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29 August 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:57am

Sunni vs Shia: the roots of Islam’s civil war

How this conflict – played out in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – is destabilising the world.

By Michael Axworthy

As part of a trip to Iran a few years ago, I visited a friend south of Tehran, in Kashan, a city between mountains and desert with many beautiful old buildings and gardens. My friend showed us around over several days. On the way to his house one evening, I saw a turquoise conical roof a little way from the road. I asked him what it was and if we could look at it. My friend was a bit embarrassed but agreed; we drove up to the small building, and he explained that it was the shrine of Abu Lolo.

Abu Lolo (or Abu Luluah) was an assassin. He murdered the caliph Omar in 644 AD. He was a Persian and a slave, allegedly captured after the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of al-Qadisiyya in 636 AD. The story of that small shrine is one key to a better understanding of the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam, which has a powerful influence on tensions in the Middle East.

The Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran each have intense difficulties. The low oil price is a problem for both. Saudi Arabia is struggling in its war in Yemen, where it has been trying since 2012 to help the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi reassert itself against the Houthi rebels who have taken over much of the western part of the country. There is little evidence that the Houthis had much support from Iran at the beginning, but Saudi Arabia declared them to have been Iranian-backed all along and the Houthis have increasingly turned to Iran as they have come under pressure. Meanwhile, Yemen descends into chaos, hunger and disease.

The Saudis are also looking less than sure-footed in their confrontation with Qatar. But since the beginning of this year, Saudi Arabia has profited from Donald Trump’s determination to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor. Where Barack Obama agreed a deal with Iran to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and took a cooler view of Saudi Arabia, Trump has hastened to ingratiate himself with the Saudis and has increased rhetorical pressure on Iran, renewing talk of a policy of regime change. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to treat the war in Syria, in particular, as an extension of their regional and sectarian rivalry. The defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Mosul reopens the question of how Iraq will be governed, and by whom.

Iranian women demonstrate at an anti-Saudi protest in Tehran, January 2016​. Photo: Getty

In this context of heightened sectarianism, symbols matter. For Sunni Muslims, the murdered Omar was one of the four Rashidun, the righteous caliphs who were the earliest successors to the prophet Muhammad, and a figure to be revered. On the other side, Shia Muslims have in the past venerated Abu Lolo, though he became a religious figure only by accident. He was probably not even a Muslim, let alone a Shia, and he seems to have killed Omar over a personal grudge. The Shias believed that Omar deserved to die because he was a usurper; according to them, Muhammad’s friend and son-in-law Ali should have ruled after the prophet’s death. This dispute about the succession lies at the core of the Sunni-Shia schism.

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At one time, events were held each year in Iran to celebrate Omar’s assassination. But that evening in Kashan, my friend explained that Abu Lolo’s shrine had been closed since the revolution of 1979 – there was a guard at the door to stop anyone going in. Yet the mere existence of the shrine is offensive to Sunni Muslims and, from time to time, activists from other countries demand that it be demolished.

The closure of this small shrine was not a major political event but it illustrated something significant about the Islamic republic. After 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered an end to many practices offensive to Sunni Muslims, which had been encouraged by Iran’s Shia rulers in earlier centuries, including the veneration of Abu Lolo.

Khomeini spoke strongly against the king of Saudi Arabia and some other Arab leaders but did so because he regarded them as decadent and ungodly and because they were too closely allied with the United States, not because they were Sunni. He attempted to reach out to all Muslims, but for Sunni Muslims Khomeini represented Shia Iran, and thus his influence in the Islamic world outside Iran was limited.

More than 85 per cent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and historically many have distrusted and disliked Shias. Yet the Islamic Revolution had a major effect outside Iran. Its revolutionaries set out to overturn the accepted idea of the time: that the future for the developing world in general – and the Middle East in particular – was progress on a Western model.

Some Sunnis in the wider Islamic world, discontented with their own secular-minded, materialistic, Western-inclined rulers, took in that message. They were not open to Iranian leadership but may have been shamed by the Iranian example. Sunni Islam was for them the correct, rightful form of Islam, yet it had been the incorrect Shia tradition that had stood up against impiety and Western cultural encroachment. 


On 20 November 1979, just ten months after Khomeini and his followers seized power in Iran’s Islamic Revolution, a Sunni radical called Juhayman al-Otaybi occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca with between 200 and 300 armed supporters. They denounced the Saud family for corruption and for being too open to Western influence, as well as Saudi clerics for not speaking up against these evils. Juhayman demanded that television be banned; that non-Muslims should be expelled from Saudi Arabia; that Muslims should depose their corrupt leaders; and that there should be a return to the way of life and the example of the prophet.

