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 in Pasadena, the Sunni followed the Arabian practice of appointing a committee of elders to choose the leader. They elected Abu Bakr as caliph.

A second group, however, felt the rightful heir was Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. Advocating that only direct descendents of the prophet should become caliph, Ali's supporters would become known as Shi'ites (or "the party of Ali"). They believe in a "divine light" that passes from Muhammad through his line to rightly guided imams. The Sunni do not believe in the divinity of Muslim leaders.

Ali did become caliph, but not until 656. He was the fourth leader after Muhammad. Don Wagner, executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University, says that Shi'ites believe Ali was framed for the assassination of his predecessor, Uthman. Ali was killed by one of his men after losing a battle against Uthman's cousin, Mu'awiya Ummayad, who declared himself caliph.

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While Ali's oldest son, Hassan, was compensated for not becoming caliph, the youngest son, Hussein, agreed to wait until Mu'awiya died to become leader. This didn't happen because Mu'awiya's son Yazid took the position. In a war against Yazid, Hussein was killed in Karbala (which is now in Iraq).

For most Shi'ites, who are known as the Twelvers, the line of Muhammad ended in A.D. 873 with the disappearance of the twelfth imam, 4-year-old Al-Askari. Making up the majority of Shi'ites, the Twelvers believe that Al-Askari is hidden and will usher in a new great era when he returns. The Sunni say this belief is heretical.

"The Sunnis have a more literal interpretation of the Qur'an," says Wagner. "They don't allow some of the added teaching the Shi'ah have brought in, like reverence for Ali or belief in the hidden imam."

According to, the Sunnis and Shi'ites believe in the same core fundamentals or five pillars of Islam. Dretke of the Zwemer Institute says a key difference is in the Shi'ah practice of allowing religious leaders to interpret the Qu'ran.

"The Sunni Muslims put all their reliance only on the Qu'ran itself," he says. "The distinction between the two is in how God revealed his purposes to man. In the Shi'ites' giving their leaders the voice to interpret the Qu'ran, it is almost to the Sunnis as if another prophet is rising up after Muhammad."

How does each group relate to Christianity?

Sources contacted for this article said that the key to approaching either group for evangelism and Muslim-Christian dialogue is to show respect for their individual history. However, there are theological and historical points on which Shi'ites can better relate to Christians.

A veteran in Muslim evangelism who asked not to be named told CT that Shi'ites have been more likely to accept Christianity. "Historically in the heartland of Islam—the Middle East and North Africa—Iran has been by far the most responsive country to the gospel," the source said. "Most people believe that is because of the Shi'ite belief system."

Woodberry says there are interesting parallels between Shi'ah and Christianity. "What we have been seeing this month take place in Iraq is a commemoration in Karbala to recognize the death of Muhammad's grandson Hussein," Woodberry says. "His death to Shi'ites has a similar function to the way Christians look at Jesus."

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In the Muharram commemoration of Hussein's death, Shi'ites perform the Ta-Ziya, or passion play, that has Hussein speaking lines such as, "I offer myself as a sacrifice for the sins of my people that they will be saved from the wrath to come." Hussein is called redeemer and intercessor.

"The Shi'ah say Hussein gave his life for them," says George Braswell, professor of missions and world religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. "From the Christian perspective, you can draw a redemptive analogy here. They cry, mourn, and pray that Imam Hussein will hasten the return of the 12th imam to bring them peace, justice, and righteousness."

Sunnis, however, find offensive the idea that the Messiah would be crucified. (According to the Qu'ran, Jesus did not die on the cross.)

"For Sunnis, the issue is not just a historical and exegetical question but a theological one," he said. "They feel God would not allow his holy, chosen prophet to suffer a humiliating death. That is not the case for Shi'ites, who have a tradition of imams who were martyred. If we can deal with the historical or exegetical issues, they have no difficulty seeing this as a heroic and beautiful thing."

Roy Oksnevad, director of the Department of Ministries to Muslims at Wheaton College, said that within a certain movement of Shi'ah there's a great deal of poetry that reflects positively on Jesus and talk about love for God which shows an openness to Jesus.

Several sources said another point of understanding between Shi'ites and Christians is that both come from a history of persecution. "Christianity is a religion that for its first three centuries was persecuted," an anonymous source said. "The New Testament was written in the context of being a persecuted group of people. Sunnis are the opposite. For them, Islam was an empire and most of the Qu'ran's material came from when Muhammad was ruling a state."

Shi'ites can relate to Christians. Not only has their history of persecution translated into their theology, Oksnevad says, but they have also shared suffering with Christians. "Historically, it has been the Christians who have aided the Shi'ites," Oksnevad said. "As one Pakistani told me, they are more favorably looking to the West than the Sunni because they suffered with them. The Shi'ah remember that."

How will Sunni-Shi'ite tensions play out in Iraq?

Fuller's Dudley Woodberry says that Christians should expect to see continued jockeying for political position in Iraq. What this means for Iraq's historical Christian church is hard to tell, he said. While the Baathist party's human rights record was atrocious in other areas, Christians in Iraq had more freedom than most other Arab countries. With the vacuum of leadership in the nation now, Woodberry says, it cannot be predicted whether to expect a theocracy or a secular democracy.

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"What we have are Shi'ites without experience in leadership—but the majority—and Sunnis with experience but a minority," he told CT. "But we need not be too concerned about the outcome. If a more moderate or democratic group gets into power, there is greater freedom for the gospel. But if a more militant group comes to power—with a friendly Christian presence still there—there will be increasing disillusionment and greater receptivity to the gospel. God will work out his purpose."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles on Islam and evangelism to Muslims include:

Muslim Phobic No More | Verbal attacks on Islam sabotage evangelism. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Doors into Islam | September 11 has only intensified the dangers and rewards of Muslim evangelism. (Aug. 19, 2002)
Outpaced by Islam? | The Muslim challenge is growing faster than our Christian outreach. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Letter from a Muslim Seeker | Christians aren't the only ones asking 'Why?' after September's tragedy. (Dec. 5, 2001)
Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? | The answer to this question reveals the heart of our faith. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Does God Hear Muslim's Prayers? | We must remember that God does not deal with theologies; he deals with persons. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Is Islam a Religion of Peace? | The controversy reveals a struggle for the soul of Islam. (Dec. 28, 2000)
A Many Splintered Thing | Though Muslims shared allegiance to Muhammad and to the Qur'an, Islam faced division as soon as the prophet died. (Dec. 28, 2000)

In 2000, Christianity Today focused on Muslim-Christian relations in a series by Wendy Murray Zoba. Articles included:

Islam, U.S.A. | Are Christians prepared for Muslims in the mainstream?
Islamic Fundamentals | Christians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their beliefs.
How Muslims See Christianity | Many Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.
Engaging Our Muslim Neighbors | The Church faces a challenge not just to understand Muslims, but to befriend them.

Answering Islam has a page of essays and articles on "The Christian Witness to the Muslim."

Other Christian sites discussing Muslim beliefs about Jesus and Christianity are available at The Muslim-Christian Debate, Campus Crusade for Christ, and FarsiNet.

Muslim perspectives on Jesus and Christianity are also ubiquitous online. They include Al-Sunnah, Harakah, Islam 101, Answering Christianity, and