Harris Walker-Wahhabism and Shi’ism

While oftentimes the discussion of the current state of the Islamic world is centered around the tensions arising between Muslims and those who identify with other religions, there are divisions between sects within Islam that have contributed to crises in the region. One source of discord within the religion is the divide between the Shi’i and the extreme Sunni, or Wahhabi, sects of Islam. The differences between these two identity groups emerge out of fundamentally different views on both the way that the religion should be hierarchically structured as well as the role that religion should play in politics. These differences craft a history rife with intra-religious violent conflicts that continue to affect the political actions of nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which aim to promote their own religious ideologies in the region with either the aide or determent of outside nations.

In order to fully understand the conflict between Wahhabis and Shiites, one must look to the fundamentally different interpretations of Qur’an that each group grounds their beliefs in. Following the death of Muhammad, there were questions as to who should guide the religion in his absence. Sunnis believed that the most important qualities for the next leader are a thorough understanding of Islam and the virtuousness to aptly direct the religion.[1] Shi’ism, on the other hand, is founded on the belief that the succeeding leaders of Islam must be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. This stems from a statement the prophet made on his last pilgrimage to Mecca, asserting, “whoever recognizes me as his master will recognize Ali as his master.”[2] Shi’ite’s belief that it is the will of the prophet that his cousin Ali should take over for him came to a head when the Prophet’s close circle of companions chose Abu Bakr as his successor.[3] Despite Ali’s appointment as the fourth caliph, the seeds of disunity were sown into the religion at this point, as evidenced by the murders of the second and third caliphs, and ultimately Ali himself.[4] The origins of the conflict between the two groups can be seen in their distinct approaches for balancing religion and politics.

In Iran, Shi’ism is the overwhelming religious affiliation, with 98% of the population identifying as Shia.[5] Iran is an Islamic Republic, and there are few countries that rely on religion as significantly as Iran does.[6] The Iranian Constitution includes a passage that says “All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultuual, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria.”[7] Adherence to Sharia as the guiding political philosophy is a core tenant of the country. However, the Shia emphasis on the ability to interpret religious texts differently over time and for the religion to evolve, combined with the frequency of free elections in the country makes for a state that is both reflective of the will of the people and the religion that dominates it, limiting the political quietism that has defined Islam at times.

The Sunni belief that the leader of Islam does not have to be a descendant of the prophet is a reflection of their emphasis on stability over all else. This comes from the differences in their understanding of God’s relationship with the world. Whereas Shi’ites believe that without leadership of progeny, the meaning of Islam will be lost, Sunnis believe in a stricter reading of the text and in an individual’s ability to understand the religion and act as they believe God would want them to.[8] For this reason, the Sunnis were able to accept an Umayyad caliphate that focused on political stability and granted religious authority to the ulama.[9] These clerics “would uphold the government’s authority so long as the rulers provided stability and order and protected the Muslim community.”[10] This is the case with Saudi Arabia, which takes Sunnism to its extreme by identifying with the Wahhabi school of thought.

Muhammad Ibn-Wahhab, the father of Wahhabism, was born in what is now Saudi Arabia in 1703.[11] Ibn-Wahhab’s origins in Saudi Arabia would become crucial to the religion’s ability to spread throughout the region. Ibn-Wahhab developed his particular brand of Islam through the inspiration of Ibn Tamiyya, a 14th century scholar who wrote about the problems of Christianity, Shi’ism, and even Sufism.[12] These two scholars, and their resulting religious followers, believe that Islam must dismiss hundreds of years of innovation and change and return “back to the roots of Islam.”[13] Despite being widely viewed as a fringe of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism made a very powerful ally in Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the leader of the Ikhwan army who would go on to become the first King of Saudi Arabia.[14] He would use this power to ensure that [15]“the Shia were systematically marginalized and stripped of their public role. They were tolerated, but not accepted by the Wahhabi state; they were the undesirable and heathen minority.” Wahhabism caught on despite the fact that the religion was openly antagonistic to any dissention, including from followers of the same religion. This was a result of Western nations attempts to extract whatever value they could out of the region, regardless of the consequences.

Wahhabism was able to flourish due to the assistance of the British in establishing the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Following World War I, the British decided that the Saudis had the best chance of defeating the Ottoman Empire, thereby giving the British optimal access to the petroleum rich country.[16] Additionally, the United States supported the Saudis throughout the Cold War, as they saw them as a buffer between the world of Arab Nationalism and the Soviet Union.[17] As a result, the United States aimed to “make Wahhabi Saudi Arabia the spiritual leader of the Mddle East, as a way of shifting the region to the right.”[18] These shortsighted approaches by Western powers have had damaging effects including the Saudi support for Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban. The Western drive for power gave the United States and Britain a narrow lens to assess the Middle East. They believed that what was best for themselves was best for the region as well, but failed to look at the religious and political fallouts of their decisions.

The divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Middle East has origins that can be traced back to the death of Muhammad. The differences in how to further the religion following his death resulted in bloody clashes between the two sides. These religious differences have persisted and permeated into the political structures in determining who should rule and what role the religious figures should have in politics and vice-versa. This is most clearly seen in the divide between Iran, a Shi’a majority nation, and Saudi Arabia, a nation that is dominated by Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunnism. These two nations are examples of how even within the Muslim World, different interpretations of the same religion can be used to foster division, and until those issues are reconciled, it will be hard to democratize the region.[19]




Works Cited:


Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002. Print.


Cole, Juan. Engaging the Muslim World. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.


Lee, Robert Deemer. Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Westview Press, 2014.


Mahallati, Jafar. Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World. October 11th through October 25th, 2017 Oberlin College.


Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.





[1] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, 39

[2] Ibid, 38.

[3] Robert D. Lee, Religion and Politics in the Middle East, 174.

[4] Nasr, 38.

[5] Mahallati Lecture, October 25, 2017.

[6] Lee, 169

[7] Lee, 182

[8] Ibid

[9] Nasr, 36

[10] Nasr, 39

[11] Wahhabism: A critical essay 5

[12] Wahhabism: A critical essay 11

[13] Nasr 96

[14] Nasr 97

[15] Nasr, 98

[16] Mahallati Lecture, October 11, 2017.

[17] Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 88.

[18] Ibid, 89.

[19] Nasr, 24