Many Sunnis and Shias Worry About Religious Conflict; Difference between Sunnis and Shias

By Pew Research Center On June 17, 2014

This week Sunni and Shia Muslims ushered in the Islamic New Year and the beginning of the holy month of Muharram. For Shias, the month also is a time to mourn the events that sparked the centuries-old schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims.1 Pew Research Center polls conducted in 2011-2012 find high levels of concern about sectarian tensions in several countries where Sunnis and Shias live side by side. These concerns are particularly pronounced in Lebanon, where fully two-thirds of all Muslims, including about half of Shias and 80% of Sunnis, say sectarian tensions are a very big or moderately big problem. Roughly half of all Muslims in Iraq, more than four-in-ten in Afghanistan and nearly a quarter in Iran say the same.

The polls were conducted from November 2011 to May 2012 among a total of more than 5,000 Muslims in five countries with substantial numbers of both Shias and Sunnis (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon).2 Although Shias make up only about 10%-13% of the world's Muslims, three of the five countries surveyed (Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan) have Shia-majority populations.3 Several of the countries polled also have a recent history of sectarian violence. This includes Lebanon, where a civil war was fought along sectarian lines from 1975 to 1991, and Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombings and other suspected sectarian attacks have occurred in the last few years.4

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In addition to concerns about sectarian tensions, concerns about religious extremism in general also are widespread in the countries surveyed, with about two-thirds of all Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, half of all Muslims in Lebanon and roughly a quarter of all Muslims in Iran expressing worry about radical religious groups. However, when members of the two sects are compared, Shias tend to express less concern than Sunnis about extremist groups, despite the fact that Shias are a minority among Muslims globally and often have been targets of religious violence. Similarly, Shias are less likely than Sunnis to say that tensions between the two sects are a major problem in their country.

The polls also show that concerns about religious tensions do not always go hand-in-hand with perceptions of religious freedom. In Lebanon, for example, the vast majority of both Shias and Sunnis describe themselves as very free to practice their faith, even though many express concern about sectarian tensions and religious extremism.

With regard to religious beliefs and practices, the polls find that majorities of Shia and Sunni Muslims share key tenets of the Islamic faith, including belief in one God and the Prophet Muhammad, belief in heaven and hell, and observance of fasting during Ramadan. In addition, within individual countries, Shia and Sunni Muslims tend to exhibit similar levels of religious commitment. While Shias and Sunnis are united by many beliefs and practices, however, they differ substantially in their attitudes toward certain rituals commonly practiced by Shias during Muharram. On the 10th day of Muharram, Shias commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, by making pilgrimages to holy shrines. The polls show that visits to shrines are nearly universally accepted by Shias, while Sunnis are significantly less likely to say it is permissible in Islam to visit the shrines of saints.

Sectarian Tensions and Extremism

In four of the five countries surveyed, sizable percentages of both Shias and Sunnis are concerned about sectarian conflict. Two-thirds of all Muslims in Lebanon describe sectarian tensions as a very big or moderately big problem in their country. Roughly half of Muslims in Iraq (52%) share this assessment, as do more than four-in-ten in Afghanistan (44%) and nearly a quarter (23%) in Iran.

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