Friday, February 18, 2005


Sunni Shiite Iraq

Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq - An Overview of Basics

Sunnah and Shi'a are two sects of Islam, very much like Catholicism and Protestantism.

Sunni – roughly refers to adherents to the precedence set by the Prophet Mohammed. They are more or less the "orthodox" Muslims. There are four major Sunni sub-sects. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi (and probably world) Sunnis follow the Hanafi doctrine. This is named after the revered scholar Abu Haneefa who is buried in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad.

Shiite (or Shia)– roughly means "followers" or "cohorts" of Imam Ali, the Prophet's cousin, protégé and son-in-law. Shiites believe that Imam Ali (and his sons) should have succeeded the Prophet in running the affairs of the Muslim nation. Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph (successor) moved the Islamic capital from Medina near Mecca to Kufa in Iraq. He is buried in Najaf - hence the religious significance of Najaf. The desert city actually evolved around his shrine. Najaf has what is probably the largest cemetery in the world. Most Shiites (religious and not) prefer to be buried there.

The technicalities of theological differences may not be of much interest to most of the readers and will therefore not be mentioned – only differences relating to the present day topics will be briefly outlined.

One notable difference worth mentioning is that Shiites believe in the Resurrection of the "Absent 12th Imam", who disappeared in childhood and who, on his return, will fill the earth with Peace and Justice. He is called al Mehdi (or Mahdi)- hence the name "Mehdi Army" of Moqtada al Sadr. The site of his disappearance is in Samarra, in the heart of what is now known as the Sunni triangle!!

Sunnis generally go to mosques; Shiites go to Husseineyyahs. A Husseineyyah is, for all intents and purposes, a mosque where, in addition to the usual prayers and services, additional services are performed in mourning of the Imam Hussein [Imam Ali's son and Profit Muhammad's grandson who is buried in Kerbala and who is much revered by most Muslims but particularly by Shiites for his heroic stand for what he believed in, in the face of certain death. In an uneven battle, he and all 72 of his extended family were massacred].

Another notable difference is that the Shiites, being generally outside governance for the past 14 centuries, have developed strict and independent academic rules for the hierarchy of their clergy, and consequently hold them in higher reverence. Rise within the hierarchy is primarily on academic theological merit, determined by peers. The Sunnis, on the other hand, as a rule, have their clergy appointed by the powers of the day and are therefore generally, but not always, regarded as almost "government officials". Consequently, contemporary clergy are not held with the same regard.

For centuries, the "Hawza" in Najaf has been more or less the Supreme University for the Shiite clergy world-wide. Senior clergy had much sway over the religious Shiite population all over the world. During the past 30 years, two factors led to a significant shift in the role of the Najaf Hawza: one was the continuous pressure and harassment of the Saddam regime; the other was Khomeini's revolution in Iran. For decades, the Hawza in Qum, Iran played a more significant influence than Najaf, especially in Iran. The once-supreme influence of the Najaf Hawza on Iran's Shiite population is now much reduced.

Devout Shiites generally willingly pay the equivalent of 20% of their yearly profits to the clergy of their choosing. Similar donations used to come from all over the world. This of course means considerable liquidity at the disposal of senior clergy. There is nothing equivalent to this in the Sunni doctrine, apart from sporadic donations by philanthropists.

Sunnis are a majority in the Arab and the Muslim world. In Iraq, Shiites are a majority. The vast majority of Kurds are Sunnis. Turkmen are mostly Sunni.

Within the Arab population of Iraq, the Sunni and Shiite doctrines are not related in any way to any ethnic or racial differences.

As with other sects in Islam, there is no question regarding the ultimate source of all their belief: it's the Koran – the word of God. One source, one book, one code – differences are in the interpretation of things not specifically mentioned. All sects also agree on the precedence set by the practices established by the Prophet Mohammed (the Sunnah) except for some differences regarding the reliability of different source and references.

