Sunni and Shia are two main sects of Islam and the relations between these two sects almost always remained stressed and full of animosity. The major reasons behind these strained relations are opposing ideologies which comprise the faith (aqidah) and political positions of the two sides. Since early days of Caliphate to modern times, several armed conflicts have been fought between them and all the efforts to create harmony and normal relations between the two sects remained unsuccessful at large. The main reasons behind this serious conflict between Sunni and Shia sects are following.
Reasons behind Sunni Shia Conflict
· The most important reason behind Sunni Shia conflict is the Shia belief that only persons of the Prophet’s household (ahl al-bayt) have the right to lead Muslims after the death of Holy Prophet (PBUH). Due to this belief, they regard the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman) as usurpers while they also reject the caliphate of all the other Sunni Muslim rulers. In contrary, Sunni Muslims believe that Muslims can elect their political leaders through consensus.
· Most of the Shia sects (especially the majority Twelver Shia) believe that their imams are infallible as they are chosen by Allah and Holy Prophet (PBUH). Shia also visit the shrines of their imams and perform several rituals there. All these Shia believes and practices are totally rejected by mainstream Sunni Islam while the hardliners (especially Salafi Jihadists) termed few of Shia believes and acts as polytheism (shirk).
· There are several other differences in Sunni and Shia belief, doctrine, rituals etc.
Major Events of Sunni Shia Conflict
· After martyrdom of third rightly guided caliph Usman (RA), Muhammad’s cousin Ali (RA) became the fourth caliph (termed as first Imam by Shia). But Muslims from Hejaz (especially Makkah and Madinah) and Syria demanded revenge of Usman’s death from murderers who had taken oath on Ali’s hand. On this issue, Ali had to fight two battles. The first one was Battle of Camel against the people of Hejaz who were lead by Muhammad’s (PBUH) wife Ayesha (RA). But the most stiff and bloodiest battle was the Battle of Siffin that was fought against Usman’s cousin Muawiya (RA) who was leading forces from Syria (Ali’s supporters were mainly from Iraq). The battle remained inconclusive but it was the first time that the term of Shi’an Ali (supporters of Ali) was used and it later changed in to Shia.
· After Ali’s martyrdom, his son Hassan (RA) became caliph but he passed the caliphate to Muawiya (RA) in order to end the bloodshed and unite Muslims due to which the whole era of Muawiya’s caliphate (19 years) remained peaceful. But Muawiya’s appointment of his son Yazid as his successor was not welcomed by several prominent Muslims and one among them was Ali’s younger son Hussain (RA). Hussain traveled to Kufa (Iraq) in order to gain support against Yazid but he was betrayed by the Iraqi people which resulted in the one-sided Battle of Karbala that took the lives of Hussain (RA) and 72 of his supporters. This battle is regarded as the biggest example of sacrifice by Shia Muslims while Sunni Muslims consider it as a sad incident of civil war between the Muslims. The day of Hussain’s martyrdom is still commemorated by Shia Muslims (and also by few Sunni Muslims).
· After death of 3rd Umayyad ruler Muawiya bin Yazid, the emergence of space gave rise to several political parties and one among them was a shiite supporter Mukhtar Thaqfi. He gathered many people around him on the slogan of revenge for Hussain’s death. He captured Iraq from another political figure Abdullah bin Zubair (a prominent Sahabi who was also against Umayyad dynasty) and assassinated many people believe to be behind the martyrdom of Hussain bin Ali (RA). Later, Abdullah’s brother Mus’ab bin Zubair recaptured Iraq from Mukhtar and killed him. Mukhtar is regarded as a hero in Shia sect.
· In 750 AD, the Umayyad Caliphate was replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate. Shia were fully supporting the Abbasid movement against Umayyads with the hope to achieve their goal of rule of ahl al-bayt. But instead, the Abbasids themselves became rulers on the basis of their close relationship with Prophet (they were from the lineage of Muhammad’s (PBUH) uncle Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib). As a result, Shia started opposing Abbasid Caliphate and the first Shia dynasty of Fatimid (belong to Shia Ismaili sect) appeared in the 8th Century (Cairo became their capital). This dynasty rejected the Abbasid Caliphate and claimed for their own caliphate.
· Several Shia dynasties also ruled in various parts of Muslim world during Abbasid Caliphate but more dangerous were the Shia terrorist groups which never let the internal peace to prevail. Two of the most notorious Shia organizations were the Hashashins (a Ismaili Shia organization based in Iran and led by Hasan bin al-Saba) and Qaramites (an extinct Shia sect).
· In 1501, Ismail I captured Iran and founded the Twelver Shia Safavid dynasty. He converted the mainly Sunni population of Iran to a Twelver Shia Iran (also eradicating other Shia sects) mainly through force. But when he used the same policy in Iraq, he was checked by the then Sunni Muslim and global power of the Ottoman Empire. The Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 proved to be a decisive one as Safavids lost control over Iraq and few other areas. Ottomans and Safavids also fought four major wars in 16th and 17th centuries. Apart from the third one, the Ottomans remained victorious in all the other wars and the Ottoman-Safavid conflict ended in 1639 with Treaty of Zuhab that was signed after the decisive Ottoman victory in the fourth Ottoman-Safavid war (1623-1639).
· In 1932, the modern state of Saudi Arabia was established that is based on the ultra conservative Sunni Salafi ideology, severely opposed to Shiite doctrine. In 1979, Iran became a Shia theocracy state after replacing the secular Iranian monarchy through Iranian Revolution. Shia dominant Iran tried to export its revolution in other parts of Muslim world which escalated the proxy war between two opposing religious states. Both the countries tried to dominate the Muslim world and their efforts are quite evident from their participation in Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Syrian Civil War (2011-present).