Egypt Mosque Islam MPC Journal/Hakim Khatib
Egypt Mosque Islam MPC Journal/Hakim Khatib - The Growing Breach in Muslim Unity: Causes & Effects (Part One)
Cairo @ Hakim Khatib/MPC Journal

Needless to say, the global Muslim community and its Weltanschauung stand at the Abyss, in which Muslims are steadily approaching threshold of unimaginable chaos. This poses a mammoth challenge of maintaining unity in its ranks and files. The great ideological and ethnic divide between Shiites and Sunni on the one side, and the quest for regional hegemony between the Muslim majority states on the other, have socially and politically undermined the future of Muslims across the globe. As the world’s Muslim leaders admitted at the recently held OIC summit in Istanbul, the past 1,400 tumultuous years of sectarian fighting did not bring peace and happiness to Muslim majority lands.

Analysis of History

By the year 1500, Persia was a seat of Sunni Islamic learning, but all that was about to change with the arrival of Azeri conquerors. They established the Safavid dynasty in Persia — modern-day Iran and its cultural sphere — and made it Shiite.

“That dynasty actually came out of what’s now eastern Turkey,” says Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont. “They were a Turkic dynasty, one of the leftovers of the Mongol invasions that had disrupted the Middle East for a couple of centuries. The Safavid dynasty made it its political project to convert Iran into a Shia country.”

Shiites gradually became the glue that held Persia together and distinguished it from the Ottoman Empire to its west, which was Sunni, and the Mughal Muslims to the east in India, who were also Sunni. This was the geography of Shiite Islam, which has prevailed into the 20th century.

There were periods of conflict and periods of peace. But the split remained and would, in the second half of the 20th century; turn out to be one of the most important factors in the upheavals that have ravaged the Middle East.

“Why has there been such a long and protracted disagreement and tension between these two sects?” asks Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. “It has to do with political power.”

In the 20th century, that meant a complex political dynamic involving Sunni and Shiites, Arabs and Persians, colonizers and colonized, oil, and the involvement of the superpowers.

It’s not known precisely how many of the world’s “1.6 billion Muslims” are Shiites. The Shiites are a minority, making up between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the Muslim population — certainly fewer than 250 million.


The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well.

Although the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split were violent, over the centuries Shiites and Sunnis lived peacefully together for long periods of time. But that appears to be giving way to a new period of spreading conflict in the Middle East between Shiites and Sunnis.

“There is definitely an emerging struggle between Sunni and Shia to define not only the pattern of local politics, but also the relationship between the Islamic world and the West,” says Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, author of Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran.

Genesis of Current Polarisation

The recent rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be traced back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, which witnessed toppling a pro-western leader leaving a space for Shiite religious authorities to take over.

Tehran began backing Shiite militias and parties abroad, and Riyadh – concerned in the growing influence of a newly-strident Iran – strengthened links to other Sunni governments, including the formation of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Since the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government in Tehran has pursued the empowerment of Shiite communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region as a defining feature of its state ideology. Partially in response, members of the GCC (with the exception of Oman) have attempted to counteract Iran’s perceived expansionism by (publicly or privately) supporting Sunni movements, which perceive the Shiite faith as heretical, and anathemical to what they see as the real tenets of Islam. The current situation, if unresolved, threatens to undermine the stability and security of the entire region.

While the world’s eyes have been fixated on the civil war in Syria, which began as a political conflict and quickly evolved into a sectarian one, sectarian warfare in Iraq has already claimed 6,500 lives since 2013. Pakistan also continues to experience sectarian violence that routinely targets Shiites and followers of liberal strands of Sunni Islam such as Barelvis.

Violence against Ahmadis is even worse where the state is reluctant to offer protection or acknowledge its responsibility. At the same time, religious minorities in Pakistan have been targeted by the same sectarian extremists. The church bombing in Peshawar on 22 September 2015 which killed over 80 Christian worshippers, is an example of such hate-fuelled and indiscriminate terror.

The Shiite-Sunni schism, which has historically been a divisive catalyst amongst Muslims, now threatens to divide the world as global powers are picking sides in the conflicts in Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Robert Fisk warns world leaders of being wary of extremists in these conflicts, especially the Salafists. “Fifteen of the 19 mass-killers of 9/11 were also Salafists” and citizens of Saudi Arabia, warned Fisk. Whereas others, such as Barry Rubin, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and editor, have labelled Iran as a greater threat.

The rivalry gained a new impetus with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which empowered majority Shiites at the expense of the Arab Sunni minority that had ruled the country since independence. The militant group, which eventually came to be known as the Islamic State, was born in the upheaval ensued. This took anti-Shiite zeal to new heights.

Indeed, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria to Bahrain, most of the wars and political conflicts in the region today pit Sunnis against Shiites. They aren’t, however, over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, the root of the original schism. Rather, they are fought for political and economic sway within these countries and in the broader Middle East. “Sectarian tools are used in these struggles because they have greater impact,” explained one of Lebanon’s most senior Shiite clerics, Seyed Ali Fadlullah. “If you were to call upon people now to fight for a regional or international influence, they won’t act. But people will act when it is said that your sect is under threat, or that your sanctities are going to be destroyed.”