After the occupation, Juhayman and his supporters were besieged by Saudi security forces for two weeks until they were finally overwhelmed (allegedly with help from France and others) at the beginning of December. Juhayman was beheaded, along with most of his surviving followers.

The foundation of Saudi power in Arabia was a pact between the Saud family and the reformist scholar and preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792. The version of Sunni Islam preached by Abd al-Wahhab was fundamentalist and puritanical, emphasising monotheism (tawhid) and the rejection of innovation (bid’a) and idolatry (shirk).

When the modern state of Saudi Arabia was established after the First World War, Wahhabism (its adherents usually prefer the term Salafism) was established as the dominant doctrine. It was hostile to other Muslim traditions and innovations such as Shiism or Sufism, with their veneration of saints, shrines and tombs and their openness to non-scriptural elements such as philosophy and mysticism in religious thinking. Wahhabism was also hostile to Christianity, Judaism and other religions.

For some Saudis, Juhayman’s occupation of the holy centre of Islam in Mecca felt like a prod to a guilty conscience. The Saud family was vulnerable to accusations that it had neglected its own values. That is why Khalid, the then Saudi king, responded not by combating religious extremism but by appeasing and embracing it, turning the country away from Western models (at least on the surface) and back to the harsh principles of Wahhabism.

On a superficial level, dress codes were revised. Western clothing was abandoned, men and women went back to traditional robes and hijabs and cinemas were closed. The Wahhabi clergy was given a greater role in government, especially in education, and teaching took a more traditional turn. And crucially, the government stepped up its support and (lavish) funding for the preaching of Wahhabism in other countries around the world, building mosques and schools, including many in Britain. This was intended to counter the ideological threat from Khomeini’s Iran, which continued to preach against the decadence of Sunni Arab rulers, and was suspected of fomenting unrest among Shias in Kuwait and in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.

Since 1979, the advance of Saudi-funded Wahhabism has been inexorable. One marker has been the spread of the niqab to countries where previously it was unknown, such as Pakistan and Egypt, and to Muslim communities in Europe. The internet has accelerated the spread of Wahhabism; many websites and social media feeds are now heavily marked by Wahhabi-inspired prejudices, including overwhelming quantities of anti-Shia hate speech. Shias are both despised and feared.

Beyond Wahhabism, another aspect of the Saudis’ distaste for Shias, and for other Sunni ruling elites in the Arab world, derives from traditional social and political patterns in the region. Before 1918, the Ottomans used regional Sunni elites to enforce their authority in the provinces of their empire. When the empire and the Sunni caliphate came to an end after 1918, those elites continued to wield influence in much of the former Ottoman territory, albeit under the authority of new colonial governments. Even when imperial governments disappeared and Arab nationalism became a renewed political force after the Second World War, most of the new, secular nationalists ruling in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere came from Sunni origins; Saddam Hussein was a typical example.

The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and his replacement by a democratically elected, Shia-led government was a shock to Sunnis and especially to the Gulf monarchies, whose Sunni elites may not have liked Saddam but liked the Shia regime even less and saw any improvement in the position of the Shias as a front for the regional advance of Iran. The situation was worsened by the politically immature pro-Shia partisanship of Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq government after his election as prime minister in 2006. This made Iraqi Sunnis feel even more marginalised, after many of them had been ejected from the army and the government by the US-led coalition.

The humiliation of the Sunnis in Iraq and the spread of Wahhabi ideology led to support for al-Qaeda and a spate of bombings from 2003 against Shia targets and shrines, such as the destruction of the dome of the shrine at Samarra in February 2006. Large numbers of Shias were also killed in suicide and car bombings. Shias responded in 2004-05 with large-scale killings of Sunnis by militia death squads. Sectarian killing by both sides intensified in Iraq until brought under control by the US troop “surge” in 2007, when President George Bush sent 20,000 extra US troops to Baghdad and Anbar Province to knock back the insurgency and stabilise the Iraqi government.


The Sunni groups that the US had encouraged to turn against al-Qaeda as part of the surge strategy nonetheless felt abandoned later. They remained deeply hostile to the Maliki government, and this helped to create the conditions for the rise of Islamic State. As with the Sunni insurgency before 2007, IS has drawn recruits from around the region and beyond, but more from Saudi Arabia than anywhere else (apart from Tunisia). Whatever the level of support from within Saudi Arabia for IS, at whatever stage, it is clear that the Saudi government supported other Sunni rebels in Syria fighting the Assad regime, including the al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra Front, in order to hit back against Iran. Iran has supported and funded its own proxies in Syria, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the Assad government.

