Differences within Islam create confusion for many

All right, no cheating. This is a pop quiz.

Who or what is Hezbollah?

What branch of the Islamic faith is followed by most of those in al-Qaida?

What is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites?

OK, pencils down.

If you failed this test, you’re in good company. Last week, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, was asked similar questions by a reporter for Congressional Quarterly magazine.

He failed.

“Al-Qaida, they have both,” Reyes said in response to whether al-Qaida is made up mostly of Sunni or Shiite Muslims. “Predominantly — probably Shiite.”

In fact, al-Qaida is a Sunni organization that considers the Shiite sect to be heretical. This is part of the reason some believe they are fueling the insurgency in Iraq, which is 65 percent Shiite and has a majority Shiite government.

When asked the same question about the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, Reyes laughed and complained about answering such tough questions early in the morning.

Reyes has been chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The position is one of the most important in Congress, charged with scrutinizing the information the president uses to make anti-terror or war decisions.

Reyes’ fumble highlights what many people do and don’t know about Islam.

In A.D. 632, the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, died, leaving open the question of who would lead the religion.

In the decades that followed, Shia began to believe only direct descendants of Mohammed should lead the religion. Sunnis did not care as much about the lineage and believed the leader or “caliph” should be elected democratically.

The split has lingered and Shiite Muslims now make up about 15 percent of the faith worldwide. They are the majority in places like Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Sunnis make up the remaining 85 percent and are the majority in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey.

The difference between the two sects in practice is often difficult to determine.

“When it comes to prayer and mosques, they’re a little different. I really couldn’t identify it confidently. You can see this is different or that, but I wouldn’t be confident to know why,” said Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux of Saint Louis University, a nationally recognized terrorism expert.

Leguey-Feilleux said the divide is now more political than anything else.

“The Shia have always been an oppressed minority, and the Sunnis view them as defectors,” he said.

Dr. Tahsin Khalid, a Southeast Missouri State University professor who was born in Pakistan, agrees. Khalid is a professor of elementary, early and childhood education but as a Muslim he speaks locally to groups to help them understand the religion.

“At the beginning they were political factions; there is not really any religious reason for it,” he said. “Later on people became very strong within their own faction and started calling the other one bad, but according to the Quran this should never have happened.”

All this is linked to al-Qaida and the bloodletting in Iraq.

The consensus is that al-Qaida — to the extent it’s operating in Iraq — is taking advantage of the longstanding hostility between the two sects. Al-Qaida is a natural ally of the Iraqi Sunni minority, which held power there until Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.

But experts caution not to confuse Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida or even Hussein with mainstream Sunniism.

“Bin Laden is first and foremost a fundamentalist. He wants to correct the errors of his fellow Muslim believers so they return to their roots,” Leguey-Feilleux said. “His roots are in Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi version of Islam, which is very puritanical.”

Hussein, on the other hand, and many of his Sunni followers are not religious in the least.

“Saddam is considered a Sunni, but in fact he was an atheist. The Baath Party are mostly all atheists,” Khalid said, referring to Hussein’s political party.

And Hussein did not shy away from killing other Sunnis, such as the Kurds, an ethnic minority in northern Iraq.

“He killed thousands of Kurds, so it wasn’t really a religious thing. It was a power thing,” Khalid said.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday December 14, 2006.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.