Global Islam

Published on June 14th, 2015 | by Rick Robison



Can you tell me the difference between Islamic Sunni and Shi’a doctrine, history, and their goals and objectives in the world today?

This is a question I get regularly.

Let’s take a brief look:

The Koran is the sacred book both factions look to and venerate. They both believe that Muhammad was their prophet and that he led THE exemplary life, the life all should pattern themselves after.

Both factions believe in the Five Pillars of Islam: 1) Offering the Testimony (Shahada), the witness, that there is only one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet; 2) Alms (Zakat) giving to the poor; 3) Daily prayer (Salat), five times a day; 4) Fasting (Sawm) during Ramadan; and (5) Making a pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Both sects believe at the end of time, after a physical resurrection of humankind, Allah will bring all to stand before him to be judged whether their life stood for honor and good, or evil and shame.

While many Muslims claim that there should be no factions among true believers, in reality, the Sunni-Shi’ite split is a fact of life in all Islamic Lands and a major source of conflict in today’s world.

True, there are what appear as subtle differences in worship, prayer, etc. between the two. Still, what may seem to an outsider as inconsequential, to a Shi’ite observer, or a more traditional Sunni worshipper, these differences can be life-threatening and conflict generating, and certainly believed by many to be a threat to their eternal soul.

Overall, however, the greatest danger regarding the Shi’a-Sunni split generally lies in the political realm (which includes a mosaic of both secular and religious—no concept of the “separation of church and state”), tied to history, culture, and world-view, which is often almost impossible for non-Muslim outsiders to relate to.

So, let’s go back a bit. When the Prophet Muhammad died in AD 632, 1400 years ago, the fracturing occurred when Muhammad’s followers tried to decide who should lead the fold. Muhammad had no sons—big problem—so that left succession a very open question, and a dangerous one.

One faction, the close relatives of Muhammad, thought that the natural heir, called the Caliph, or Muhammad’s successor, should be Ali, the prophet’s nephew and loyal son-in-law. The other faction believed that Muhammad would want an able, wise, older leader first and foremost, regardless of his blood lineage. The former, backers of the family choice, became known as Shi’a, the latter, backers of the Worthy Man, became Sunni.

The Shi’ites stepped behind Ali (Muhammad’s nephew and husband of the Prophet’s favorite daughter, Fatima), while the Sunnis rallied around Abu Bakr, a close friend of Muhammad and likewise loyal ally, who had married into Muhammad’s family.

The followers of Ali, particularly his sons Hassan and Hussein, were lured by the Sunnis to what was billed a peace conference in Karbala (Iraq) in 680 AD, where these Shi’ites were massacred, including their women and children, at the famous martyrdom, which the Shi’ites 1400 years later still celebrate (the Month of Muharram, the Day of Ashura) as if the Sunni treachery was yesterday. Today, in remembrance, Shi’ite men pilgrimage to Karbala in long lines, barefoot, and flogging themselves with chains, to “connect” with the suffering and shame heaped upon their venerated ancestors by the always scrofulous Sunnis.

While power went back and forth between the two groups over the centuries, the Sunnis eventually came out on top. Today, 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. About 12 percent are Shi’a, with the rest scattered between other relatively small break-off groups, such as the Sufis, Ismaelis, Alawis, Druze, etc.

While we see Shi’ite and Sunni fighting still today, yet what is happening now has some unique, new twists with modern ramifications.

The majority of Shi’ites are ethnic Persian, not Arab. This is an important distinction. And never make the mistake of speaking Arabic to a Persian (Iranian). They will correct you right away, and likely without proper decorum.

While Iranians honor the Prophet Muhammad, they are not so respectful towards Arabs, who are not ethnically related to Persians (Indo-Europeans), but are Semites, originating from “lowly Arabia,” considered by the Persian World as a lowly backwater. While most Americans tend to lump Iranians and Arabs together, in fact, they are very different peoples, with entirely different ethnic histories and lineages.

Shi’ites, of course (as do Sunnis), believe that their own brand is the “chosen branch” of the faith and holding exclusive favor in Allah’s (God’s) eyes. The conflicts today in Iraq (which has a majority Shi’ite population, which are mostly ethnic Arab), as well as in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, involve Shi’ite groups loyal to Iran, confronting Sunni-Arab groups who see the Shi’ite resurgence as a strategic move by Iran to widen its sphere of influence, and to control, even shame, the Sunnis. Iran, by using the local, indigenous Shi’ites in these regions, hopes to beat back the wealthy Saudis and the Gulf Arabs, which are mostly Sunni and, of course, longtime allies of “the Great Satan” (America).

