June 18, 2014

The Sunni-Shia divide: Where they live, what they believe and how they view each other

The ongoing and intensifying conflict in Iraq has fallen – at least in part – along sectarian lines, with the Sunni Muslim militant group ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) advancing against the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government and Shia militias. Sectarian affiliation has played a role in the politics of the region for hundreds of years.

Where Sunni and Shia Muslims populationsIran and Iraq are two of only a handful of countries that have more Shias than Sunnis. While it is widely assumed that Iraq has a Shia majority, there is little reliable data on the exact Sunni-Shia breakdown of the population there, particularly since refugees arriving in Iraq due to the conflict in Syria or leaving Iraq due to its own turmoil may have affected the composition of Iraq’s population.

The few available survey measures of religious identity in Iraq suggest that about half the country is Shia. Surveys by ABC News found between 47% and 51% of the country identifying as Shia between 2007 and 2009, and a Pew Research survey conducted in Iraq in late 2011 found that 51% of Iraqi Muslims said they were Shia (compared with 42% saying they were Sunni).

Neighboring Iran is home to the world’s largest Shia population: Between 90% and 95% of Iranian Muslims (66-70 million people) were Shias in 2009, according to our estimate from that year.

Their shared demographic makeup may help explain Iran’s support for Iraq’s Shia-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran also has supported Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where only 15-20% of the Muslim population was Shia as of 2009. But the Syrian leadership is dominated by Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam). Under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which was dominated by Sunnis, the country clashed with Iran.

The Sunni-Shia divide is nearly 1,400 years old, dating back to a dispute over the succession of leadership in the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632.

Despite periods of open conflict between Sunnis and Shias in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, the two groups are not all that different in terms of religious beliefs and commitment. In Iraq, for example, both groups express virtually universal belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad, and similar percentages (82% of Shias and 83% of Sunnis) say religion is very important in their lives. More than nine-in-ten Iraqi Shias (93%) and Sunnis (96%) say they fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

In some countries, significant shares of Muslims don’t even see the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam as relevant. A survey of Muslims in 39 countries that we conducted in 2011 and 2012 found, for example, that 74% of Muslims in Kazakhstan and 56% of Muslims in Indonesia identified themselves as neither Sunni nor Shia, but “just a Muslim.” In Iraq, however, only 5% answered “just a Muslim.”

On some religious issues, including whether it is acceptable to visit the shrines of Muslim saints, the differences between the sects are more apparent. For some, the divide is even exclusionary. In late 2011, 14% of Iraqi Sunnis said they do not consider Shias to be Muslims. (By contrast, only 1% of Shias in Iraq said that Sunnis are not Muslims.) Even higher percentages of Sunnis in other countries, such as Sunni-dominated Egypt (53%), say that Shias are not Muslims.

Topics: Middle East and North Africa, Muslims and Islam

  1. is Assistant Editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

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21 Comments

  1. Tejas Pagare2 weeks ago

    Thank you, for given me this story it is very useful for me.

    Reply
  2. Babilynier4 weeks ago

    What about India!?

    Marly, you are right…. 100% with you.

    Reply
  3. Moh1 month ago

    Innacurate Statistics?

    The ‘Mapping the Global Muslim Population’ study that you quote yourself says that Iraq’s Shia population is 65-70% so how did you end up with an Info Graph that says 45-55%?!?!?!

    pewforum.org/files/2009/10/Musli… – page 10

    Reply
    1. Michael Lipka1 month ago

      Thanks for your comment, and for raising this observation. The range of 65-70% Shia in Iraq was our best estimate at the time of that report in 2009, based on limited available data. Since then, we’ve conducted our own 2011 survey in Iraq, which found that about half of Iraqis identify as Shia (similar to multiple ABC News polls).

      Michael Lipka

      Reply
  4. Betty Delmonico1 month ago

    The graph is misleading in that the dark green space representing “percent of the Muslim population which is Shia” for Iraq and Lebanon is significantly larger than the 45-55% which the text mentions. Please fix that, or I’ll have to put PEW on my watch-for-bias list. Your using “ISIS” instead of “ISIL” already sets off one small warning whistle.

    Reply
  5. Nathan1 month ago

    This article should be titled “Some questionable statistics about religious divide in the Middle East”. There is no data reflated to the differing belief systems that would help readers understand why these two groups are so amped to kill each other.

    Reply
    1. mach371 month ago

      Two thumbs up to Nathan’s question, that is what I should have asked.

      Reply
      1. Farhan3 weeks ago

        The distinction between Shia and Sunni has more to do with power politics than with beliefs. Both believe in one GOD, both read the same Quran, have (more or less) same religious practices and observe same rituals. It is the dirty game of power politics which creates sects, such as Mahayan and Hinayan in Buddhism, Sanatan dharma and Sai bhakts among hindus, Protestants and Catholics among Christians… and the list goes on- with one thing in common- the struggle for supremacy, for estabilishing hegemony..

        Reply
  6. Umar Kasule1 month ago

    The facts and figures given above notwithstanding, we cannot ignore the fact that Sunnis and Shias have not been at war for 1400 years. Not particularly so in the region the author pick to report about. Just in the recent past, Iraq was a peaceful country until the US came with pumped up lies of there being dangerous weapons of mass destruction and hence a panacea to call in ‘the Empire’ as Perkins calls it in the Secret History of the United States, to topple the regime and set the country to war. When will the US authorities and Media ever get a sense of shame? You started it all and now you are blaming it on the Sunni/Shia divide? Who supplies the guns and other tools of violence except you guys! You who wont have market for your capitalist violence mongering weapons, except when there is war? By all definitions you are the greatest war mongers across the globe.You (the US authorities and press) are guilty of not only concocting lies but also of spreading the same lies by pushing them into our bedrooms and all over. Come to think about all this and put it into perspective before you spread this negativity about the Muslim world.

