*Disclaimer: this article was written with cultural sensitivity and impartial language. Its sources are listed below and is merely a simplified exposition into a very rich history meant to promote cultural exposure for non-Muslims in a respectful manner.
While Malaysia is officially an Islamic country, there is still a huge gap in truly understanding Islam in Malaysia. This is exacerbated with almost 50% of Malaysia’s population being non-Muslim. This article will explain how the origin of Islam in leading to two distinct sects and how this distinction has been weaponised to lead to conflict in the Middle East.
How big is this schism?
Out of the over 1.6 billion Muslims globally, roughly 85% of Muslims are Sunni — the remaining 15% being mostly Shia. The only countries in the world with Shia majorities are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. On the other hand, Sunni Muslims up the majority of more than 40 countries from Morocco to Indonesia [source]
It is worth noting that even within Sunni Muslims there is massive diversity of opinions depending on culture and history. Case in point, 40% of Saudi Arabians identify with a Sunni sub-sect of Islam called Wahhabism — a far more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that is vastly more conservative from what the average Malaysian Sunni Muslim would believe. The same is true for Shia Muslims.
What’s the difference?
The key distinction lies in how each sect interprets the succession of Islam from the death of The Prophet Mohammed (often referred to as Nabi Muhammad in Malaysia) in the year 632. In a very simple sense:
Sunni Muslims believe the legitimate ruler of Islam following The Prophet Mohammed’s death was Abu Bakr, a close companion of Mohammed — and respected him as their first caliph (leader of the Islamic community). Sunnis, meaning followers of the sunna, or “way” in Arabic are opposed to
Shia Muslims however, favoured Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. Shias, a term that stems from shi’atu Ali, Arabic for “partisans of Ali”, believe that Ali and his descendants are part of a divine order. [source]
Historians remark that for hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shias lived in peace together, even with communities in close proximity were able to get along famously well. The Sunni-Shia split is not the same as the Protestant-Catholic split within Christianity. The former was never as violent as the latter.
Is Malaysia Sunni or Shia?
Malaysia is 93% Sunni Islam with the other 7% being Shia, Quranist, Ibadi and Cultural [Pew Research Centre 2012]. Malaysia has also officially banned and has previously prosecuted Shia Muslims in court.
The reasons for this conflict between Sunnis and Shias are extremely complex and carry far too much nuance and history for me to feel qualified in explaining them to you. What this article will focus on instead is how this divide has affected world politics.
Role of the divide in Middle-Eastern Conflicts
While both sects of Islam preach completely peaceful beliefs and teachings — they have been weaponised by regional superpowers in the Middle East to create further strife and tensions between religious groups in war-torn countries.
The middle east is characterised by the rule of 2 regional superpowers—Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has a 90% Sunni majority while Iran has a 90–95% Shia majority. Both countries have used their status of being high militarily capable and their respective sect majorities to engage in proxy warfare in the Middle East. This has been called by many journalists as intended to gain further hegemony over the other.
This has led to a destabilising effect on warring countries in the region with both countries’ governments exporting weapons and funds to their respective ideologies. In countries such as Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, Iran funds Shia militant groups while Saudi Arabia can be seen to do the same for Sunni groups. This further deepens the divide between the two sects, reinforcing an idea that the two are enemies. [source]
It’s worth remembering that the source of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran not just their difference in Islamic beliefs, they also compete in oil dominance and political beliefs. Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is existentially threatened by the success of Iran, a country where Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew Iran’s monarch Reza Shah in the 1980 Iranian Revolution. There is also the issue of Iranian hatred of American involvement in the Middle East from its history of its elected Head of State Mohammed Mossadegh being forcibly removed in 1953 from an CIA staged coup. [source]
Point being, this article does not blame the Saudi Arabian or Iranian authorities in any definitive way, nor does it pass judgement on either sect of Islam. It is merely to bring exposure to Malaysians the nuance that there is a difference between sects of Islam, and that this difference has some relevance in understanding global conflicts in the Middle East.
Written by Jerome Bun,
President of the KCL Malaysian Society
Editor-in-Chief of The Tapir Journal