Sunnis and Shia

A Political History

Laurence Louer

Princeton University Press


This is a complex subject, especially for someone like me who, aside from reading or listening to news stories and analyses about the continuing conflagration in the Middle East, has a scant knowledge of Islam and how it has shaped the region politically, socially and on sectarian grounds. To open the book is to appreciate the extent of the challenges in trying to understand the Islamic world and how it has drawn in the great global players, often at great cost to both.

The opening two pages show a map of the region, from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in the north to Yemen and Ethiopia in the south; and from Syria and Lebanon in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. The map is colour-coded to denote the countries in which the branches of Islam dominate: Sunni, Shia, Alevi, Ismaeli, Zaiddya, Ibadi, Alawite and Druze.

Professor Lowe, of the Centre for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, writes about each, how they emerged and the influence they exerted politically as well as doctrinally – if, indeed they were able to do so because, as she observes: “Majority Muslim states … seem above all to have found it difficult to conceive and manage diversity in general.” In other words, minority branches were frequently marginalised or excluded.

This can be seen across the Islamic world but it has had its deepest and most destructive impact in the schism between Sunnis and Shia. Islam is the faith of about one-fifth of the world’s people and Sunnis account for some nine-tenths of the Muslim population. Sunnis (those who follow the sunna, or the Prophet Muhammed’s tradition) believe that, when he died in 632 without a male heir, the choice of a successor should fall to his closest companions. Shia (from the Arabic for partisans) contend that God inspired Muhammed to appoint his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as leader. They hold that a lineage of Imams was born of Ali’s marriage to Fatima, Muhammed’s daughter.

But, as Louer demonstrates, the rupture was not only about succession. It was, and remains, about political authority. As she notes, religious doctrines emerged in response to the political will of dominant or dominated groups. Articles of faith were used as ideologies to legitimise political elites. Rebels embraced them to challenge power and clerics wielded them to assert themselves against state authority.

In a wide-ranging yet short book Louer provides a historical context to those many countries where sectarian strife erupted and its impact in the region and beyond (think Iraq and the botched post-invasion “strategy” bloodily exploited by al-Qaeda-stoked civil war between Sunni and Shia, giving rise to Islamic State, which in its turn ruthlessly exploited a Sunni sense of being marginalised by the Shia in Iraq).

Iran is the cradle of Shi’ism and, as Loue writes, “For many Sunnis, every Shia is necessarily Iranian or at least an agent in the service of Iran’s expansionist intrigues. Many of the conflicts that are today tearing the region apart centre on the conflictual relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two states claiming to embody and champion Sunni and Shia Islamism respectively”.

President Donald Trump bought into a sense of imminent expansionist threat by sanctioning the drone strike assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general, at Baghdad Airport, a literal bomb he threw into the Middle-Eastern cauldron on top of the figurative ones when announcing he would withdraw American forces from Syria the US and signing the Doha agreement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, which could see the return to power of the Taliban in Kabul, a prospect Trump has conceded could happen.

Louer points out that the Middle East is paying a heavy price for a doctrinal schism more than one thousand years ago when the Nusyari broke with the Shia and formed a separate religious community. Now known as Alawites, it is the branch of Islam from which the al-Assad family comes. It has ruled Syria, with increasingly baleful consequences, since 1970.

To weaken Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies supported the Syrian opposition at the outset of the Arab Spring. Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, intervened on the side of the regime. Backed by Russia, they have so far saved Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s war-criminal leader during nine years of civil war that have left nearly one million refugees facing a humanitarian catastrophe on the Turkish border.

Sunnis and Shia is an important book. It is a challenging read but it has given me a much greater understanding of the sectarian schisms in the Islamic world that, dolefully, seem as intractable as ever. Perhaps they will become yet more fractious in the years to come.