The Shiite & Sunni Cultures in Iraq

by Justin Mitchell

Iraq's population is 97 percent Muslim. To understand the country, it is therefore essential to understand the differences between the two major sects of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites (or Shias). The division between these two brands of Islam go back almost to the beginning of the religion itself, and in Iraq has played out over time in a way vital to an understand of the make-up of the modern country.

How Sunnis and Shiites Came to Be

The cleavage of the Sunni and Shiite schools of Islam go back to the death of Mohammed, the prophet and founder of Islam, in 632. At the time, Abu Bakr was chosen to be the new caliph, or ruler, of the Muslim community. This group became the Sunnis. However, a small group supported Ali, another Muslim leader. They were referred to as "Shiat Ali," the partisans of Ali, better known as the Shiites.

Iraq's Ancient Sectarian Wars

In 680, Iraq was the site of a major battle at Karbala, which was a critical point at which the cleavage between the Sunnis and the Shiites deepened. Hussein, the son of Ali, led an insurgency against the Sunni caliph. His forces were defeated by the vastly superior Sunni army at Karbala.

Differences Between Shiites and Sunnis

For the most part, Iraqi Shiite and Sunni culture are the same. The people share Arab ethnicity, dress the same, eat the same food, and share most the the same social customs.Before the 2003 U.S. Invasion, around a third of all marriages between Muslims were mixed. Shiite Islam interprets the Quran less strictly than Sunni Islam, however, and a couple of Shiite beliefs are different that the Sunnis.

Where Sunnis and Shiites Live

Most Iraqi Sunnis live in the central part of the country, just north of Baghdad. This region, called the Sunni Triangle, is split about evenly between urban and rural dwellers. Some also live in the southern city of Basra. Shiites are grouped for the most part in the south of Iraq.

Iraq's Sunnis Through History

For much of Iraq's history, Sunni Muslims have been the ruling elite of the country. While they make up a minority of the Iraqi population, the power of the Sunni Ottoman Empire allowed Sunnis a disproportionate amount of power. During the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, Shiites gained more power as members of the secular parties then in vogue, but when Saddam Hussein, an ethnic Sunni, took over the country in 1979, Sunni dominance was once again established.

Iraq's Shiites Through History

Although a majority in Iraq, the Shiites have tended to be members of the lower classes, bunched mostly in the southern regions of the country. Many of the Shiites in Iraq are relatively recent converts. In the 19th century, as the Wahhabi Sunnis began gaining strength in what is now Saudi Arabia, many Shiite clerics in Najaf and Karbala actively sought to convert members of the Arab tribes in the region. Also, the Sunni legacy as Ottoman rulers also damaged their standing, and many poorer Sunnis converted to Shiite Islam as a form of protest.

Ebbs and Flows

In 1991, just after the first Iraq War, the Shiites in the south rose up against Saddam Hussein and were brutally put down. After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Shiite militants fueled an insurgency that raged for years, further deepening ethnic tensions. Today, Sunnis and Shiites live in distrust of one another, unsure of what the future holds.

About the Author

Justin Mitchell has been a writer since 2009. In 2002, he received a B.A. in theater and writing from the University of Northern Colorado. Mitchell worked as an ESL teacher in Europe and Asia before earning a master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York. He has written for the "New York Daily News" and WNYC.org, among other outlets.

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