International Relations Contemporary Shia–Sunni Sectarian Violence
Mohammed Nuruzzaman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0249


Religious violence, primarily stemming from Shia–Sunni conflicts, has occupied the center stage in contemporary Middle East. It’s most recent brutal expression, which is viewed as a symptom rather than the cause, is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS; also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; ISIL) in the summer of 2014 and the violence it unleashed against the Shias, the anti-ISIS Sunnis and other non-Muslim groups across and beyond the Middle East. The violence did not erupt suddenly, however: it is an outcome of a myriad of complex historical, religious, political, economic, and geopolitical factors. Historically, tensions between Islam’s two rival sects, the Shias and the Sunnis, have existed, especially after the Battle of Karbala in 680 (which saw the defeat of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the younger son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet and the fourth caliph of Islam, at the hand of Damascus-based Umayyad Caliph Yazid I), mostly in abeyance but occasionally resulting in encounters. In the contemporary context, a host of factors, most notably external interventions including the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the minority Sunni-led Saddam Hussein government, the sectarianization of politics by the Gulf Arab monarchs, Iran, and other dictatorial regimes in the region to consolidate regime survival, and the geopolitical competitions for power and influence between the region’s two archrivals: the Shia powerhouse Iran and the self-proclaimed defender of the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, have greatly abetted violence between Islam’s two rival sects. Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria are the battleground states where the two regional heavyweights, being aided by two extra-regional powers, the United States and the Russian Federation, are jostling and jockeying to edge each other out to claim regional preeminence. The malaise of sectarian violence took a more serious toll on the peoples and societies in the region after the outbreak of Arab movements for democracy, what is dubbed the Arab Spring, in December 2010 and what is continuing today. This article partially originates from the author’s research project “Shia – Sunni Sectarian Violence and Middle East Regional Security” funded by the European Union and tenable at Durham University, U.K.

General Overviews

Scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have interpreted the Shia–Sunni sectarian divide from varied perspectives ranging from historical to theological to socio-political. This section presents a general overview of the divide between Islam’s two major sects: Shias and Sunnis. Hazleton 2010 is a narrative history of how the Shias and the Sunnis developed rivalry right after the death of Prophet Muhammad. IqraSense 2015 provides an overview of the first one hundred years of the sectarian divide. Abdo 2017 sees the sectarian violence deeply rooted in religious differences between the Shias and the Sunnis, while Adonis 2016 explains how political leaders have misused Islam to aid their pursuits of power. Nasr 2006 is an illuminating read on Shia revival and its regional impact. Matthiesen 2013, Potter 2013, and Wehrey 2014 probe the intersections between sectarianism and politics in the Gulf Arab states. Gonzalez 2009 and Hashemi and Postel 2017 are excellent reads on sectarianization of politics and the geopolitics of sectarian violence across the Middle East region.

  • Abdo, Geneive. The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a – Sunni Divide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190233143.001.0001

    Abdo disputes the view that the Arab Spring violence was unleashed by the rivalry over access to land, political power, and resources but locates the roots of Shia–Sunni violence in their distinct identities shaped by religious differences particularly from the 1970s onward, which the extremist as well as moderate political leaders exploit for political purposes.

  • Adonis. Violence and Islam: Conversations with Houria Abdelouahed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016.

    This book is a rich and insightful discussion on the destructive effects of Islamic world view that rejects pluralism and offers an alternative path to the cycle of violence plaguing the Middle East today.

  • Gonzalez, Nathan. The Shia–Sunni Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East. Mission Viejo, CA: Nortia Press, 2009.

    Gonzalez elaborates how geopolitical contests for power have framed politics in religious/sectarian terms forcing Muslims to take refuge in ethnic, sectarian, and tribal identity camps.

  • Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Based on multiple case studies, Hashemi and Postel present historical and geopolitical analyses on how political forces, from inside and outside the region, have sectarianized Shia–Sunni relations to promote selfish goals across the region.

  • Hazleton, Lesley. After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia–Sunni Split in Islam. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

    Hazelton provides a good historical survey of the Shia–Sunni rift with a focus on leadership succession crisis and the resultant seeds of discord in Islam.

  • IqraSense. The Story of Islam, Muslims and the Caliphate: History of Faith, Conquests, and Conflicts: First 100 Years. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent, 2015.

    This book is a complete survey of major historical events of the first one hundred years of Islam covering Shia–Sunni split, Islamic caliphate, early Muslim caliphs, and battles in Iraq and Syria.

  • Matthiesen, Tobby. Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.

    Matthiesen presents a compelling account on how the Sunni ruling elites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia play out sectarian forces to justify repressions of and violence against the Shias to promote their political ends.

  • Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

    Nasr makes a powerful argument that Shia revival and Sunni responses to it will define the Middle East of the future.

  • Potter, Lawrence G., ed. Sectarian Politics in Persian Gulf. London: C. Hurst, 2013.

    A wide-ranging survey of the rise of sectarianism in the Gulf states from multiple perspectives; also covers the Arab Spring–induced sectarian violence and its effects in the region.

  • Wehrey, Frederic M. Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    Wehrey helps deepen our understanding of contemporary religious politics affecting the state of Shia–Sunni relations across the Gulf region.

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