What are the differences—historically, culturally, and theologically—between Sunni and Shia Islam? In light of current events in the Middle East, why is it important to recognize these differences today?

The differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims center on who was supposed to lead the Islamic community after Muhammad’s death. It is important to recognize these differences because ignoring them can exacerbate the situation. The United States didn’t seem to grasp the dynamic, and their war in Iraq made things worse for Sunnis and Shi’ites.

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The divide between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam relates to the death of Muhammad. Once the Arab prophet and founder of Islam died, the Muslim community clashed over who should lead them. Sunnis thought that distinguished members of the community would be fit to lead them. Shi’ites believed...

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The divide between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam relates to the death of Muhammad. Once the Arab prophet and founder of Islam died, the Muslim community clashed over who should lead them. Sunnis thought that distinguished members of the community would be fit to lead them. Shi’ites believed that only someone from Muhammad’s family—a person who shared his blood—should lead the Islamic community.

The theological clashes have led to a history of real-world violence, with Sunnis and Shi’ites battling over money, land, political power, and the legacy of Muhammad.

It is important to realize these differences because not understanding the volatile relationship has arguably made it worse. In 2003, the United States did not have an accurate grasp on the dynamic between Sunnis and Shi’ites before it invaded Iraq, overthrew Iraq's Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, and replaced his administration with a Shi’ite government. The war and regime change exacerbated tensions between the two sects, with the new Shi’ite government targeting Sunnis, and Sunni militia groups attacking Shi’ite.

The Shi’ite government also faced hostility from other Shi’ite. A Shi’ite named Muqtada al-Sadr expressed his disapproval of the American-backed Shi’ite government and ignited a movement that waged war against Sunnis and the Shi’ite government.

In light of current events, like fires in Iraqi hospitals, the failure to consider the stark differences between Sunnis and Shi’ite has been catastrophic. It has exacerbated the violence and suffering in Iraq and further destabilized the Middle East at large.

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