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The Shia-Sunni Divide in Iran

May 20, 2019
Behnam Gholipour
5 min read
The divide between Iranian Shias and Sunnis is more cultural, economic and political than religious
The divide between Iranian Shias and Sunnis is more cultural, economic and political than religious

Iranian Sunnis have faced such high levels of discrimination and injustice that they are becoming increasingly ethnocentric, insular and skeptical about integrating with the country’s majority Shia community, a new study has found. 

The study, published by the Journal of Iranian Cultural Research, finds that social, economic and cultural injustices directed against Iranian Sunnis have played a powerful role in shaping their critical views and discontent and their gravitation towards ethnocentrism.

The report, “Cultural Patterns of Shiite-Sunni Integration in Southern Iran” [PDF], aims to identify “the social and cultural level of convergence in the daily life of the Shia and Sunni people” and the “cultural patterns of the Shia-Sunni divide” in the Larestan region of Fars Province and in Batak in the province of Hormozgan. The research includes a field study and a survey interview with Shias and Sunnis living in the two regions.

The theoretical model the study follows is adapted from the American sociologist Milton J. Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), which identifies the underlying cognitive orientations individuals use to understand cultural differences.


1. How They See the Divide

The first conclusion of the study is that, compared to Shias, Sunnis are more inclined to live among people of their own specific faith. And, in matters of faith, 55.7 percent of Sunnis prefer to read texts written by their co-religionists, whereas 34.8 percent of Shias have the same preferences. And 43.8 percent of Sunnis, compared with 22.6 of Shias, are more partisan in the belief that followers of the other Muslim sect cannot be as or more virtuous than Sunnis.

According to this study, Sunnis put more emphasis on protecting their own religious and cultural views.


2. Defending the Divide

The study finds that the majority of Sunnis believe that, culturally, they are very different from Shias and that their own religious lifestyle is better suited to serve as a model for other cultures. In total, 63.8 percent of the Sunnis believe that people who follow Sunni Islam are more observant of social ethics than Shias are, while fewer Shias have the same belief about Sunnis.

In addition, 75.9 percent of Sunnis and 67.8 percent of Shias believe that the only proper way for their children to live is like them and for them to have the same faith as they do. And 67.9 percent of Sunnis and 36.9 percent of Shias believe that their faith is stronger than other Islamic sects.

In response to the statement “I will not have any religion other than my own,” the views of two groups are similar. Among Sunnis, 83.5 percent agree with the statement, as do 83 percent of Shias.


3. Narrowing the Divide

But Sunnis and Shias both put more emphasis on their shared beliefs and commonalities than on their differences. The study found that 64.7 of Sunnis and 71.9 of Shias agree with the statement: “They might look different on the outside but in their hearts they share many values and beliefs.” And 81.9 percent of Sunnis and 82.8 of Shias believe that instead of dwelling on their differences they must emphasize their biggest common ground — i.e., they are all Muslims.

The two groups also hold similar views on friendship between members of the two sects. 85.7 percent of Sunnis and 92.3 of Shias believe there is no reason not to befriend members of a different sect of Islam. In addition, 85.1 percent of Shias and 77.2 of the Sunnis say that despite their differences they cannot only be friends, but they can be good friends.


4. Accepting Differences

Cultural tolerance means accepting differences and disagreements, and 36.8 percent of Sunnis and 31.9 percent of Shias agree with the statement: “It is natural that in dealings and in relations with the followers of the other faith you are sometimes influenced by them.” And 64.8 percent of Sunnis and 69.5 percent of Shias say that “followers of different religions can freely act according to their beliefs.”

In addition, 72.4 percent of Sunnis and 81.9 percent say that the differences between the two sects are natural and normal.


5. Adapting to Differences

Cultural groups have the ability to adapt to other cultures in order to reduce conflicts. This adaptation can help tolerance and cultural coexistence. For instance, 55.2 percent of Sunnis and 82.3 percent of Shias believe that they can participate in certain religious ceremonies observed by the other sect.

In addition, 47.3 percent of Sunnis and 56.7 percent of Shias say that, in certain cases, members of one sect can follow the religious directives of the other sect.


6. Integration and Harmony

The level of integration between the two groups, such as marriage between them, is a barometer of cultural harmony. For instance, 48.5 percent of Sunnis and 68.6 percent of Shias believe that marriage between Sunnis and Shias is acceptable. And 35.8 percent of Sunnis and 46.2 percent of Shias say that daily interactions with the followers of the other sect have given them a favorable view of the other side.

The study concludes that a major part of the divide between the Shias and Sunnis is social in its nature, not religious. Also, an important factor regarding the divide in Sunni-majority areas is rooted in underdevelopment. In these areas, inequality in the distribution of resources and in social and job opportunities has led to widespread discontent.

The report also concludes that the divide between the Sunnis and the Shias partially has its roots in ethnic conflicts where political frictions have increased the feeling of hostility in Sunni-majority areas. Sunnis are a minority religion in Iran as a whole, even though in some parts of the country they are the majority religion. The report finds that Sunnis feel the impact of being a minority community, which has also exacerbated a confrontational identity in the specific areas of Iran the study covers.


Related Coverage:

Sunni Clergymen Under “Provincial Arrest”, January 18, 2019

40 Years of Discrimination Against Baha’is and Sunnis, August 13, 2018

Baluchi Imams and the People’s Voice, July 24, 2018

Police Warn of Saudi Arabia’s Campaign to Foster Wahhabism, February 19, 2018

Khamenei Calls for Unity and an End to Discrimination — But is he Sincere?, September 7, 2017

A Sunni Religious Leader Excluded from Rouhani’s Inauguration, August 8, 2017

Sunni Cleric: Fight Extremism by Ending Discrimination, June 9, 2017

Religious Discrimination Blocks 10 Million People from Top Jobs, January 4, 2017

Hardliner Warns of “Wahhabist” Threat, January 20, 2015

Sunni Friday Prayers Banned in Tehran, January 12, 2015

The Most Disadvantaged Groups at Risk of Execution, February 14, 2014





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