded a litany of terrorist attacks and civil wars taking place in the Middle East. Disagreements about historical, political, and religious matters have rendered the chasm irreversible, as violence increasingly has escalated. Wahhabism ideology and the rise of ISIS reveals how violent Shi'a ideology has become and has been used in order to wage terrorism against all perceived enemies to the religion and traditional precepts that inhere in Islam, including against the Sunnis. Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has engaged in foreign wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq and have embraced certain policies and procedures that are traditionally characteristic of a police state, including the suspension of habeas corpus, torture, rendition, and domestic espionage. The U.S. government waged a war against terror under the belief that in order to secure and sanction the safety of American citizens, individual citizens must be willing to sacrifice their rights for a transient amount of time. Such controversial national security policies have ironically facilitated the strength and growth of ISIS rather than handicap and dismantle the nefarious militant group.

Works Cited

Cockburn, Patrick. "How the US Helped ISIS Grow into a Monster." Mother Jones. 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Cockburn, Patrick. "Who Are Isis? The Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Crooke, Alastair. "You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia." The Huffington Post., 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <>.
"Iraq Conflict: Islamic State." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 26 Mar. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
"ISIS Propaganda Campaign Threatens U.S." Anti-Defamation League. 27 June 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015..
Kirkpatrick, David D. “ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed.” The New York Times. 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Obaid, Nawaf, and Saud Al-sarhan. "The Saudis Can Crush ISIS." The New York Times., 8 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Peters, Rudolph. Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam: A Reader. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996. Print.
Schwartz, Stephen. “Saudi Wahhabism and ISIS Wahhabism: the Difference.” The Weekly Standard. 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Tattersall, Nick and Karouny, Mariam "Turkey's 'Open Border' Policy With Syria Has Backfired As ISIS Recruitment Continues". Business Insider. 26 Aug 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

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Free Research Paper On Sunni Versus Shia: A Fractured Religion. Free Essay Examples - Published Jan 08, 2021. Accessed November 28, 2022.

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