Spots of Time

February 21, 2005

The Difference Between a Shiite and Sunni Muslim

Stories about Iraq have dominated the international portion of US media for the last two years. Yet, trying to understand what is going on in Iraq from these stories is all but impossible unless you only wanted the bare minimum of information.

Take, for example, the news of the recent Iraqi election. Most news-following people would be able tell me who won the election – yet, I am willing to bet that only a few would be able to tell me why. And, even less would be able to tell me the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni Muslim, despite the frequent use of both words in almost every story.

For a period of time after the US invasion of Iraq I chose to adopt a policy of ignorant disapproval of the war, based on my feelings that it was none of our damn business and that I personally was against it. As time went by, however, I realized that this stance was not much difference than ignorant approval, which I personally detested.

So, I began to read the newspaper again, subscribing to the notion that knowledge was power and hoping to educate myself on that part of the world. Except, the stories were kind of hard to understand if you wanted anything more than the facts with only a minimum of context. I did. What use was it to me to know that the Shiites had won the election when I had no idea what a Shiite was? What use was it for me to know that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, when I had no idea was a Sunni was?

When I was in journalism school, I learned that most American newspapers were written at the reading level of the average 6 th to 8th grader. Which, theoretically, meant that the content should make sense to the average 12 to 14-year-old child. Suddenly, not only was I ignorant, I was also feeling rather stupid. How was it that I, a 30-year-old woman with a college education and more world travel experience than 90% of my fellow citizens couldn’t properly follow a newspaper story?

I determined to figure out why. But first I had to find out: What IS the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim? Is it the same as a Catholic Christian vs. a Lutheran Christian? Or, is it more along the lines of a European American vs. an African American? Is the difference genetic, political, religious or philosophical?

To properly explain, we have to go back in time to Muhammad. I am talking about THE Muhammad – the man that all Muslims believe to be the prophet of Allah (the Arabic world for the one and only God). Muhammad founded Islam in the seventh century, and created a theocracy in Medina, located in what is now Saudi Arabia. During Muhammad’s day, there was only one kind of Muslim – much like in the days of Jesus there was only one kind of Christian. Like Christianity before it, Islam spread through different regions, peoples and cultures. And like Christianity, Islam was a uniting religious force among previously non-united people.

After Muhammad’s death, however, Islam split into two groups – the minority Shiites (about 10% of Muslims today) and the majority Sunnis (about 90% of Muslims today).

Here is where things get a bit murky in my various sources. I quite honestly had a hard time finding information that wasn’t either a Christian-based discussion of differences that ended in “and this is why Christianity is great!” or a distinctly Shiite or Sunni-prejudiced viewpoint. However, the following appears to be true: According to the Sunni’s, prior to Muhammad’s death, he chose from his follower’s four caliphs (by definition, a successor to Muhammad) to continue to spread the word – kind of like Jesus’ apostles but with the added bonus of political power too.

According to the Shiites, however, Muhammad actually chose only one of those caliphs, a man named Ali, as his legitimate heir. The Shiites also considered Ali to be an Imam, which is like a caliph but one who is considered to be infallible. Christianity has a similar parallel. The Roman Catholic Christians believe that the Pope is infallible, yet other sects of Christianity don’t agree.

Complications, especially with regards to Iraq arise when you realize that while the majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni, the majority of the Muslims in Iraq are Shiites. This is also true in neighboring Iran, as well as Lebanon. And, when you toss in the fact that for years, Shiites were persecuted, and for years, Iraq was rules by Saddam Hussein, a minority Sunni, you begin to understand why the differences, especially with regards to the election becomes important.

So, why isn’t any of this information included in the newspaper articles? Is it too difficult to find unbiased information? Is it too hard for people to comprehend? Is it not considered relevant to a predominantly Christian country? Or, do people just not care?

The conspiracy theorist inside of me thinks that our government doesn’t want people to know too much – because too much knowledge can be dangerous to power. The elitist inside of me thinks that since most newspaper stories are written for the least common denominator of people – most of who don’t read past the comics and the sports pages – that editors don’t think it really matters. The cynic inside of me thinks that by explaining and making the (easy) comparisons to something we already know (Christianity) – it would be adding a human factor to what some people want to keep as inhuman.

The truth is, I don’t know why the information is not included. Maybe journalists assume that we should know these things already, and as such, they don’t need to be included in the stories. But, even in my own very informal polling of my friends, no one could tell me the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. So, do we blame the media, for educating us partially, but not all the way? For telling us what we ought to know and believe, without the necessary context to help us make up our own mind?

I suspect it is the readers who are to blame as much as the media. We are taught from a young age that the answers are what is important, not the questions. In school, we study so we can pass the tests, so we can get more answers right than answers wrong. The “why” is very rarely a part of the equation. But, what happens when someone asks a question where you can’t offer a quick confident answer?

I wonder – is the quest for more than the “cocktail hour” amount of knowledge too much in a world where we are already bombarded nearly ever minute of every day with some kind of information? Has this overwhelming sensory overload caused us to become apathetic, willing to take what we are given and be satisfied with it?

I don’t know the answers. I’m just asking the questions.