Differences stem from questions of details of practice or life, government, marriage, inheritance, minor differences in prayer time, determining when the moon is born, etc.

Sunni and Shiite Iraq - Intermingling

Sect Conversion

Changing from sect to sect does not require anything else besides declaration of intent and following the practice of the new sect. This conversion takes place all the time. It has been taking place for 1400 years.

On a large scale, it happened in Iran in the 18th century when their Shahs converted and it happened in the 19th century in the south-eastern provinces of Iraq.

On an individual level:

• It is a common practice for people to become Shiite when moving to live in a predominantly Shiite area or vice versa. It happened constantly for the past 1400 years. It happens all the time today.

• In the Shiite doctrine, if someone dies leaving only daughters, then his inheritance goes completely to those daughters. In the Sunni doctrine, the person's brothers get a share. This has been a frequent cause for conversion for such people – mainly in the cities. [One notable case that comes to my mind is a member of the now-defunct Governing Council who was generally regarded as "representing" secular Sunnis. This gentleman has only three daughters and has converted to Shi-ism.]

• In Islamic marriage, the dowry is in two parts; one part is paid to the wife in advance. The second part is called the deferred dowry. In the Sunni doctrine, this is paid in the case of divorce or death, whichever comes first! In the Shiite practice, this has to be paid on demand to the wife, at any time of her liking! In practice, this is hardly an issue as failed marriages are few and far between. In mixed marriages (which are numerous, especially in "mixed" areas) this question comes up and has to be agreed upon. In such marriages, there is no requirement for any of the partners to convert. The difference in sect between husband and wife is a constant source of family humor.

Divided Loyalties

The allegiances of an Iraqi, like other people in other countries, cover a wide framework of beliefs and considerations. These include: Self, family, tribe, religion, race, town, nation, political doctrine and economic doctrine. Many of these factors are present in the consciousness, or sub-consciousness, of most of us. We only differ in the relative importance we give to each. The difference is in the mix! I cannot even begin to categorize such a complex structure for the wide spectrum of Iraqi people but will refer to these in the context of the issue discussed.

Kinship Factors – The tribal "half" of Iraq.

Of the conversion factors listed above, the most important factor to keep in mind in today's Iraq is the first. This has to be regarded in the context of the tribal nature of much of rural Iraq (and many of the smaller provincial towns… and even parts of the larger towns). Such conversions, over centuries, have led to a large number of tribes being of both denominations - some with a Shiite majority, others with a Sunni majority.

The important point is that the loyalty of many of these people to their kin is something fundamental in their make-up. They usually maintain considerable ties and contacts and are frequently brought together through tribal arbitration councils, paying respect in deaths, allegiance to respected tribal chiefs (who can be of a different sect), etc. This very significant factor is almost always overlooked by many two-color Sunni-Shiite analysts (including some Iraqis) when discussing the sectarian problem in Iraq.

[In one notable instance, members of a large "conglomerate" of tribes, the Muntafik in the Nassereyyah and Basrah provinces, are predominantly Shiite. Their tribal chiefs for the past three centuries, the Sa'adoun family, are Sunnis. Now that family has headed those tribes by choice, not by force! Confusing? I'm sure it is!]

I will go as far as to say that for many of these people, fighting their kin over a sectarian dominance is unlikely… and even if such a thing is started by some overwhelming factor, there are so many channels between them that blood ties will ultimately come on top.

Confusion with geography

Many people in Iraq think they can tell a Shiite from a Sunni from his or her accent or attire. I have heard and seen this so many times. The differences these people refer to are usually geographic in nature and have little to do with sect. People from southern provinces usually use a different style of head-gear (igal – smaller and thicker) and have a different accent from people in the western regions for example (in fact, each province has its own dialect, much like many other countries).

The "mixed" half of Iraq

This can be illustrated by looking at people who live in "mixed" areas. Time and again I was struck by how difficult it is to tell people apart. They usually have the same accent, the same dress, social customs and the same mannerisms.

