The Sunni-Shia Conflict in Iraq

One thing that painfully marks the face of humanity is divisiveness. We are severely fragmented. Among the many things history has bequeathed us are divisions – divisions that seem eternally fragmentary–linguistic divisions, cultural divisions, political divisions, social classes, and so on. Each of these trickles further down into innumerable divisions. For instance, with regard to religious divisions, it is no longer just a matter of being divided over being a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu; the fragmentation rifts further into Protestant-Catholic, Sunni-Shia, Varna-Avarna, ad infinitum.

Historical Overview of The Present Crisis in Iraq

In Iraq, the present crisis is religio-political. The Sunni-Shia conflict goes back to the 6th century AD. The bone of contention was about the legitimate successor of the Prophet Mohammed. On the death of the Prophet Mohammed, Abu Bakr, was elected as the Caliph. The Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, opposed it, but didn’t press further. Subsequently, there were the first three caliphates accepted by the Sunnis Abu Bakr (632-634), Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), Uthman ibn Affan (644-656). When, the third Caliph Uthman was assassinated, Ali was made the fourth Caliph and he ruled from 656-61. The Shiites, however, believe that the Caliphs had illegitimately usurped power; according to them, Ali was the first legitimate successor (Imam) of the Prophet (not the third), and was divinely appointed by the Prophet. Ali ruled from 656-661, but was killed by a poisoned sword while at prayer. After Ali’s assassination in 661, the Shiites held on to the blood-line of the Prophet for leadership of Muslims. However, Ali’s son Hasan (the Second Imam) was poisoned, and Husayn (the Third Imam) was killed on the tenth day of Muharram in the Battle of Karbala (AD 680). Shia Muslims mourn on the anniversary of this day every year and try to remember the persecutions that the rightful successors of the Prophet, as the believe, underwent. Shiites believe that the twelfth Imam (who comes from the House of the Prophet) is hidden and will appear as the Mahdi Imam at the end of the days and rule for 7 years before the Coming of Jesus Christ. Christ will assist the Mahdi in the battle against the forces of evil and against the antichrist.

Therefore, the Shiites do not accept the Sunni leadership and have been severely persecuted by the Sunni community wherever they have been found weak.

There are today about 19,000,000 – 22,000,000 Shiites in Iraq who amount to about 65-70% of the Muslim population in the country and to about 11-12% of the global Shia population. They stand next in number only to Iran who has the highest number of concentrated Shiites in the world (66,000,000 – 70,000,000; 90–95% of Muslims in that nation). Sunnis in Iraq amount to only 32-37% of the Muslim population. Shia community shared power during the incumbent years of the Baathist regime under the leadership of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. However, their position in the Baathist party drastically declined. It is said that a number of Shiites were executed by the Baathist regime (See Wikipedia Article. After the US led 2003 invasion of Iraq, the tension between Shiites and Sunnis is said to have escalated (SeeWikipedia Article). According to one Wiki entry:

Some of the worst sectarian strife ever has occurred after the start of the Iraq War, steadily building up to the present. Deaths from American and allied military collateral damage have become overshadowed by the cycle of Sunni–Shia revenge killing—Sunni often used car bombs, while Shia favored death squads.

According to one estimate, as of early 2008, 1,121 suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. Sunni suicide bombers have targeted not only thousands of civilians, but mosques, shrines,wedding and funeral processions, markets, hospitals, offices, and streets. Sunni insurgent organizations include Ansar al-Islam. Radical groups include Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, Jeish Muhammad, and Black Banner Organization. (See Article)

After the fall of the Baathist regime and the end of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites rose to power. However, it has been said that the present prime minister, “a Shiite, has failed abysmally in creating a formula to share power with the Sunnis” (Robert Wright as quoted). This has only helped to aggravate the tension.


The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a militant group that has declared itself as an independent state with claims over regions that it is now advancing to possess. Its goal is “to establish a caliphate in the Sunni majority regions of Iraq, later expanding this to include Syria.” (Wiki Article, The Independent). As such, the Sunnis don’t find them very troublesome but are warm towards them (See “In captured Iraqi city of Mosul, residents welcome ISIS”).

Possibility of Peace

With religion and a history of vengeance behind, it is difficult to predict communal peace at the moment. While the US may drop in assistance, war and bloodshed loom large. The sad part of the story is that the civilians are being affected. In previous times, wounds were healed by means of some covenant that would bring two communities or tribes together. Forgiveness was made possible because the covenant brought an end to the old and gave birth to a new world. The old was buried; everything became new. However, today, things are too confused for anything like a covenant to look possible. Also, the hurts are too deep. But, above that the religious rift cannot be humanly settled – it’s a matter of faith; and, faith often baffles reason. The blanket of belongedness could be pulled over two communities who could respect each other’s faith; however, where faith brings with itself a consciousness of historical injustice, can peace be achieved without faith being compromised? For injustice to be mended, a sacrifice is compulsory, a self-denial, a self-giving is crucial. To try to suppress one group’s wishes might militarily solve a problem for sometime; to eliminate a group may kill the problem for all time; but, that is peace for one community at the expense of the other.

But, there may be a way for peace between both communities without expense of any: political secularism – the non-interference and non-influence of any religion or religious sect or denomination in political matters. But, can political secularism in its healthy form (that protects also the freedom to conscience and faith) be practical in the Islamic countries? If yes, then to what extent? The question still remains to be answered. However, at the moment, the main concern is that no inhumane acts of military brutality are committed.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)


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