NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr could escalate tensions in the Muslim world even further. In the Shiite theocracy Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said yesterday (Jan 3) that Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, would face “divine vengeance” for the killing of the outspoken cleric, which was part of a mass execution of 47 men. Al-Nimr had advocated for greater political rights for Shiites in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries. Saudi Arabia had accused him of inciting violence against the state.
Here is a primer on the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.
WHAT CAUSED THE SPLIT?
A schism emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. He died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community, and disputes arose over who should shepherd the new and rapidly growing faith.
Some believed that a new leader should be chosen by consensus; others thought that only the prophet’s descendants should become caliph. The title passed to a trusted aide, Abu Bakr, though some thought it should have gone to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali eventually did become caliph after Abu Bakr’s two successors were assassinated.
After Ali also was assassinated, with a poison-laced sword at the mosque in Kufa, in what is now Iraq, his sons Hasan and then Hussein claimed the title. But Hussein and many of his relatives were massacred in Karbala, Iraq, in 680. His martyrdom became a central tenet to those who believed that Ali should have succeeded the prophet. (It is mourned every year during the month of Muharram). The followers became known as Shiites, a contraction of the phrase Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali.
The Sunnis, however, regard the first three caliphs before Ali as rightly guided and themselves as the true adherents to the Sunnah, or the prophet’s tradition. Sunni rulers embarked on sweeping conquests that extended the caliphate into North Africa and Europe. The last caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
HOW DO THEIR BELIEFS DIFFER?
The Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam encompass a wide spectrum of doctrine, opinion and schools of thought. The branches are in agreement on many aspects of Islam, but there are considerable disagreements within each. Both branches include worshippers who run the gamut from secular to fundamentalist. Shiites consider Ali and the leaders who came after him as imams. Most believe in a line of 12 imams, the last of whom, a boy, is believed to have vanished in the ninth century in Iraq after his father was murdered. Shiites known as Twelvers anticipate his return as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Because of the different paths the two sects took, Sunnis emphasise God’s power in the material world, sometimes including the public and political realm, while Shiites value martyrdom and sacrifice.
WHICH SECT IS LARGER AND WHERE IS EACH CONCENTRATED?
More than 85 per cent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni. They live across the Arab world, as well as in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are largely Shiite. The Saudi royal family, which practises an austere and conservative strand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, controls Islam’s holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. Karbala, Kufa and Najaf in Iraq are revered shrines for the Shiites.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shiite powers in the Middle East, often take opposing sides in regional conflicts. In Yemen, Shiite rebels from the north, the Houthis, overthrew a Sunni-dominated government, leading to an invasion by a Saudi-led coalition. In Syria, which has a Sunni majority, the Alawite Shiite sect of President Bashar Assad, which has long dominated the government, clings to power amid a bloody civil war. And in Iraq, bitter resentments between the Shiite-led government and Sunni communities have contributed to victories by the Islamic State.
Factbox: Troubled history of Iran-Saudi relations
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday over the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, in a deepening crisis between the regional adversaries following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric.
Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy early on Sunday and Shi'ite Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted "divine vengeance" for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken opponent of the kingdom's ruling Al Saudi family.
Here are some details on the ups and downs of relations over the last 20 years:
* 1987 - MECCA -- Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were strained almost to breaking point in July 1987 when 402 pilgrims, 275 of whom were Iranian, died during clashes in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
-- Protesters took to the streets of Tehran, occupied the Saudi embassy and set fire to Kuwait's embassy. A Saudi diplomat, Mousa'ad al-Ghamdi, died in Tehran of wounds sustained when he fell out of an embassy window and Riyadh accused Tehran of delaying his transfer to a hospital in Saudi Arabia.
-- Diplomatic relations were severed by Saudi Arabia's King Fahd in April 1988.
* 1999 - BETTER TIMES
-- King Fahd congratulated Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on his election victory in 2001, saying it was an endorsement of his reformist policy. Khatami, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric, worked for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia after winning his first landslide in 1997 and ending two decades of tense relations that followed Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
-- Khatami visited Saudi Arabia in 1999 on the first visit by an Iranian president since the revolution. The two countries sealed better relations with a security pact in April 2001.
* 2003 - REGIONAL RIVALRY
-- The invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq empowered the country's Shi'ite majority and resulted in a shift in its political alignment toward Iran.
-- Iran's nuclear energy program deepened Saudi fears that Tehran under Khatami's successor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was bent on dominating the Gulf region and boosting its Shi'ite populations.
-- Saudi Arabia told an Iranian envoy in January 2007 that Iran was putting the Gulf in danger, in a reference to the Islamic Republic's conflict with the United States over Iraq and its nuclear program.
* 2011 - ARAB SPRING
-- Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain quash mass pro-democracy protests, fearing the mostly Shi'ite opposition would align with Iran. The two countries later accused Tehran of fomenting violence against Bahraini police.
-- U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah, pushing Washington to take a tough stance against Iran over its nuclear program, including the possible use of military force.
-- Saudi Arabia accused some Shi'ites in its Eastern Province, including Nimr, of cooperating with a foreign state -- meaning Iran -- to sow dissension, after clashes between police and Shi'ites.
-- Washington said it had uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Riyadh said the evidence was overwhelming and Tehran would pay a price.
* 2012 - PROXY WARS
-- Saudi Arabia became the main supporter of rebels fighting to topple Iran's ally, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Riyadh accused Assad of "genocide" and Iran of being an "occupying power". Tehran accused Riyadh of backing "terrorism".
-- In March 2015, Saudi Arabia began a military campaign in Yemen to stop the Houthis, allied to Iran, from taking power. Riyadh accused Iran of using the militia to stage a coup d'etat. Tehran said Riyadh's air strikes targeted civilians.