It is a long way from Abu Lolo to Islamic State, but the connection is a direct one. Neither side in the Iran-Saudi confrontation has anything like a monopoly of virtue. There is fault on both sides, but not necessarily a symmetry of fault. The Iranian regime is authoritarian and paternalistic, abuses human rights and is accused of supporting terrorism – but on most of these counts, it is not the worst in the region. Iran’s past rhetoric has contributed to sectarian tensions, and the country’s support for militias who use violence to gratify their grievances against Sunnis does further damage. But the Iranian regime has distanced itself from the Shia extremism of the past, including the veneration of Abu Lolo. There is nothing on the Iranian or Shia side to compare with the damage done by the extreme Wahhabi world-view that led to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the atrocities of IS in Iraq and Syria and its outrages in Paris, Nice, London and Manchester. However paranoid the Saudis are, and whatever the degree to which they believe their own propaganda about Iran, they know the greatest threat to their retention of power in Saudi Arabia is from home-grown Wahhabi extremists.

Iranian policy, since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, has been, in essence, defensive (and its defence spending is low; for over a decade, between half and one-third that of Saudi Arabia). Iran’s self-defeating position towards Israel, made more serious by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah and egregious anti-Semitic outbursts, is an exception. The official position of both Iran and Hezbollah is that all means, including violence, are legitimate in resistance to Israel. It is this that permits the misleading accusation, heard ever more frequently since Trump’s inauguration, that Iran is the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism (it appears that the Iranians ceased their support for Hamas in or around 2013). Yet even Hezbollah has reduced its violent activity towards Israel, as it tries to present itself as a Lebanese political party rather than a paramilitary group. The reality is that most Islamic terrorism internationally is associated with Sunni militant groups.

Iran is also accused of seeking hegemony or destabilising the region through its support for militias in Iraq, but this accusation is perverse. It ignores how, whether we like them or not, these militias are a prime prop to the Shia-led government of Iraq, which the US and the UK also support, and have been a leading element in the fight against IS in Mosul and elsewhere. The militias have committed atrocities against Sunnis in Iraq (the Iranian proxies in Syria have also perpetrated horrors) and may create future problems, but they are essentially an Iraqi phenomenon. Iraqi Shias have an ambivalent attitude to Iran, sharing much of the mistrust that Sunni Iraqis and other Arabs have towards the Iranians. Many Iraqi Shias (including Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who led the so-called Mahdi militia against coalition forces in Iraq until forced to flee to Iran in 2007) regard closer relations with Iran as a necessity for the time being, rather than a desirable or permanent fixture.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are pursuing regional policies underpinned by fear and insecurity. The Iranians look at the map and see themselves encircled by anti-Shia Sunni states and by US deployments in the region; the US still follows and appeases a Saudi account of regional tension. Iran’s view of the world is largely formed by its experience of the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), which it fought in isolation against a similar constellation of overt and covert enemies.

The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs fear Iran partly from a justified resentment of past Iranian rhetoric, but also because they know the fragility of their own grip on power. They are ruling rentier states dependent on oil money to keep subject populations docile, with armed forces of doubtful effectiveness that have to be stiffened by mercenaries (from Pakistan and Colombia, for example) when serious ground fighting is in prospect. They are terrified by the extremists that their policies helped to create.

Western political scientists, often with Marxist assumptions half-submerged, are sometimes heard to suggest that religious division is no more than a fig leaf for hege­monic aggrandisement in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet the reality belies that reductive view. The Sunni-Shia divide legitimises acts and interventions that would otherwise be unacceptable. It stimulates and deepens partisan paranoia (as the Abu Lolo example illustrates), and most dangerously, encourages exaggeration, misrepresentation and miscalculation of the motives and actions of the other side.

It should be obvious that in this overheated atmosphere, it is foolish to support the slanted world-view of one side against that of the other. But this is exactly what we in the UK and the US have been doing.


Those who defend UK policy towards Saudi Arabia have sometimes done so on the curious grounds that we would achieve nothing by taking a more critical line: that the Saudis would take no notice, and we would merely lose influence (and lucrative arms sales contracts). But the Saudis like to hear us agree with them. We appease them and reassure them, and it is good neither for our understanding of the region, nor for theirs. Whether or not we can make a major difference, we should not be applying our weight to the wrong side of the balance.

With Iran, it should be possible slowly to rebuild better relations, but we have to show that we want to do so – and mean it. If, instead, in accordance with what in David Cameron’s time was called the prosperity agenda, we behave as though the most important thing about Iran is avoiding damage to our relations with Saudi Arabia, we will get nowhere.