    Indeed Islam is a religion of peace, but Muslims are not living in an Island. Individual entities like you the US and the Press are there to make sure Muslims never settle for peace. You are sponsoring the Arab spring, you are taking control of world resources and destabilizing world economies and populations all in the name of spreading democracy which you want us believe is the best form of governance! Until you revise your foreign policy in the Muslim world, the innocent people in this part of the world shall continue suffering at the pleasure of your getting us the statistics you call collateral damage!

    I pray someone up there wakes up from the stupor and see how much violence the US and the press have subjected to the world and say, enough is enough, guys lets stop it! then peace shall prevail in the world.

    Reply
    1. Nathan1 month ago

      Check the facts. The territory of Iraq has been in turmoil far before the United States set foot there. Ottoman Empire to present day has been filled with death, genocide and in-fighting. Becoming a leader in this area is a death sentence.

      Reply
    2. mach371 month ago

      Umar, please explain how the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam’s army was peaceful, and what about the first Persian Gulf war between Iran and Iraq, 1980-88

      Reply
  7. marly1 month ago

    Sorry, but I didn’t find any info there about any strong items of belief that separates the Sunni’s and Shia’s. All that I see is confirmation of my long-held tenet that religion is the most divisive force in the world! What a disgusting shame, since it is all nothing but mythology!!

    Reply
  8. Frankie1 month ago

    Here in Puerto Rico there’s an old saying ” mas claro no canta un gallo ” in other words you hit the nail right on the head. Thank you so much for this clarification.

    Frankie Soto

    Reply
  9. Packard Day1 month ago

    Regardless of sect, the entire Islamic world shares this one common and easily recognizable characteristic: The “Religion of Peace and Love” does not get along with anybody. Not with themselves, not with Indian Hindus, not with communist Chinese or Russians, not with Jews, not with Sub Saharan Christians, not with European socialists, and certainly not with capitalistic Americans.

    Disturbingly, the long history of Islam is one involving very bloody borders with all of its neighbors. Would that such were not true. Res ipsa loquitur

    Reply
    1. mike1 month ago

      imagine a world wih no religon. what would people start wars over?

      Reply
      1. David Andrews2 days ago

        Your point seems rather obvious. But on further inspection, it is fairly shallow.

        Atheist governments in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and North Korea found plenty of reasons to start war. Russia’s current incitement of fighting in the Ukraine has no direct link to religion. Studies show that even the most simple human societies, with or without religion, engaged in warfare. War seems to be endemic to the human race.

        Notwithstanding, your comment is correct in that many evil political movements have often worn the sheep’s clothing of religion. In fact, certain religious practices themselves may be generators of war and other manner of horrors. And, perhaps more to your point, the middle east conflicts seem, at times, to be fueled exclusively by religion.

        Reply
    2. blahblah1 month ago

      America has individualistic values but some people in the West think that muslims are not included. Most people compare muslim extremist in the East to muslims in the west. Some would even accuse a baby for being an extremist.

      Reply
    3. Michael1 month ago

      Whereas America just gets along fine with everyone, eh? It hasn’t been starting wars all over the world for over a century, or toppling democratic governments and installing dictators, or funding and arming dictators.

      Reply
  10. Jeff Moore1 month ago

    This article seems unaware of the modern origins of the Sunni Shia split. The Sunni’s and Shia’s have lived in peace in Iraq for the 60 years before they were invaded in 2003. If you remember the “playing cards” that the US distributed to our troops in 2005 with faces of the “bad guys” in place of the Ace, Jack etc………… Well 35 of 52 of those faces were Shia. Saddam had a high representation of Shia officers in his army and throughout Iraqi industry.
    Our forces split the Shia, Kurd, and Sunni into separate militia’s and armed each. That is the current start of Iraq’s clan warfare. Our Idiots did this because its easier to have the insurgents kill each other than kill US GIs. Pure pragmatism. The fact that we had no business in Iraq to begin with is lost on our Michael Lipka corporate media. Where do they find these guys?
    Mike Shuster should know better than to write this nonsense. Modern Iraq is not explained in this article. A functioning central government (like Iraq’s for the 40 years prior to US arms support to Saddam in the 80′s), provided jobs, education, electricity, and health care to nearly all Iraq’s population. People on the rise don’t need sectarian differences, just as the differences between immigrants in the US largely disappeared when they become a busy middle class.
    The real terror is US foreign policy. Our leaders and media don’t even notice when the enemy has won the war. Formerly US armed Taliban (in the 80′s) run Afghanistan, and parts Pakistan. The destroyed central govt. of Iraq left a vacuum where the US hating crazies from all over the Middle East (including a weak Maliki) compete for power.
    Our leaders are nuts. Bipartisan nuts! Living under Saddam was a dream compared to living under these US backed drug lords and proxies.

    Reply
    1. CJ Buri1 month ago

      At this time, it seems that the USA should stay totally out of the middle east situation. History should always be our teacher. History proves that it was an unnecessary sacrifice of our people from the first time we got involved. The perceived goals at the time were not achieved. Further, by staying out of the conflict, they will substantially reduce the numbers on both sides which share terrorists philosophies. Staying out of their conflict will result in fewer terrorists to go after Americans and other perceived non-Muslims.

      Reply
      1. kishor raja4 weeks ago

        it is not wrong to intervene to crush isis by the usa and western nations as not doing anything will come to their feet as we hindus say.this means that these jihadist only want their superioty to anything else.they will not spare shias and moderate sunnis so what are we from other religions who describe as infidels

        Reply