Two Middle Eastern men approached Zwemer Institute executive director James Dretke after he delivered a speech in Arlington, Texas, and said they objected to something he said. He quickly thought through his speech and assumed they referred to comments he made about Muslim beliefs.
What they complained about instead surprised him. "You said that 90 percent of the world's Muslims are Sunni and 10 percent are Shi'ah," one of the men said. "We wanted you to know that the Shi'ah are not Muslims at all."
While such heated tensions have existed within Islam since the seventh century, the fall of Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni regime and last week's massive Shi'ite procession to Karbala have brought extensive media attention to the division between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches of Islam.
While adherents to Sunni (more than 1 billion) far outnumber those of Shi'ah (more than 170 million), Shi'ites have long held the majority in Iran and Iraq. Iran is a Shi'ite theocracy, but Iraq has long been ruled by a secularist Sunni government despite its 60 percent Shi'ite population. Now that the nation is in political flux, observers are unsure how the religious division will shape the new government and its perspective on religious freedom.
But do the differences between Sunni and Shi'ah have implications for evangelism, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and Iraq's church?
What split the Shi'ah and Sunni?
The division between the two groups dates to the death of Muhammad in A.D. 632. The orthodox Sunni (or "example of the prophet") first emerged during a dispute about who would become the next caliph, the leader of the Islamic community.
According to Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic studies at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more