Almost everyday we hear about Shia and Sunni Muslims fighting each other. It is said that most Muslims die every year because of religion.

What is the reason for the Shia-Sunni conflict?

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    There are countless conflicts world-wide between ethical groups where one group is shia and the other sunni. Usually there is a lot more behind these than just religious differences. Please specify one conflict. Pure "holy wars" are rare. Religion is usually a propaganda tool to justify a war fought for entirely worldly reason.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 11:22
  • Please, specify one conflict. "Religion wars" is very generic.
    – nelruk
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 20:20
  • There's already an answer here, on Islam.SE. islam.stackexchange.com/questions/967/… Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 7:10
  • 1
    I'm pretty sure most Muslims don't die every year. Their numbers would be going down quite rapidly if that were case.
    – reirab
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 6:19

5 Answers 5


The reason for the schism between Shia and Sunni is that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) some Muslims thought that his cousin Ali bin Abu Talib should inherit the Prophets position as spiritual and political leader of Islam, while others thought that his father-in-law Abdullah ibn Abi Qhuhafah would be more deserving of the job.

This divide lead to several theological differences between the two denominations. However, those theological differences are rarely the direct reason for armed conflicts. Rather, local Shia and Sunni communities developed into different ethnic groups with different political agendas and interests. These agendas and interests often conflict with each other, like they often do between ethnic groups in the same geographical region. This can often lead to armed conflict. Which interests these are in each case varies. But usually so-called "holy wars" are often fought for entirely worldly reasons, not just by Muslims.

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    -1. From proper theological views, Shia (or Sunni from the other side) are heretics and therefore it's not JUST the worldlu reasons. Islam isn't very tolerant of apostasy.
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 21:33
  • Do you perhaps mean "ethnic groups" rather than "ethical groups?"
    – reirab
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 6:14

It's not about Shia and Sunni, every religion has its long time conflicts, or let's say every religion has been used to shape a political war in a religious frame.

Since most of these conflicts are in the developing countries were religions are being perceived wrongly, politicians use the religion to lobby people to fight. And since most of these conflicts are in the middle east (which is the land of all religions among history), the people used to inherit (tribal mentality) hate or fear toward other sects because of some political war that shaped in religious frame.

And people mostly think that being in the authority is the only way to be protected from others. So all of them fight to get the authority.


As others have pointed out, there was a schism in early Islam based around who should be prophet and determine the state of the religion after Muhammad's death: the Shia believed his cousin Ali bin Abu Talib should be next, the Sunni believed his friend/advisor Abu Bakr should be in charge. However, currently the conflict is given even greater focus in the Middle East due to a current growing conflict: the current Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. This Middle East Cold War has been going on since 1979 & could determine which nation is the dominant power in the Middle East. Shia are the majority in Iran and the royal family in Saudi Arabia are Sunni. This allows the ancient conflict between Shia and Sunni to have repercussions in the modern day and affect the Middle East on a larger political level. Not helping is the fact that global powers have also gotten involved in the conflict, with the United States helping Saudi Arabia and Russia supporting Iran. All of these factors have caused this divide to grow as it becomes a battle to see which nation (and by extension, which faction of Islam) will have greater power and influence over the Middle East.


Shia-sunni conflict is more political than religious.

  1. The Shia and Sunni became true rivals during the Shafavid rule in Iran. Shafavid dynasty enforced Shiaism to root out Sunnis so that they can get rid of Arab and Ottoman influence. See

Iran was Sunni majority country at the time when Shāh Ismāil of Safavid Dynasty took over in 1501 CE. Shah Ismail followed extremist Shia sect that gave divine status to Hazrat Ali, the Caliph of Islam. Shah Isma'il was the most successful and intolerant Shi'i ruler since the fall of the Fatimids. It appears that he aimed for complete destruction of Sunnis, and he largely achieved that goal in the lands over which he ruled. His hatred of the Sunnis knew no bounds, and his persecution of them was ruthless. He required the first three caliphs to be ritually cursed, abolished Sunni Sufi orders, seizing their property, and gave Sunni ulama a choice of conversion, death, or exile. Shi'i scholars were brought in from other regions to take their place. One of the main reasons why Ismail and his followers pursued such a severe conversion policy was to give Iran and the Safavid lands as distinct and unique an identity as was possible compared to its two neighboring Sunni Turkic military and political enemies, its main enemy and arch rival the Ottoman Empire and, for a time, the Central Asian Uzbeks — to the west and north-east respectively. The Safavids were engaged in a lengthy struggle with the Ottomans — including numerous wars between the two dynasties — and this struggle continuously motivated the Safavids to create a more cohesive Iranian identity to counter the Ottoman threat and possibility of a fifth-column within Iran among its Sunni subjects. The conversion was part of the process of building a territory that would be loyal to the state and its institutions, thus enabling the state and its institutions to propagate their rule throughout the whole territory. Some historian believe the adoption Shia sect was also a sign or Persian resurgence as they would remain Muslims but different from other their neighboring Muslim states that were predominantly Sunni.

  1. Present day Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East can be explained by Iranian and Saudi conflict of interest in the region. Saudi Arabia's fear is to lose monarchy of the house of Saud. Iran's target is to undermine the monarchy. Saudi-Iran relation was best during the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi because Saudis felt no threat. One of the major aim of Islamic revolutionaries in Iran was to topple Saudi monarchy.

Another aspect that severely developed the conflict was the rise of the Fatimid caliphate. Until then the arab empires had been predominantly Sunni-ruled. But a revolution in Sicily which spread across north africa, and up to Mecca itself changed all that.

Then there were to powerful arab states, the Shi'ite Fatimids and Sunni Abbasids. Differences could have been resolved, or the Fatimids could have fallen and order restored.( Reform is much easier in a centralized government) But with support from the Byzantines the conflict evened out, the Sunni's furious that the Shia's would join with a great christian enemy.

I would also like to mention as a side note that during this age and before, the Arabs were much more religiously tolerant than Christian Europe. Struggles like these flare up when nations are poor. So, since the poverty of the Middle East wis mainly caused by the post world war one/two treaties. You could say the intensity of the conflict is England, France and The U.S's fault.

  • 5
    What poverty of the Middle East? Every Middle Eastern country except Yemen and Syria is above or slightly below the world average GDP before taking into account cost of living. The average for the region is certainly higher than that world midline. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world when purchasing power parity is taken into account. The region is not quite rich like Europe, but that's not the same as poor. Iraq and Syria are, in fairness.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jul 7, 2019 at 13:24

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