The Dynamics of Sunni-Shia Relationships

Doctrine, Transnationalism, Intellectuals and the Media

Edited by
May 2013 9781849042178 320pp


Before the immense changes of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, it was Sunni-Shia sectarian rivalry that preoccupied most political analyses of the Middle East. This book presents wide-ranging and up-to-date research that sheds light on the political, sociological and ideological processes that are affecting the dynamics within, as well as the relationships between, the Shia and Sunni worlds.

The growing tensions and occasional clashes between believers in the two main strands of Islam have been major concerns. Upheavals within the Shia sphere of influence had altered the relationship: the Iranian revolution of 1979 changed the politics of Iranian Shiism, and impacted on Shia communities regionally, while the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq initiated a new phase of tension in Sunni-Shia relations. The spectre of a sectarian war in Iraq, a diplomatic and military offensive against the Lebanese Hezbollah and a potentially nuclear armed Iran (along with Tehran’s support for Hamas) prompted King Abdullah II of Jordan to warn of an emerging ‘Shia crescent’. However, away from such grand geopolitical gestures, Sunni-Shia relations are being rearticulated through an array of local, regional and global connections.

This book presents wide-ranging and up-to-date research that sheds light on the political, sociological and ideological processes that are affecting the dynamics within, as well as the relationships between, the Shia and Sunni worlds. Among the themes discussed are the ideological and doctrinal evolutions that are taking place, the contextualisation of the main protagonists’ political practices, transnational networks, and the role of intellectuals, religious scholars and the media in shaping and informing this dynamic relationship.

Table of contents

Introduction: Evaluating Contemporary Sunnite-Shiite Relations—Changing Identities, Political Projects, Interactions and Theological Discussions
Brigitte Maréchal and Sami Zemni 

PART ONE: Sunnite-Shiite Interactions Between Geopolitical Tensions, Doctrinal Recognition and Rejection

On Sunnite-Shiite Doctrinal and Contemporary Geopolitical Tensions
Sabrina Mervin 

Sunnis and Shiites in Modern Islam: Politics, Rapprochement and the Role of Al-Azhar

Rainer Brunner 

PART TWO: Contemporary Sunnite-Shiite encountersin the Middle East and the Gulf

The Shiite Peril in Palestine: Between Phobias and Propaganda
Jean-François Legrain 

Ideological Tensions Between Hizbullah and Jihadi Salafism: Mutual Perceptions and Mutual Fears
Joseph Alagha

The Territorial Aspect of Sectarianism in Iraq: The Case of Anbar
Reidar Visser 

Karbala in the Umayyad Mosque: Sunnite Panic at the “Shiitization” of Syria in the 2000s Thomas Pierret 

The Struggle for Citizenship of the Shiites of Saudi Arabia
Roel Meijer and Joas Wagemakers 

PART THREE: Contemporary Sunnite-Shiite Encounters in Iran,Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent

Sunnis and Shiites in Iran Since 1979: Confrontations, Exchanges, Convergences Stéphane A. Dudoignon

Iran, Iranian Media and Sunnite Islam
Farian Sabahi

“It’s Just a Sunni-Shi’a Thing”: Sectarianism and Talibanism in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) of Pakistan
Mariam Abou Zahab

Changing Islam in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan and its Weighting on the Sunnite-Shiite Cleavage Bayram Balci and Altay Goyushov

Conclusion: Analysing Contemporary Sunnite-Shiite Relationships
Brigitte Maréchal and Sami Zemni

A Post Scriptum: The Arab Spring and the Sectarian Issue
Sami Zemni and Brecht De Smet


‘At a time when the conflict in Iraq, and the more recent uprisings in Syria, Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, have prompted a resurgence of essentialist generalisations on the Sunni-Shia divide, this collection of brilliant contributions by leading scholars from various disciplines is a welcome reminder of the complexity of the sectarian question in Islam which does not simply derive from textual and interpretative divergences, but is also socially constructed and politically instrumentalised.’ — Stéphane Lacroix, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po, Paris, and author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

‘Too often the Sunni-Shia “divide” in Islam is spoken of in deeply reductionist or ahistorical terms. Marèchal and Zemni’s collection, however, sets a new standard by carefully situating contemporary sectarianism in relation to the simultaneous push and pull of local and transnational factors. A must-read for anyone seeking to understanding Sunni-Shia dynamics in the wake of the Arab Uprisings.’ — Peter Mandaville, George Mason University, author of Global Political Islam


Brigitte Maréchal is Professor in the Socio-Anthropology of Religion, Catholic University of Leuven. She is also director of Cismoc (Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Etudes de l’Islam dans le Monde Contemporain) and a member of IACCHOS (Institute of Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies).

Sami Zemni is Professor of Political and Social Sciences at the Centre for Third World Studies, Ghent University (Belgium) where he leads the Middle East and North Africa Research Group.

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