Sunnis account for some 90% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and have been the dominant school in the Middle East for centuries. Although Shiites are spread across the Middle East and South Asia, they constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

In 1980s, tensions between Saudi and Iran escalated – Saudi Arabia backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran. Following clashes at the hajj in 1987 killing hundreds of Iranian pilgrims, Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties for three years.

Iran’s Middle East policy

Iran’s efforts to influence events in the Middle East by supporting its allies are often carried out in direct counterbalance to the efforts of the United States and its allies. This has been illustrated through Iran’s pledge of funds to the ostracized Hamas when most western states had labelled Hamas as a terrorist organization and consequently ceased support of a Palestinian government run by Hamas. Following an initial Arab suspension of aid, Iran pledged the funds necessary to keep the Palestinian government working, with Ayatollah Khamenei calling on Muslim nations to “provide financial aid to the Palestinians”. In response to a US call to suspend aid, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said: “it would be height of irony, at the time when we need to take care of these people who are seeking peace, that we shall fall short of doing so.”

It is difficult to argue that this move was not influenced by a Saudi need to prevent Iran of taking a leadership role in the Palestinian crisis. It was also crucial for Saudi Arabia that it doesn’t appear to be a puppet of the United States. Equally important has been the Saudi need to support the Palestinian people and not come across as uninvolved in helping and financially supporting them during a time when nearly all western aid donors had eliminated everything but essential humanitarian aid.

Iran’s Nuclear Programme & Saudi Concerns

As Iran continues to move forward on its path of nuclear ambition toward their declared goal of energy independence, it risks increased alienation from the international community and further sanctions by the Security Council. In spite of these risks, or perhaps in reaction to international threats, Iran has continued forward, with President Ahmadinejad asserting at every turn that not only do the Iranian people have the right to peaceful nuclear technology but also that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. On 8 April 2008, Iran announced the installation of 6,000 new uranium-enrichment centrifuges at its nuclear facility. This addition will greatly increase Iran’s capacity for producing enriched uranium, further propelling Tehran towards its nuclear goals.

The Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon, some analysts point out that Iran’s military accelerated its missile program as a way to compensate for its inability to match the air power of potential rivals. As a result, Iran now possesses various models of various types (ballistic, cruise, et cetera) of missiles, most of which can reach well into Saudi Arabia and some of which are accurate enough to be used against military bases of various types. These missiles could also hit facilities of the Saudi oil and gas industry, as well as desalination plants, potentially dealing severe damage to the Saudi economy.

The Royal Saudi Air Force would have no choice but to eliminate Iran’s many missiles as quickly as possible. The Saudis would not necessarily know which of the missile sites are home to the high-priority missiles of higher accuracy, thus forcing them to attempt to neutralize them all. If the Iranians are smart, they have prepared (or will prepare) dummy missile sites, which can serve as decoys. The Serbs did this to great effect in 1999 during the NATO attacks on their country.

Saudi- West Relations

In the post Cold War era, the US-Saudi alliance reached a new height, particularly during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 when the US sent troops to the Kingdom to defend it from Saddam Hussein. It reached a new low a decade later when Osama bin Laden, a Saudi embittered in part by the presence of infidel troops in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, orchestrated the worst ever terrorist attack on the United States by employing 15 other Saudi citizens as suicidal hijackers.

There was much loose talk after 9/11 of “nuking Mecca” — a crude way of suggesting that the United States declare war on Saudi Arabia. Such suggestions died down in 2003, when Saudi Arabia finally cracked down on Al-Qaeda after experiencing deadly terrorist attacks of its own. For about three decades, Iran-West relations remained under extreme atmosphere of suspicion and antagonism. During the span of this period, the West came closer to Saudi Arabia. The US has already sold the Saudis more than $50 billion of weaponry in the past six years.

Any yet in the post Iran-US nuclear pacification phase, the Saudi fears about what they see as an American abdication in the Middle East in favour of Iran. They see the nuclear deal with Iran as an indication that the US has entered into a de facto alliance with a Shiite revolutionary regime that has made no secret of its desire to overthrow the Saudi royal family and to foment a Shiite revolution in its Eastern Province, where most of its oil is located. The fact that President Obama has done next to nothing to oppose the Assad regime in Syria or the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq only confirm Saudi worries.

To read part two, please pick HERE.

By Hakim Charles

Hakim Charles studied political science of the Middle East, European Studies, journalism and linguistics. He has been lecturing at different German universities since 2011 on issues related to ideology and the interplay of power thereof in socio-political life, and religion and its relationship to contemporary politics in the regions of West Asia and North Africa, especially Egypt and Syria. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal) since 2014 and has published over 100 articles in different languages, academic and otherwise, in a wide spectrum of on-line and printed newspapers, journals and think tanks. His current research focuses on Islam-inspired political ideologies such as Islamist extremism and Salafism, radicalisation, de-radicalisation processes in Germany as well as peace and conflict in the Middle East.

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