Sunnis and Shiites: Their Differences and the Origin of an Ancient Divide

Sunnis and Shiites: Their Differences and the Origin of an Ancient Divide
Martino DiezOasis Center

The numbers are not yet certain. Official figures released by the Saudi kingdom speak of 769 dead, although international press reports and accounts from Islamic countries that have reported victims increase the tragic toll to over 2,100. In September, a stampede during the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca led to the deaths of hundreds of people. Iran was the country most affected: the government of the Shiite nation in Tehran reported over 450 confirmed deaths.

The disaster has created a further rift in the historic regional rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. Riyadh, ruled over by the House of Saud, a Sunni monarchy, “must accept responsibility for this serious incident, offer apologies to the Islamic nation and the families in mourning, and take appropriate action,” said the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran even demanded changes in the management of the Hajj, the Muslim ritual pilgrimage, by the Saudi authorities. The historic regional rivalry is now at work in indirect conflicts in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is engaged in a military campaign to assist the forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also on opposite sides in the conflict in Syria and Iraq: Tehran has always supported the regime of Bashar al-Asad, while Riyadh is providing military and financial support to some of the armed groups fighting against Damascus. The tensions and long-standing rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites that are now shaping regional policy in the Middle East have their origins in the ancient history of Islam. So who are Sunnis and Shiites and why is the stability of the region often affected by their difficult relations? We try to explain it by answering some simple questions we have read or heard over the last months.

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