In the winding down of the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has yet again drifted to our older, and most likely more powerful, enemy in the Muslim world: Iran. As the nation of Iran appears to be taking more and more aggressive, and seemingly insane, actions to provoke the often militarily superior political entities surrounding it, it is a good question to ask why. What is immediately clear is that their motivations have little to do with Muslim extremists in many other nations. In the western world, this might been seen as a strange differentiation to make, but I feel it is an accurate one, because at the heart of this increasingly strange behavior is the evocation of powerful religious tools within Shi’a Islam.
Islam is typically seen as a monolithic structure, but the truth is that there are two major groups within that religious tradition. Iran’s Shi’a Muslim faith is a major motivating factor behind their conflicts, not only with us, but the rest of the Muslim world as well.
If you meet a Muslim, the odds are they are Sunni. Roughly 85% of the Muslim world comes from this tradition, and most of America’s most recent modern Muslim enemies come from sub-sects of this group. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab are all Sunni organizations, as is the government of most Arabic states.
But it was the Shi’a (or, as it has often been called in the past in English language sources, Shi’ite) branch of the faith that was, until 9/11, most synonymous with militant Islam in modern American history. This is in large part because of the United States’ complicated relationship with Iran. This nation has been dominated by Shi’a leaders since the 16th century reign of Ismail I and is seen often seen as the ideological seat of modern Twelver (the dominant sub-sect of the Shi’a denomination) scholarship.
The incredible attention foisted upon this admittedly tiny nation and its theocracy has, oddly, not brought on any mainstream understanding of exactly what Shi’a Islam is, and how it differs from its numerically superior and influential cousin, Sunni Islam.
The division between Sunni and Shi’a stems from events directly after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. The Shi’a believe that God is the only one that can choose a leader of the faith, and they hold that Mohammad’s familial line has been ordained by God to direct the Muslim faith, fulfilling the leadership role known as an Imam. The Sunni, on the other hand, believe that God did not ordain a blood-based priest class to lead Islam. They felt that the community of Muslim leaders should appoint a successor to Mohammad.