This is an article in the series A Look Into Islam.

We are getting some very cheery news out of Iraq these days:

Shiite militiamen grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive near an Iraqi army post. The soldiers did not intervene, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.

The savage revenge attack for Thursday’s slaughter of 215 people in the Shiite Sadr City slum occurred as members of the Mahdi Army militia burned four mosques, and several homes while killing an unknown number of Sunni residents in the once-mixed Hurriyah neighborhood.

Shiites killing Sunnis — Sunnis killing Shiites. It’s a nice cycle of violence that stretches back for centuries, and this long cycle is part of the violence we see in Iraq. So how critical is knowing the differences between Shi’a and Sunni forms of Islam to understanding the situation in the Middle East? Some people think it is important, as you can tell from this “Bush is a moron” post on Daily Kos: “Bush didn’t know there was a difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as late as January 2003.” I can still feel the “yuk yuk – what a moron” vibes almost a year after it was first posted. But the KosKids aren’t the only ones using the meme that we need to understand the differences between Shi’as and Sunnis. Jeff Stein of the New York Times recently published an opinion piece about knowing the differences.

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

Unfortunately, Mr. Stein lost the power of his analogy when he brought up the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland. How much do you really need to know about the differences between Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity to understand the decades-long conflict there? And what do these differences have to do with the current situation? Do you think the IRA set up bombs to protest Martin Luther’s nailing up 95 theses to the church doors in Wittenberg? Were Sinn Féin shootings accompanied by leaflets demanding that Protestants accept the supremacy of the Papacy? Or did the conflict have more to do with whether the northern counties of Ireland would be governed by Dublin or London?

Likewise, do the religious differences between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims have much to do with the current conflict in Iraq and the Middle East? When Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, was in power, he was able to give the minority Sunni population more power than they normally would have had in the majority Shi’a population of Iraq. Now that Saddam’s out and the Sunni power with him, it’s not surprising that there are Shi’a wanting to get some payback. And just as the conflict in Northern Ireland is less about religion than about political struggles, Iraq is likewise a struggle for political control. The religious differences just point up the opposite camps.

So just what are the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims? From my Christian point of view, there’s not much of a difference between the two, but the main point of departure seems to be how the two groups view the succession of leadership after the death of Mohammed in the 7th century. Sunnis, comprising about 85% of the Muslim populace, believe that the first four caliphs to come after Mohammed were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Shi’as, comprising about 10-15% of the Muslim population, believe that the true successor of Mohammed was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the fourth Caliph to Sunnis. That’s your main difference, folks. Yes, there are minor differences associated with how the two groups pray and other aspects of their belief, but what is the practical use of knowing that Sunnis pray touching their heads to prayer rugs, while Shi’as pray touching their foreheads to hardened clay from Karbala? Do you think the Shi’as shouted, “Use Karbala clay when you salat, you Sunni heretics!” when they set Sunnis on fire this week?

Jeff Stein finished his article with the following paragraph:

Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my “gotcha” question. But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more and more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.

If you ever have someone give you the “gotcha” question about the differences between Sunnis and Shi’as, here’s how you can answer: “Yes, I know the differences. Can you explain to me what particular aspect of those differences is causing them to kill each other?”

But there is one major difference between the two groups that is well worth understanding, and that is knowing which nation or group belongs to which camp. The map below shows the areas of Sunni Muslims in light green, while Shi’a areas are dark green.

Muslim distribution

This is important because of the three nations that have Shi’a populations: Iraq and Iran with their majority Shi’a populations, and Syria’s minority. Syria and Iraq had political ties through their common Sunni Ba’ath parties. Iraq and Iran have religious ties with their majority Shi’a populations. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni controlled Ba’ath party in Iraq, their is a Shi’a non-Ba’ath nation between Iran and Syria. While there are religious differences, the main question now regards which group will rule and exert political control.

So how easy is it to tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a? It can be difficult. Here are three pictures. Can you tell the religion of these people?

Who am I?Who am I?

So, who are these people? Have you guessed right? Drag your mouse over the text below to see the answers:

Left image: Shi’a. Specifically, this is Ayatollah Khomeini.
Right image: Sunni.

How did you do? OK, one last test. Can you identify the religion of these people?

Who am I?

Answer: These people are Sikh, not Muslim at all. The name of the religion is properly pronounced “Sick,” not “Seek” as the Western media often do.

For more information, you can watch this interesting video. And speaking of videos, I’ll close off this way-too-serious post with a humorous video from the British comedy show “Goodness Gracious Me” about three Eastern religions.

UPDATE (11/28/2006 10:56:33 AM): Yep, I completely flip-flopped Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq. Now fixed.

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