News Release

The Myth of Entrenched Sunni-Shi’i Conflict

NAJAM HAIDER, nhaider74 at gmail.com
Assistant professor of religion at Barnard College of Columbia University, Haider is currently a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies. He is author of Shi’i Islam: An Introduction and The Origins of the Shī’a (both from Cambridge University Press). Today he said: “Media outlets ubiquitously frame the current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran in sectarian terms. The myth of an entrenched and timeless conflict between the two sects dating back to the 7th century serves as an explanation for the current instability in the region. In reality, the historical relationship between these communities is significantly more complicated.

“First, there is considerable diversity within each of these groups. Sunnism includes four independent schools of law while there are myriad Shi‘i groups that differ on fundamental theological issues. This is aside from the Wahhabi form of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia and consciously differentiates itself from both Sunni and Shi‘i Islam. Second, the typical mode of interaction between Sunni and Shi‘i groups has historically involved pragmatic co-existence.

“This state of relative tolerance has been highlighted in a number of recent studies. In fact, the fallacy of the myth of perpetual sectarian divisions was most clearly exposed in recent history by the participation of many Shi‘i soldiers on the Iraqi side during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In this and other cases, sectarian identity was trumped by other factors such as nationalism and tribal affiliation. The apparent growth of Sunni-Shi‘i tensions in the current Middle East stems from the general instability of the region coupled with a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In other words, the sectarian conflict is a product of political calculations as opposed to entrenched theological differences. The same factors produced the same results in a number of historical cases from Baghdad in the 10th century to the Ottoman-Safavid divide of the 16th-17th centuries.”