Geopolitics of Islam, the current Shia-Sunni relations

In these days of conflict and war in the Middle-East, it may be time to look at the situation by stepping back from the current events and distinguish the underlying trends affecting the region from the immense and continuous flow of information the media throw at our faces everyday on Syria, Egypt and Iran.

One of the essential elements of this situation is the omnipresence of Islam in the region. Forgetting or ignoring this can only result in an incomplete opinion. In addition, mentioning Islam in the Middle-East immediately raises the question of its Shia and Sunni branches. Most of us know they exist and sometimes where they come from but also underestimate the importance they always had and continue to have, to a level beyond shocking.

Broadly speaking, Shia and Sunni muslims are divided upon the succession of the Prophet. Shia muslims believe a successor was designated after Muhammad’s death in the person of Ali (his cousin and son-in-law)  while Sunni muslims followed Abu Bakr, the father of his wife Aisha, but only Shia muslims believe in the infallibility of the Imam, the successor and consider it to be the religious authority.

In 874, the twelfth Imams of the Shia legacy entered what is called  today Occultation. Shia muslims believe in the return of the Mahdi as he is still hiding from the world. Other branches of Shia Islam only follow the Imams up the 7th (Ismailis) or the 5th (Zaidis).

On their side, Sunni muslims have focused their spirituality on the founding texts and not on religious authority and interpretation as much as Shia muslims did. Today, Sunni muslims follow four schools of law, each with a different approach to defining Islamic law (Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’i).

Approximately 90-80% of muslims are Sunni while the remainder is Shia. A third branch exists in Oman (the Ibadi) but represents less than 1% of muslims.

As said, that is broadly speaking, differences go beyond religious authority and deepen into interpretation and understanding of Islam.

This division among muslim people has always explained numerous conflicts which are deplored by both sides today but remain deeply anchored in politics and international relations in the Middle-East and muslim world. Here’s how most of the muslim countries align on this difference.


Largest Arab country, 90% are Sunni, 10% Copts (Christians) and almost no Shia. Is known in the region for its position of mediator between countries and as a stabilizing force thanks to a neutral army dominating the political sphere, position recently at stake due to the instability that has surged with the revolution in January 2011. Major religious group is the Muslim Brotherhood, international group linked to its other branches (some of the Syrian rebels and Hamas in Palestine). The Brotherhood’s 60 years of secrecy under previous regimes have transformed it into a powerful organization gaining popular support with social services for the people.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s university of Al-Azhar is probably the highest authority in Sunni Islam and is considered as moderate.

Maghreb countries:

99% Sunni (1% Christians and Jews). Have stayed out the Sunni-Shia relations most of the time.


95% Sunni, 5% Christians and Shiite. The Israelo-Palestinian conflict has taken over the entire political debate and gained international concern far beyond any internal muslim conflict. Hamas being a Sunni movement, it has nonetheless maintained relations with Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia movement, because they share a common goal on Israel and some cooperation has been done in the past.


Probably the most diverse Arab country in the middle east in terms of religion. 41% Shia, 27% Sunni, 16% Maronite, 9% Christian, 7% Druze (Shia sect/group) have divided the country to a very deep level. The Hezbollah Shia party has been involved in foreign politics since its foundation in 1982 by Iran and supports the Syrian regime as well as the Iranians and the Shia Iraqis. Hezbollah developed an expertise in social services to gain the support of the population as well as offshore fund-raising as far as Paraguay and Venezuela.


65% Shia and 35% Sunni have been involved in a terrible civil war over at least the past 10 years involving Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Western powers. The Shia side is financed mainly by Iran while Sunni Saudi Arabia invests massively in its Sunni branch, sending militias across the border and supporting foreign occupation.


74% Sunni are governed by 13% Shiites (Alawites) and 10% Christians. The recent civil war can be perceived as a typical Shia-Sunni conflict as both sides benefit from external support. Bachar Al-Assad’s regime is helped by Iran and Lebanon (battle of Al-Qusayr) as well as from Russia for non-religious motives. Roughly a third of the Sunni rebels are directly supported by the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia and Western powers support the remainders.


This non-Arabic country is mostly Shiite (89%) while 9% of the population is Sunni and discriminated while receiving funding from Saudi Arabia. Iran finances other Shia minorities (Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain) while trying to achieve a strong position (nuclear power and strong military) in the region to compete with other big powers of the Middle-East (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt).