An anecdotes as an illustration: I once attended a meeting of people in such an area in July after the invasion. I knew many of those present and I started reflecting on this matter… This one's son is a Baathist, this one's son is with the resistance, this one's brother was executed by Saddam and so on and so forth. Most people of one sect were related by marriage to others of the other sect. There was so much in common between those people that being a Shiite or a Sunni had to take a lower priority to those common factors!

I honestly cannot see these people killing each other for religious sectarian reasons.

"Mixed" Baghdad

This even applies to Baghdad, the melting pot of Iraq. Inner Baghdad (the old city) has a number of traditionally predominantly Shiite districts and predominantly Sunni districts. The peripheral districts (most of them grew within the last 50 years) usually reflect the nature of the region most people come from.

But generally, most of Baghdad is so thoroughly mixed that it would be extremely difficult to think of the people there being involved in any sectarian or civil war with any sound degree of rationality. It is just not possible. As I write this, I think of my own neighbors – Sunnis and Shiites all around! People used to make many jokes about it… on both sides (but not during the past year! Those jokes simply disappeared! You may find this odd… but this is more worrying to me than all the "expert" analyses I read!).

In most of "urbane" Baghdad and other large cities, neighborly and neighborhood relations dominate over kinship and tribal bonds.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of Baghdad. It has a quarter of the whole population of Iraq. Culturally Baghdad sets the pace for the whole country.

In addition to Baghdad, the mixed regions include the provinces of Diala, Babel and, to a lesser extent, Basra. These comprise approximately half of the Arab population of Iraq.

Cultural and Political Mix

I have already referred to the complexity of Iraqi society. In addition to the "blood" relations that play an important role in the loyalties of many people, there is a large secular segment in Iraqi society. Well into the 1980's, this segment was the leading force that shaped the political climate in Iraq. People who are pan-Arabists, communist, humanist, simply secular etc. etc. are generally people for whom the Sunni Shiite question, even if present, would by necessity take a lower consideration than those doctrines and their commitment to them.

At the other end of the spectrum, a Shiite country person from Deywaneyyah in the south would find a lot more in common in terms of values, customs and even costumes with a Sunni tribesman from Ramadi than with an urbane fellow Shiite from Baghdad. A Sunni Arab Nationalist would identify more with a Shiite pan-Arabist from Basrah than a fellow Sunni communist, and so on and so forth. All these bonds and loyalties extend beyond the two-color façade of the over-simplistic Sunni Shiite divide.

To add further confusion to this post… it is quite natural to come across an Iraqi communist (who is a committed atheist) who thinks of himself as a Sunni or a Shiite. This also widespread among seculars! They regard Sunni-ism and Shi-ism more as a "culture" than a religious sect.


I am not saying that differences do not exist; on the contrary, they do. There are major differences and genuine grievances. For example, many middle-class Shiites genuinely feel that they have had less than a fair prospect of important jobs or promotions because they were Shiite. Many people in Kut, for example, feel that their town was not developed like other Sunni parts in Iraq because it was a Shiite area.

What I'm saying is that it is difficult for these differences and grievances to lead to civil war. It is my belief that even if such a thing is started, the channels and links available between the various groups will facilitate a relatively fast resort to reason and reconciliation. It would not lead to a chaos much worse than the present one! There would not be a blood bath deeper than the present one!

[Addendum – January 2007: The above may sound like an unreasonable assertion under the present conditions of senseless sectarian violence engulfing Iraq (and the ‘mixed’ areas in particular). There has been much debate over whether the ongoing Iraqi-Iraq strife was a civil war or not. Oddly, the US administration, the Iraqi government and the national resistance all agree that it is not! This is not as perplexing as it seems. The explanation is that it is not a civil war in the sense that large segments of the public attack each other. To this date, there has not been a single significant sectarian incident involving ordinary people! It is still a civil war in the making… through a persistent campaign of sectarian assaults... by forces of darkness. On the other hand, considerable polarization of the population has been taking place. Ordinary people’s attitudes are showing increasing signs of ‘hardening’ and sect animosity.]

