Slate's Explainer: Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims

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Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains some of the key cultural differences between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. They both share a core religion, but differ on important historical points that often escalate into violent clashes.


In Iraq, more violence; at least 19 Shiites were murdered in a factory by suspected Sunni insurgents. The two groups have increasingly clashed, prompting some to call it a de facto civil war. Similar fighting took place a decade ago in the Balkans. And both conflicts have prompted us to wonder, how do members of opposing ethnic or religious groups tell each other apart?

The Explainer Team at the online magazine Slate took up that question, and here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Senior Editor, Slate Magazine): It's not easy. For the most, you can't tell a Shiite or a Sunni by how they look, talk, or dress. There are Shiite and Sunni regions and neighborhoods in Iraq, and members of small communities may know the religious affiliations of their neighbors. You might also get some sense of which sect an Iraqi belongs to from his family name. But surnames aren't reliable either, given the number of inter-marriages that occurred under Ba'ath Party rule.

First names can give a better clue, given the history of the sectarian split. The two groups diverged after the death of Mohammed in the seventh-century. One side chose Abu Bakr, Mohammed's companion and advisor to succeed him. And the other thought it should be Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali. Shiites view Ali and his two sons, Hassan and Hussein, as the first of the 12 imams, or holy leaders of Islam. Sunnis don't accept the imams.

This tradition makes it more likely that a man named Ali, Hassan, or Hussein, would be a Shiite. A man named Omar, Abu Bakr, or Yassid, would almost certainly be a Sunni, since these names correspond to the opponents of the first imams and the major villains of the Shiite history. However, you'll find plenty of Muslims from both camps named after Mohammed or his daughter Fatima.

Ultra religious Sunnis and Shiites are much more easily distinguished. A very pious Sunni man may wear a long beard, and a pious Sunni woman might cover her face, except for the eyes. A very conservative Shiite man may be unwilling to wear a tie. Sunnis and Shiites also differ in the way they hold their hands during prayer; up toward their chests for Sunnis and down at their sides for Shiites.

BRAND: And that Explainer brought to you by Slate's Andy Bowers.

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