Saudi Arabia:

Islam in Saudi Arabia is largely Sunni (92%) while 8% Shiites are discriminated. The singularity of Saudi Arabia is its Wahhabism which is a radical Sunni Islam particularly hostile to Shia muslims. Its Oil-for-Security treaty with the United States under Roosevelt has allowed the country to prosper but maintains extremely tense relations with Shia populations. The wealth made from petroleum and gas makes it the major source of finance for anti-Shia actions in the world: Syrian conflict, Iraq, Taliban groups and attempted attacks on Iranian leaders. Islamic Charities allows funding to come from the individuals while justified by the 3rd Pillar of Islam on Compulsory Charity.

Financial support for Al Qaeda has also been ongoing while denied by the authorities.


92% Sunni live under the Hashemite monarchy with 2% Shia and 6% Christians. Jordan has been maintaining a relatively neutral position while ending its relations with Iraq but does not finance or get involved in either sides. The Amman Message by King Abdullah II of Jordan (2004) called for a Sunni-Shia tolerance and unity. The declaration that followed was signed by most muslim religious leaders including Al-Azhar and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.


80% Sunni and 20% Shia are both financed and supported by foreign and local sources. Numerous conflicts have emerged in the recent decades especially since the apparition of larger groups like Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Islam. Most actions are either directed against Shia muslims or India (Kashmir conflict or Mumbai bombings). The nuclear power held by Pakistan has given an international concern to the matter.


1-2% Shia as well as 1% Egyptian Copts live with 93% Sunni. The Sunni-Shia division has not taken a large part of Libyan politics because the fall of Qaddafi. Rebels received support from Egypt and Saudi finances with weapons and personal until the intervention of the UN.


The other country of the Middle-East that shares the diversity Lebanon has. With 66% Sunni, 5% Shia, 8% Christians and 14% Hindu, Qatar has established itself as a mediator among countries and tries to obtain a similar role Egypt has had over the past. Al Qaeda support from Islamic banks has also been noted with their neighbors, the Islamic banks in United Arab Emirates.


Shia majority (95%) dominated and governed by Sunni monarchy (5%, vassal of the Saudi royal family). Considered at Saudi Arabia’s little brother and the exact opposite scenario as Syria).

 Other countries:

Yemen: Internal war between 63% Sunni and 36% Shia with heavy involvements from Al Qaeda and Saudi support for the Sunni population.

Nigeria: Exclusively Sunni, Al Qaeda implications with Boko-Haram.

Somalia: Sunni muslims heavily supported by Al Qaeda and presence of islamist group Al-Shabaab.

Azerbaijan: 67% Shia, 29% Sunni, 4% Orthodoxes. Probably the only country where most Shia and Sunni pray together in mosques.

Link: Map of the current distribution among muslims


4 thoughts on “Geopolitics of Islam, the current Shia-Sunni relations

  1. During the Cold War there were strong Arab nationalist movements throughout the region, especially in Egypt, yet these seem to have died out almost completely. Were these subsumed by the rise of militant Islam or die through lack of international support (the collapse of the Soviet Union basically)?

  2. The answer would be yes and no. Yes, because there are conflicts between Salafists and Wahhabis against other Sunni muslims on top of the anti-Shia war they have waged. And no because it is not a conflict between malikis against hanafis for example. Salafism exists among the four Sunni schools of laws and it is Salafism itself that causes the conflict, not the specific schools of law. An example of this was the destruction of religious shrines by Wahhabis (Saudi Salafists) in Saudi Arabia because they condemn this practice (maintaining shrines and holy places). The same happened in Libya recently right after the rebellion. But in the current display of affairs, you do not see Shafi’i clerics calling for a war against Hanbalis or Hanafis just for the sake of them being from a different juridical law.
    The same happens for Shia Islam. Most of Shia muslims are either Twelvers, Seveners or Fivers (according to the number of Imams they consider as true successors of the Prophet, roughly speaking). For instance Iran are mostly Twelvers but they support Syrian Alawites who aren’t. Broadly speaking, since the emergence of a strong anti-Shia trend in the Middle-East among Sunni muslims, Shia muslims have shown a sense of solidarity among themselves.

  3. Very thorough. Are Sunni-Shia conflicts suppressing intra-Sunni/Shia conflicts, or are the differences within these Islamic branches purely cultural and academic?

Thoughts on that? Leave a comment.

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