Program Particulars: The Sunni-Shia Divide

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

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(02:21–04:17) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale


(03:33) The Rise of Ayatollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini got his start as a political leader and organizer opposing the White Revolution, a series of progressive reform policies implemented by the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, including land reforms, the extension of voting rights to women, and literacy programs. Also included in these reforms were policies in which government officials could be elected from non-Muslim minorities and would no longer have to be sworn in on a Qur'an — points which Khomeini warned as violating Islamic law and the 1907 Iranian Constitution.

In 1967, the shah further consolidated his power and declared himself the emperor of Iran. His regime used brutal tactics and became increasingly violent in suppressing opposition to his reforms. Resistance grew and the Shia leader — while in exile for 14 years — lead a broad coalition of political opposition formed in Iran, including students, secular parties, and religious leaders. In 1979, the Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, returned to a cheering five million people and the Western-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown after 37 years of secular rule. Khomeini's return and the shah's retreat paved the way for a new Islam-inspired revolutionary government.

(3:43) Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Vali Nasr's father, a prominent Muslim theologian teaching at George Washington University in Washington, DC, was a guest on On Being in 2006 for the program Hearing Muslim Voices Since 9/11.

(04:16) Doctor Zhivago-esque Escape

Doctor Zhivago is a 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak in which the title character undertakes a difficult journey across Russia following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Pasternak's novel was adapted into the well-known epic 1965 movie directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), and starring Omar Sharif.


(11:20) Ashura Ritual

Here is the full video of the music from the religious ritual heard during the program. The ritual in Tehran commemorates the Muslim holiday of Ashura, when Shia Muslims honor the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Husayn was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and is a key figure in Shia history and identity. The ritual is led by popular Iranian singer Mahmood Karimi. The audience chants about beloved members of the Prophet Muhammad's family, including Fatima Zahra, the Prophet's daughter, and al-Abbas ibn Ali (also known as Abu'l-Fazl), half-brother of Imam Husayn.

(04:38) Notable Shia Lineage

Shias recognize a series of spiritual leaders known as imams, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad's family, who are considered the true inheritors of Islamic leadership. Descendents of imams are recognized with the honorific title of "sayyid" meaning "master". Sayyids are not necessarily religious leaders themselves, nor are Shia leaders necessarily sayyids.

In the absence of the imams, the last of whom is said to be removed from the world until end times, the larger Shia community is guided by high-ranking religious functionaries known as ayatollahs, who have authority over matters such as religious law and philosophy. Because of their authority in the community, their word can be politically influential as well.

Sunni Muslims believe that the leader of the community does not need to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, they do not adhere to the Shia definition of imams. An imam, in a more general sense, is someone who leads prayers and may also be a local community leader, similar in function to a pastor or priest.

(07:25) The Christian Reformation

The Christian Reformation — also known as the Protestant Reformation — was a series of movements within the Western Christian Church that took place in the 16th century. During this period, a variety of Christian factions in Western Europe protested and questioned the doctrines and practices of traditional religion, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, which ultimately lead to the establishment of Protestant denominations.

In continental Europe, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, is commonly known for his protestations of the selling of indulgences and his stand as a reformer. Luther gained notoriety for his Ninety-Five Theses, in which the ideas contained in this document gave impetus to the Reformation. King Henry VIII triggered the movement in England when he split with Rome over his seeking an annulment.

(13:22) Karbala and Najaf

Located in Iraq, the city of Karbala was the site of a pivotal historical battle between Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the early Shia imams, and Yazid, a Sunni caliph. The battle resulted in the death of Husayn, a catastrophic event in Shia theology which is marked by the holiday of Ashura. Karbala's Imam Husayn Shrine attracts millions of Shia pilgrims each year.

Also in Iraq is Najaf, home to the Imam Ali Shrine, the resting place of Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Shia Imam, and also one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

In this short video, we see a group of women celebrating the birthday of Imam Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad, considered the first of the Shia Imams.

(14:17) A Religion of Law, a Muslim by Practice

Derived from Greek, orthodoxy refers to "correct belief," while orthopraxy refers to "correct action." Although conceptions of the Oneness of God and other doctrinal matters are discussed in the Qur'an and do address what is considered correct Islamic belief, there is a greater everyday focus on Islamic law and personal behavior.

Of the core Five Pillars of Islam which define Muslim behavior, four have to do with actions a Muslim is required to do throughout their lives or on a daily basis: daily ritual prayers, regular charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and a pilgrimage during the Islamic month of Hajj at least once in a lifetime (the remaining pillar is the Shahadah, a personal testimony of belief in God and the prophetic mission of Muhammad).

Additionally, much of Islamic law is derived from proscriptions for action found in the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. These relate to personal conduct and dress, eating and bathing, matters of family and community law, methods for worship, laws regarding crime and justice, and more.

As opposed to different views of theology, it is frequently the different interpretations of Islamic law, particularly in relation to politics and community, that often define secular, progressive, traditionalist, fundamentalist, or other approaches to Islam. There is, therefore, some parallel to the different schools of Jewish thought, for example, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. The Sunni-Shia divide, as well, began as a political dispute, later defining differing theologies.

