The Conflict of Wahhabism and Shi’ism

It is important to address the socio-political, religious and historical factors in studying the differences between Wahhabism (as well as other, similar forms of Islamic fundamentalism) and Shi’i Islam.  In order to begin forming a solution to the current crisis in the Middle East it is important to look back at factors that led to the clash between the two.

Wahhabism, according to our notes, is a form of Islam that is “phenomenal, marginal and outside the pale of Sunni mainstream” despite being derived from Sunnism.1  Algar labels Wahhabism as a sect alone and onto itself, and says that “The relative prevalence of Wahhabi modes of thought now observable in various Muslim countries is a more recent phenomenon”.2  In terms of religious differences, Wahhabism comes from (as its most basic point) the belief that veneration of someone or something other than God, as Algar says, “Such violation takes place whenever an act of devotion involves, in any fashion at all, an entity other than the worshipper and God”.3  This leads to a direct conflict with one of the core tenets of Shiism, which is the importance of shrines to worshipping.  Nasr says, “Shiites believe that their shrines are locations of spiritual grace (baraka), where God is present in a special way and most likely to answer cries for help”.4  One of the most jarring images Nasr paints in his book when he discusses the oppression of the Shiite people is when he talks about their pilgrimage near the beginning of the Iraq War: “As soon as Saddam Hussein’s regime was crushed in the spring of 2003, tens of thousands of Iranians, many poor and elderly women with nothing more than a black cloth covering their heads and small bundles of food in their hands, walked across the Iran-Iraq border, traversed minefields, and made their way through the desolate landscape of southern Iraq to visit the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala, which Saddam had for years barred to Iranian pilgrims”.5  A socio-political concern that Nasr lays out are the fundamental differences between the political attitudes of Sunni and Shi’a Islam.  While justice and protest theology had become a central part of Shiism, on the other hand, “The Sunnis were well on their way to embracing their traditional stance of accepting a regime’s legitimacy so long as it provided order, protected Islam, and left religious matters to the ulama”.6  This difference mostly came into play when Muslims were confronted with sects like Wahhabism and the confrontation that ensued.

The establishment of Saudi Arabia was a historical event bound to be scarred in the minds of Shiite people and would help explain clash today.  As Algar says, “The second Wahhabi-Saudi conquest of the peninsula came at a cost of some 400,000 killed and wounded”.7  Algar goes on to clarify that “The majority Shi‘i population of al-Asha received special attention: Ibn Sa‘ud appointed his cousin, ’Abdullah b. Musallim b. Jilawi, perhaps the foremost butcher of the family after the monarch himself, to subjugate them, which he did by executing thousands of people and decimating both the religious and tribal leadership of the Shi‘i community”.8  Not just a clash of social and political differences, but a literal clash of blood and a degradation of humanity.  

In this instance, as well as the other bloody instances of conflict started by the fiercely held and ignorant ideas of the fundamentalism, the trial of identity begins.  What does it mean to be religious?  What does it mean to be a Muslim?  But more importantly, what does it mean to be human and what does it mean to stay your course despite the harm you have chosen to cause?  Is the path to godliness or is this what it means to play God?  As we discussed in class, the struggle between distinction and belonging is the struggle of our humanity.9

I also do not think that the accusations toward Shiite Muslims are helping to bridge the gap between them and Sunnis, as well as their extremist sects.  This also helps us to see how socio-politically Iran stands apart from the rest of Muslim world as a majority Shia country.  During the U.S. invasion of Iran and Iraq, Saddam Hussein “compared Baghdad’s fall to the Americans in 2003 to its fall to the Mongols in 1258”.10  As Nasr says, “His implication was clear: just as Shia had betrayed Islam in 1258, he was saying, so they were betraying it again in 2003”.11  It is interesting that Iran, a Shiite state that only benefits from the loss of ISIL and the Taliban, both groups that antagonize and have fundamental differences with Shi’a Muslims, is such a cause of anxiety for the United States in the fight against terrorism.12  In the battle between the Taliban and the rest of the Middle East then, politically Shi’a Muslims and fundamentalist groups were clearly at odds.  This also has to do with an idea I brought up earlier, that Shi’i Islam is at it’s heart a protest theology that promotes ethics and just rule instead of simply stability.13  Whether that is what the Middle East needs right now or not is a bigger question.

This question is also exasperated by the politics of countries in the Middle East dealing with fundamentalism and declaring to disavow it, but either showing some signs of sympathy with it or turning more attention to disavowing activists promoting human rights or protecting Shiism in the region as causing trouble.  For example, what is going on in Bahrain is a government that claims to be against ISIS, and even joined the U.S. military coalition but is still disregarding free speech and pro-human rights movements and even fighting back against them.14  As Shehabi writes, “For three years, the regime has destroyed Shiite mosques, carried out sectarian profiling, and cleansed’ state institutions…The government’s sectarian narrative — that the Sunni regime and its loyalists are threatened by the Shiites, who make up two-thirds of the Muslim population — is the paradigm that has been used to frame the Bahraini pro-democracy uprising right from the start. ”15  

If Sunni and Shi’a Muslims cannot overcome through socio-political, cultural, and historical obstacles and differences, how countries like Bahrain begin to break down this mindset of opposition to pro-Shi’a movements?  I think that in the larger scheme, how are we supposed to stop the spread of harmful fundamentalist ideas and find peaceful ground together as a society if Sunni Muslims are constantly framing Shiite Muslims as the outsiders, or at worst, like the extremists do, as their enemies?  We cannot move forward in this way.  

  1.  Class Notes, October 11, 2017.
  2. Algar, Hamid.  “Wahhabism: A Critical Essay.”  Foreign Affairs 81, no. 5 (2002): 4.
  3. Ibid., 32.
  4. Nasr, Vali.  The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016. 55.
  5. Ibid., 56.
  6. Ibid., 36.
  7. Algar, Hamid.  “Wahhabism.” 42.
  8. Ibid., 42-43.
  9. Class Notes, October 23, 2017.
  10. Nasr, Vali.  This Shia Revival.  82.
  11. Class Notes, October 25, 2017.
  12. Class Notes, October 23, 2017.
  13. Shehabi, Ala’a.  “Why is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?”  Foreign Policy.  February 26, 2015.  Accessed November 1, 2017. .
  14. Ibid.