On 4 June, after the London Bridge terrorist attacks, Theresa May said that there had been “far too much tolerance” of Islamic extremism in the UK. Well, yes, including by the UK government, of extremism fostered and funded by the Saudi government and private Saudi individuals. On 5 July, a report (Foreign Funded Islamist Extremism in the UK) was published by the Henry Jackson Society, showing the connection between Saudi funding for Wahhabi extremism beyond its shores and terrorist acts committed in the UK. The report repays detailed reading, but a key paragraph from its summary reads: “The foreign funding for Islamist extremism in Britain primarily comes from governments and government-linked foundations based in the Gulf, as well as Iran. Foremost among these has been Saudi Arabia, which since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion-dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.”

This should not have been a surprise to anyone, but it should now have consequences for our policy towards Saudi Arabia. We should be pressing the Saudis to stop their funding for hatred both in the UK and around the world.

And what of Donald Trump, his enthusiastic trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, and his denunciation of Iran as the central cause of terrorism and instability in the Middle East? There is a peculiarity about Trump’s Saudi policy. Before he was elected as US president, he made many highly critical statements about Saudi Arabia (explored in a recent book by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, Donald Trump: the Making of a World-View), including the following characteristically pungent statement in 2011 (from Trump’s book Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again, published in 2011): “It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people.”

Since his election, Trump has changed his mind, but it is not clear why. Some have suggested that he has realised the importance of Saudi Arabia for oil supplies to the US, or for support to the US dollar. He also wants to show his supporters in the US that he will do international deals that will benefit them in terms of jobs and export earnings – in Saudi Arabia as elsewhere. But it may be that his prime motive is to consolidate Republican support by reversing Barack Obama’s Middle East policy and attacking Iran. Whether that will prove as popular as he hopes remains to be seen. Even Trump’s partisans among the US electorate may expect more of their president than the mere undoing of his predecessor’s achievements.

The folly of Trump’s exaggeratedly pro-Saudi line has already become apparent. Immediately after his May visit to the kingdom, the Saudis took aggressive and unwarranted action against Qatar, cutting land and air links (with support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and others). The purpose of this action was supposedly to press Qatar to break links with terrorist organisations, but it also had the aim of muzzling the successful Qatar-based Al Jazeera broadcasting organisation, and forcing the Qataris to abandon their independent foreign policy.

Any politician who runs foreign policy on false premises is riding for a fall, as was shown by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Political reality has a way of finding false premises out. To accuse Iran and Qatar of supporting terrorism while praising Saudi Arabia is absurd, and the absurdity is apparent to many, not just journalists and academics. If now, as seems to be his intention, Trump forces the rest of the US policymaking establishment to declare Iran in breach of the nuclear deal agreed in 2015, and against all the evidence, that will open yet wider the gap between policy and reality, remove one of the few forces for stability in the troubled Middle East, and bring the US closer to war with Iran.

Even Trump’s electoral supporters will have to notice that reality gap eventually. In those circumstances, will they agree with Trump that unpicking Obama’s political legacy is worth more American lives lost in the Middle East? Even in this strange new world of fake news and small-hours Twitter provocations, one has to hope not. 

Prominent Shia figures

Hassan Rouhani
President of Iran

Now in his second term, Rouhani is regarded as a reformer, promising a modern and outward-looking Iran. He oversaw the completion of the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

Seyyed Ali Khamenei
Supreme leader of Iran

The head of the Islamic Republic of Iran and commander-in-chief of the armed forces  maintains a close relationship with the Revolutionary Guard. He is the second-longest-serving head of state in the Middle East.

Ebrahim Raisi
Prominent cleric in Iran

Considered as the front-runner to be the next supreme leader of Iran, he is also the “custodian” of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest charity in the Muslim world. He was the runner-up in the presidential election in May.

Haider al-Abadi
Prime minister of Iraq

After returning from exile in 2003, he held several prominent government positions before becoming Iraq’s prime minister in 2014. He has sought to increase Sunni participation in the government and presided over the campaign to oust Islamic State.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
Hezbollah leader

As head of the Lebanon-based (and Iranian-backed) Shia militant group Hezbollah, he has large influence in the region, not least in Syria, where his forces have bolstered the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim
Prominent Bahraini Shia cleric and leader of opposition society

The spiritual leader of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition society, he was a strong critic of the government during the Arab spring and had his citizenship revoked in 2016.

Michael Axworthy’s most recent book is “Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know”(Oxford University Press)

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia