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Shiite-Sunni divide: Understanding the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict

Ruchi Kumar | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 4:45 IST

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatened to escalate following the 2 January execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

The renowned cleric was believed to be the voice of the Shiite minorities of Saudi Arabia. His death has triggered a series of protests and a diplomatic standoff between Saudi Arabia - backed by a number of Gulf countries - and the Shiite-majority nation of Iran.

The fallout

The Iranian capital saw massive protests on 3 January, which ended with the crowd torching the Saudi Arabian embassy in Iran. What followed was a regional stalemate with Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic ties with Iran and other nations - including Bahrain, Sudan and Kuwait - have called off diplomatic relations with Iran.

Saudi deported the Iranian ambassador and Saudi prince Waleed Bin Talal announced on Twitter that he would be pulling investments out of Iran.

President of Iran, President Hasan Rouhani, took to social media platform to criticise Saudi Arabia. "Saudi Arabia won't be able to cover up its crimes by cutting ties with Iran," he tweeted. "Response to criticism should not be beheading," he wrote, condemning al-Nimr's execution.

However, the political furore is symptomatic of a much larger issue plaguing the Islamic world - the sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni dominant country, while Iran's population is largely Shiite.

The difference between Shiites and Sunnis

  • The Shiite-Sunni divide dates back to the 7th century when two groups clashed over who would succeed Prophet Mohammad as the caliph of the Muslim empire, following his death.
  • A section of Muslims, that we know as Sunnis, voted for Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close friend and advisor, as the first Caliph to lead the Muslims. However, a group known as Shiat Ali - the latter day Shiites - rejected Bakr's leadership and proclaimed the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to be their rightful leader.
  • Each sect also holds a different interpretation of Islam. Sunnis consider themselves strict followers of the word of God - derived from the word al-Sunnah, which literally means people of the tradition.
  • Shiites, too, follow the same word of God, however, they also believe in the interpretations of the word by Ali. That said, Shiites and Sunnis both revere the Quran and the holy city of Mecca

  • Geopolitically, Sunnis are larger in number and are spread across parts of the globe with a large concentration in Middle East, Central Asia and Asia.
  • Shiites are predominantly based in countries like lran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Azerbaijan. There are large Shiite communities in India as well.

  • While Iran has a reputation of sponsoring militiamen fighting Sunni groups, Saudi Arabia has been known to have backed Sunni jihadist that often target Shiites and their religious places.

While this may be an oversimplification of a prolonged dispute that has claimed countless lives, it is important to understand the difference between the groups to comprehend the row - that is bound to escalate.

The execution of Al-Nimr, a firebrand critic of the Saudi regime and voice of the Shiite minority in the kingdom, may have triggered another altercation, but Iran and Saudi have found themselves at loggerheads for decades now, more so after the Spring Revolutions.

First published: 6 January 2016, 6:31 IST
Ruchi Kumar @RuchiKumar

Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist living in Kabul with her cat Bukhari. On most days, she reports on the ongoings in the region. Rest of the time, she reads, writes and wanders around Kabul looking for people who will tell stories.