S2E3 — The Makings of War

The conflicts in the Middle East are many things. Wars have been fought over titles, thrones, territories and much less. Yet a word which is often thrown around in talks of regional conflict is sectarianism — that is, the conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Throughout the region, the divide between the two sects has been a factor in most conflicts, from the Syrian Civil War to the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

What exactly is the difference, though? And why has it caused so much strife?

Not being a Muslim myself, I can’t profess to expertise in the matter — particularly where it concerns the theology involved in the schism. Nevertheless, what follows is a basic primer on one of the major ingredients that has contributed to the makings of wars and conflicts in the Middle East.


Following the death of Mohammed, considered to be the faith’s leader and most major prophet, the question emerged of who would be appointed caliph and successor to the role of the religious and political leader of the faith. The debate over succession produced two camps:

  • those who believed the caliph should be part of the order of descendants of Mohammed, and saw Ali ibn Abi Talib — Mohammed’s son-in-law and cousin — as the rightful successor. They believed that Mohammed appointed Ali as his successor. This camp would form the Shia sect (“shi’atu Ali” meant ‘partisans of Ali’).
  • others believed that the caliph should be nominated by consensus to the most qualified. At the time, this meant Abu Bakr, a trusted companion and father-in-law to Mohammed. They believed that Mohammed did not appoint a successor. This camp would form the Sunni sect (“Ahl al-Sunnah” meant ‘followers of the tradition’).

The title ended up being given to Abu (despite the protests of the Shiites that it immediately be given to Ali). Following the death of Abu and the assassination of his two successors, Ali was made caliph and ruled for 5 years (whilst Sunnis consider Ali’s eventual succession, along with his three predecessors, as legitimate, Shiites consider only this to be the first legitimate caliphate following Mohammed). However he too was assassinated — to the grief of the Shiites — and his sons later died, leaving the Sunnis to establish major caliphates which would spread throughout Europe and North Africa (ending with the Ottoman Empire’s fall), though the Safavid dynasty of the Persian Empire proved a formidable Shiite state. The deaths of Ali and his sons contributed to the primacy of martyrdom among Shiites, which concerned Sunni caliphs who saw the event as a potential spark for further public opposition.

Beyond this, the Sunnis place significant value upon the “tradition” — the teachings, practices and life of Mohammed — to guide them. Whilst the Shiites do as well, they also consider the wisdom of Mohammed’s descendants through their ayatollahs — religious leaders who would guide the people until the return of the 12th descendant of Ali (called an imam). Within Shia Islam there are camps of those who differ in opinions regarding the imams.

Further streams of Sunni Islam exist also — notably the Wahhabi stream that has influenced Saudi governance.


The conflict between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid-led Persian Empire contributed to the formation of geographic borders in the region, as well as the distribution of Islam’s two sects.

Roughly 87% of the world’s Muslims are believed to be Sunni, with the remainder 13% estimated to be Shiite. Within the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and Bahrain are predominantly Shiite. On the other end, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, most of the Levant (the Jewish state of Israel excluded) and Yemen have a majority of Sunnis. Lebanon has an approximate balance of both sects amongst its 54% Muslim population.


In light of those distributions, one might think that the Middle East is experiencing a great religious war between both sects. Yet the sectarian conflicts occurring throughout the region have more to do with politics and a complex game of thrones than it does with religion.

Saudi Arabia — the major Sunni regional power — relies on religion to legitimize its monarchy, and so its long-standing opposition to Iran — the major Shiite regional power — has less to do with the religious differences between them (though they undoubtedly are a factor), and more to do with the political threat a revolutionary Iran presents to the Saudi monarchy in its Shiite rhetoric.

In essence, many of these political powers are using convenient historical differences between the two sects to bolster support for their own sides and incite unrest amongst the opposition. That isn’t to diminish the influence these religious sects have in the conflicts, but for the most part there are deeper political motives involved in the sectarian warfare that rages on.

It doesn’t seem likely that the sectarianism we see in the Middle East today will die out anytime soon — not as long as the political players in the region continue with their struggle for power and influence.

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