Sunni and Shiite Iraq - Governance

[There is considerable confusion regarding the dominance of modern Iraq by the Sunnis. Media references to the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq are frequently more perplexing than enlightening! Like almost everything else in old and complex Iraq, this a long story - 1400 years old. To clarify this issue in the simplest possible terms, I will only go back a century.]

How did the Sunnis come to govern modern Iraq?

At the turn of the 20th century, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks, who came to Iraq several centuries before as conquers from central Asia, were Sunnis. They alternated on invading Iraq with the Shiite Persians. This conflict was a major factor in the modern Shiite-Sunni polarization!

The Ottomans were Sunni and generally bigotry - they usually referred to Shiites as "The Rejectionists"! Naturally they relied on Sunnis for government positions and, towards the end of the 19th century, the military. Young men went to Istanbul to go into military colleges. Shiites were generally shunned.

When the British wanted the Arabs to help them against the Ottomans during WWI, they went to the most prominent figure at the time, Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca. They promised him to free the united Arab world under his leadership. He revolted against the Turks. His army had a number of senior Iraqi officers.

The British campaign succeeded but they couldn't honor their promise to the old man… the region was already divided between France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Treaty. They put Iraq under direct rule. The Iraqis (both Sunnis and Shiites) revolted. The British then decided to install a "democratic" government. There was a National Congress in 1924 to agree on a Constitution. The Shiites, on the recommendation of senior clergy, boycotted it. [Now I hope you can understand Sistani's eagerness not to be bitten again!]

To pay part of their debt to the Sherif of Mecca, the British installed his son, Faisal I – a Sunni, on the throne of Iraq. The (mostly Sunni) Iraqi officers who assisted the British almost monopolized the top political and military positions for decades. The civil service had to rely on people willing to work with the British and who had the ability to get the job done. Again, Sunnis dominated the civil service.

That combination determined the Sunni face of government in Iraq for the next 80 years.

Shiites, from predominantly Shiite areas, were duly represented in Parliament. They were quite active in the political life of Iraq; there were quite a number of Shiite ministers and prime ministers But those other people had entrenched themselves in senior positions!

Given the tribal element in the Iraqi society and the strong social influence, nepotism and favoritism (and no doubt some bigotry) played a strong role in admission to senior government and military posts… and military colleges. The result was that three decades later, the top brass were mostly Sunnis.

In 1958 there was a military coup. The people involved were mostly Sunni. The strongman of the junta, Qassim, in fact came from a mixed area and there was no evidence whatsoever that he practiced any form of preferential treatment between Shiites and Sunnis. There were two other military coups that led to the final one in 1968 which ultimately brought the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein to power. Due to the reasons outlined above, all those coups were dominated by Sunni military officers.


The Baath party is secular in origin and basic doctrine. In the rank and file of the party (that claimed some 3 million members) there were more Shiites than Sunnis – reflecting the make-up of the country. There were many senior Shiite figures. There were also numerous Kurds and Christians! However, for the same reasons outlined above, the Baath Party's key positions were dominated by Sunnis. But the "Law Giver" was Saddam and he tightly held the reigns.

Saddam and his inner circle (who were his relatives) were Sunni in name. The same social forces outlined above were also at play throughout his reign. Saddam's true religion was "Power"… his sect was "Brutal Oppression". Most people knew that if you as much as uttered something against him, you were gone. It didn't matter what your religion was.


As you can see, Shiite grievances are genuine but Sunni dominance of government was not through armed Sunni-Shiite conflict as has been repeatedly suggested. It was mostly foreign interference and influence first and then power and politics and power-politics throughout the past century of modern Iraqi history.


Other essays on Sunni Shiite Iraq

Order in Chaos
Tragedy on a bridge
Iran and Iraq: Influence and Mistrust
Najaf - Sistani’s City
A Glimpse of Sistani

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