The battles today involve control of oil resources, markets, identity politics, perceived (more likely real) insecurity in a seemingly crazy cul-de-sac of the world. More challenging, however, is the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf Arab nations regarding Iran’s push to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact, much of the conflict has to do with who will end up the Big Dog on the block. Most players believe that the Big Dog will be the one who sports a nuke first.

Obviously, these long-time rivals are playing with fire.

Of course, most Shi’ites and Sunnis in a typical Middle Eastern souk just want to be left alone in peace. But if Islam’s militant origins, and past desires for conquest and expansion, are any indicator, this is going to get worse before it’s better.

The Shi’ites, in particular, follow a particularly virulent cadre of leaders, called Ayatollahs, men who almost all look to the return of a messiah-like religious figure, called al-Mahdi, who will only come when the world is in turmoil, and will lead the “true” armies of Islam against the armies of the “Anti-Christ.” (Yes, Islam incorporated early Christian and Jewish apocalyptic prophecies of the Last Days.) According to the Ayatollahs of Iran, as well as the Shi’ite leader Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon, the United States is the modern incarnation of the Anti-Christ, the Great Satan, the Big Bugaboo. Israel, by the way, is the “Little Satan,” (as we would expect).

Again, today’s conflict is intertwined with a mosaic of ancient and modern discrepancies, hatreds, ethnic and racist struggles, even genocide, and constant political-religious jockeying. The Middle East is a jumble of ethnic and faith-based rivalries. When Europe ineptly subdivided the Middle East after the First World War, it didn’t do anybody any favors. Add to that the Arab and Iranian (Persian) inherent quest for personal, family, and tribal security, forever wrapped in a sensitive and fragile shell of honor, shunning as death itself the mantel of shame.

While Shi’ites have a relatively centralized leadership, Sunnis do not. The Shi’ites look to their leaders, who have the final say in most matters. The generally moderate Sunnis believe theirs, for the most part, is a faith directly between Allah and man, with no “go-betweens” in the mix.

Remember, when dealing with Shi’ites, they’ve experienced a history of defeat and subjugation, almost entirely. As such, they’ve developed an affinity for martyrdom, a cult of death, which tends to teach Shi’ite children that their life is a kind of preparation for death, sacrificed for God, and for family, by offering their life to destroy the enemy. This brings the ultimate honor.


The conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite cannot be understood by the modern, secular, probably agnostic or atheist, man or woman. If you see only sky above you (in the words of John Lennon) then you are stunted in your understanding of this way of life and the insights it offers. The wheels turning in the mind of such throwbacks are far removed from Western thought and logic. Yet, their thought processes, molded by their history, family, culture, and last of all faith, is quite logical and predictable.

To Sunnis, when they see Shi’ites essentially worshipping, or venerating ancient martyrs, like Hassan and Hussein, by marching in long processions, whipping themselves bloody, these Sunni observers see this as pagan ancestor worship, or worse, as idolatry, the worship of anything other than the one true God, Allah.

This is why ISIS (which is radical Sunni), in Iraq, when capturing Shi’ites, had no trouble executing them as heretics, and by the thousands.

To the Shi’ites, their history of oppression, by the Turks (Sunni), such leaders as Saddam Hussein (Sunni) of Iraq, the very secular Shah of Iran, the Christians and Sunnis in Lebanon, and of course the always hated Saudis (Wahhabi-Sunni), all these historical events have hardened and cankered many within Shi’ite communities.

Like nearly all oppressed peoples everywhere, the Shi’ites look to the day of liberation, when Allah will return a host of powerful Imams (religious leaders), including the aforementioned Mahdi, to lead the Shi’ite World in war against all the forces of evil, both Islamic and non-Islamic.

These missing Imams (most believe there were 12), will one day return, as prophesied.  Such concepts, which revolve around the destruction of the wicked, the end of days, and the triumph over any opposition, often leads modern Shi’ite leaders to spout a host of curses, directed at Israel, at the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, and especially against the Big Kahuna, the United States.


To Shi’ite Leaders, only America stands in the way of Allah’s ultimate triumph in the world. Any other understanding of the modern Shi’ite movement, particularly in Iran and Lebanon, is dangerously naïve. In essence, America is in Allah’s way, the most evil force on earth, and the only hurdle yet remaining for Islam’s worldwide take-over.

Keep your eyes on Iran and the Shi’ite World. Though in the minority, they are the movers and shakers, the fighter with a great chip on his shoulder, one out to prove a point, the one with blood in his eyes.

As well, they are prodded by apocalyptic prophecies and doctrines, visions of events they believe are now beyond their control. This is a highly flammable condition. For if Allah and his minions won’t return to earth fast enough, these Iranian and Lebanese Shi’ite Ayatollahs and massive terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, may soon decide to induce labor.


About the Author

I have a standing rule to live by…a liberty to follow my own will in all things…and never subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man—Life, liberty, and property.

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