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Q: Maybe this is a dumb question, but why are the Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other? How do the two sects differ? What’s up with that?

A: It’s not a dumb question; in fact, when an editor with Congressional Quarterly gave intelligence and law enforcement officers a pop quiz last October on the differences between the sects, many of them flunked.

Islam was founded by Muhammad in the seventh century. The two sects developed after he died in 632, and his followers could not agree on who should lead the faithful. A group who became known as Sunnis believed any worthy person could lead the faithful, and they favored Abu Bakr, a man who had married into Muhammad’s family, who became the first caliph, or successor to Muhammad.

The group who came to be known as Shiites wanted to choose bloodline successors and had supported Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.

The violence started in 656 when Shiites killed Uthman, Muhammad’s son-in-law and the third caliph; and Sunnis killed a son of Ali, who became the fourth caliph.

The sects have different approaches on prayer and marriage policies. But experts note that the conflict in Iraq isn’t just about religion. It also has to do with rivalry between the sects and Shiites’ feelings of oppression, especially under Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunnis.

Worldwide, the Sunnis far outnumber the Shiites, but in Iraq, they’re in the minority.

Got a question about goings-on in the Mideast? E-mail Stripes at:


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