Sunnis and Shiites: Why are Saudi Arabia and Iran at Odds?

WORLD

Demonstrations erupted across the Middle East as Shiite Muslims protested Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Who was Sheikh Nimr, and what are the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam? (Irish Examiner)

Use our resources to learn more about the historic differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a Saudi Arabian Shiite cleric executed by the Saudi government for "seeking 'foreign meddling' in Saudi Arabia, 'disobeying' its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces." Illustration by Abbas Goudarzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a Saudi Arabian Shiite cleric beheaded by the Saudi government for “seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in Saudi Arabia, ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.”
Illustration by Abbas Goudarzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Discussion Ideas

  • The Sunni-dominated government of Saudi Arabia recently executed the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. We’ll start with an easy question: What is a sheikh?
    • Sheikh is simply an honored title often used for male leaders in the Arab world. Increasingly, the term is also used for Muslim leaders (both Sunni and Shiite).

 

  • The Saudi-Iran feud is split predominately (although not entirely) along the lines of the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shiism. How are Sunni and Shiite Islam similar? Read our short article for some help.

 

  • What are some historic differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam? Read through our short article for some help.
    • The leadership of Islam was violently contested after the death of the Muhammad in 632.
      • Those who believed Muslims should elect independent spiritual leaders, particularly Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, came to be known as Sunnis. (Abu Bakr was assassinated in 634.) The word “Sunni” is derived from the phrase ahl al-Sunnah, or “People of the Tradition.” The tradition refers to practices based on what the Prophet Muhammad said, did, agreed to, or condemned.
      • Muslims who believed leadership should remain with the family of Muhammad, particularly his close friend, cousin, and son-in-law, Ali, came to be known as Shiites. (Ali was assassinated in 661.) The word “Shiite” is a contraction of the words shi’at Ali, or party or Ali.

 

  • What are some spiritual or religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam? Read this short New York Times article or this short BBC article for some help.
    • As with almost all faiths, there are wildly diverse beliefs within both denominations—there is probably more intra-group diversity than inter-group diversity. Both branches include worshippers who run the gamut from secular to fundamentalist.
      • Most Shiites believe in a line of 12 imams, the last of whom is believed to have vanished in 9th-century Iraq. Shiites tend to emphasize the spiritual value of faith and sacrifice.
        • Some denominations of Islam associated with Shiism are the Alawites (the leading faith of the Syrian government) and the Twelvers.
      • Sunnis emphasize God’s power in the practical, material world. This application sometimes includes participating in public political dialogue.
        • Some denominations of Islam associated with Sunnism include most (not all) Sufis and the U.S.-based Nation of Islam.

 

  • What are some population differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam? Read this short New York Times article or this short BBC article for some help.
    • More than 85% of the world’s Muslims (more than 1.5 billion people) identify as Sunni.
    • About 10% of the world’s Muslims (between 150 million and 200 million people) identify as Shiite. In Sunni-dominated countries, Shiites tend to make up the poorest sectors of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. The (Shiite) Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 was perceived as a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf.

 

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  • What are some geographic differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam? Take a look at this fantastic New York Times map, as well as our own MapMaker Interactive “major religions” layer, for some help.
    • Sunni Islam dominates the spiritual landscape of North Africa and most of the Middle East, as well as countries including Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. There are also strong Sunni communities in Israel, northern Iraq and western Iran.
    • Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan are predominantly Shiite. There are also strong Shiite communities in Syria, Lebanon, eastern Saudi Arabia, western Yemen, northern Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

 

  • The Irish Examiner says that “demonstrations erupted across the Middle East” following Sheikh Nimr’s execution What specific actions were taken?
    • Pretty severe ones. Here’s a good timeline of events.
      • Demonstrations in Qatif, a Shiite stronghold in eastern Saudi Arabia, protested the execution.
      • Demonstrations in Karbala, Iraq, protested the execution.
      • Iraqi leaders called for closing the Saudi embassy in Baghdad.
      • Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
      • Iran warned that Saudi Arabia would “pay a high price” for the execution.
      • Saudi Arabia called Iran “a state that sponsors terror.”
      • Leaders of Hezbollah (a leading Lebanese political party that many—including the U.S.—consider a terrorist organization) called the Saudi government “criminal and terrorist.”
      • Demonstrations in Pakistan, India, and Bahrain protested the execution.
      • Iran and Saudi Arabia both recalled their diplomats.
      • Sunni mosques in Iran were bombed.
      • Demonstrations in Baghdad included burning Saudi, U.S., and Israeli flags.
      • Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan downgraded or eliminated diplomatic relations with Iran.

 

  • Who was Sheikh Nimr, and why did the Saudi government arrest and execute him? Read through the Irish Examiner Q&A for some help.
    • Sheikh Nimr was a leading Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia. He participated in the Arab Spring of 2011, demanding more respect, rights, and autonomy for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, which is concentrated in the country’s eastern region. He also supported the Shiite uprising in Bahrain. The majority of Bahrainis are Shiite, but the government and financial sectors are dominated by Sunnis supported by Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia sent forces to quell the Bahraini rebellion, which is ongoing.)
    • Sheikh Nimr was arrested and condemned to death for supporting rebellion—and possible secession—in eastern Saudi Arabia. Dozens of his followers were also arrested and killed.

 

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Irish Examiner: Q&A: Who was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and why has his execution sparked protests?

Nat Geo: Caliph Ali Assassinated

PBS Frontline: Beliefs and Daily Lives of Muslims

New York Times: How Do Sunni and Shia Islam Differ?

BBC: Sunni and Shi’a: Islam’s ancient schism

New York Times: Behind Stark Political Divisions, a More Complex Map of Sunnis and Shiites

Nat Geo: Major Religions MapMaker Interactive map

AFP: Timeline of the latest Iran-Saudi crisis

The Wilson Center: Timeline of Iran-Saudi Relations

Nat Geo: Who is Fighting Whom in Syria?

One response to “Sunnis and Shiites: Why are Saudi Arabia and Iran at Odds?

  1. Pingback: 15 Things We Learned This Week! | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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