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(15:26–17:17) Music Element

"Dance of Sama" from Ney Nava, performed by Hossein Alizeadeh


» Enlarge the image Women carrying water jars from well

A photo taken by Gertrude Bell in March, 1909 in Kebeisah, Iraq (now Kubaysah). The description reads: "Kebeisa - well [Women carrying water jars from well]."
(photo courtesy of the Gertrude Bell Archive)

(16:21) Gertrude Bell

During Britain's colonial era, Gertrude Bell traveled extensively across the Middle East as a writer and archaeologist. She drew maps of the Middle East during World War I and played a role in the British-supported Arab Revolt against the rule of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. Later, as a British administrator, she helped define the state of Iraq, from its borders to its leadership.

An online archive of her writings and photographs includes the 1920 letter quoted in the program, in which she writes her father about the balance of power in Iraq:

Sunni Mosul must be retained as a part of the Mesopotamian state in order to adjust the balance. But to my mind it's one of the main arguments for giving Mesopotamia responsible government. We as outsiders can't differentiate between Sunni and Shi'ah, but leave it to them and they'll get over the difficulty by some kind of hanky panky, just as the Turks did, and for the present it's the only way of getting over it. I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil.

Middle-east map illustrating Shia Crescent and Shia population density

Middle-east map illustrating Shia Crescent and Shia population density.

(20:47) The Shia Crescent

The "Shia crescent" refers to the geographic region with the highest populations of Shia Muslims. The phrase was coined in 2004 by King Abdullah of Jordan, and covers an area arcing from Lebanon through Tehran, Iran, and finally to the island nation of Bahrain and into a prominently Shia-populated pocket in eastern Saudi Arabia.

» View an interactive map of this region.

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(23:50–24:45) Music Element

"Dream" from The Second Baghdad, performed by Rahim Alhaj


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(24:40–25:53) Music Element

"Meykhaneh" from Shy Angels, performed by Sussan Deyhim


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(24:54–26:39) Music Element

"L'Altra Storia" from Yeraz, performed by Trygve Seim, Frode Haltli


(27:28) Reading from Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival

This passage from Vali Nasr's 2006 book The Shia Revival, excerpted in the program, discusses the outlines of the Sunni-Shia divide in the context of the US's approach to the Middle East.

The Shia-Sunni conflict is at once a struggle for the soul of Islam — a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history — and a manifestation of the kind of tribal wars of ethnicities and identities, so seemingly archaic at times, yet so surprisingly vital, with which humanity has become wearily familiar. Faith and identity converge in this conflict, and their combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite the periods of coexistence, the struggle has lasted so long and retains such urgency and significance. It is not just a hoary religious dispute, a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam's unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities. Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today's concerns with power, subjugation, freedom, and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict. For the quarter century between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and September 11, 2001, the United States saw the Middle East far too often through the eyes of the authoritarian Sunni elites in Islamabad, Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, who were America's major local allies. Even in Western scholarly tomes on Islam, the Shia received only cursory treatment. As the Middle East changes and the Sunni ascendancy continues to come under challenge, the U.S. perspective on the region must change as well. Responding to European objections to the war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished the "old Europe," which opposed the war, from the "new Europe," which was more likely to support it. The war has also drawn a line (albeit in a different way) between an "old" and a "new" Middle East. The old Middle East lived under the domination of its Arab component and looked to Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus — hose ancient seats of Sunni caliphs — as its "power towns." The region's problems, ambitions, identity, and self-image were primarily, if not exclusively, those of the Arabs. The dominant political values of the old Middle East are a decades-old vintage of Arab nationalism. This Middle East, now passing uneasily away, was at its core a place by, for, and about the Sunni ruling establishment. The new Middle East coming fitfully into being — its birth pangs punctuated by car bombs but also by peaceful protests and elections — is defined in equal part by the identity of Shias, whose cultural ties and relations of faith, political alliances, and commercial links cut across the divide between Arab and non-Arab.

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(27:30–29:31) Music Element

"Part VIII" from The Wind, performed by Kayhan Kalhor, Erdal Erzincan


(32:10) The Kurds in Iraq

The Kurdish people primarily inhabit a region including northern Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Iran. The Kurds have a rich history, but in modern times have often been the target of violence and oppression — including mass killings under the hand of Saddam Hussein that led to charges of genocide. However, since the the removal of Hussein from power in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed an increasing amount of autonomy and prosperity. » View a slide show of life in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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(36:16–37:18) Music Element

"Sayyid Dance" from Melos, performed by Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, U. T. Gandhi


(38:39) Ahmed al-Rahim

In a On Being program from 2004, A Perspective on Islam in Iraq, Krista speaks to Ahmed al-Rahim, an Iraqi-American Harvard professor.

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(42:06–42:50) Music Element

"Sayyid Dance" from Melos, performed by Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, U. T. Gandhi


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(48:07–52:07) Music Element

"Pilgrims" from Bon Voyage, performed by United Future Organization


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(49:47–51:52) Music Element

"The Second Baghdad" from The Second Baghdad, performed by Rahim Alhaj


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Voices on the Radio

is professor of international politics in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.