Why we need to know the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims for a GCSE

A few weeks back you heard the President of the USA criticise Iran for supporting terrorism, whilst he was standing in Saudi Arabia.

Then this week after a terrorist attack carried out by Islamic State killed 17 innocent civilians in Iran, President Trump’s sent both his condolences: “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” and these additional comments: “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” You can imagine how Iran felt about this latter comment.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted: “Repugnant WH (White House) statement … as Iranians counter terror backed by US clients.”

This is where what we learn in GCSE Religious Studies comes in handy in making sense of all this. It is so important that when you read about world politics you are aware of the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam.  The Sunni jihadis of Isis (Islamic State) consider Shia Iran to be apostates (a defection or revolt against the true Islam), and Iran is deeply involved in fighting the group in both Syria and Iraq. To make things trickier for Iran they have a sizeable Sunni population along their restive borders with Iraq and Pakistan, and it is from here that Isis is hoping to recruit. Understanding the Syrian Civil War also needs you to know about Sunni and Shia Muslims, as Newsround tried to explain.

sunni and shia

Denominations in Islam

The news that an explosion at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan has killed 52 people and injured a 100 more is another sad story of ISIS terrorism. It is an attack by extreme fundamentalist Muslims against other Muslims which is something that people worrying about ISIS violence often forget. It isn’t just against the West but against people who don’t agree with their specific brand of Islam.

The worshippers were performing dhamal – a trance-like dance – when the bomb hit. Sufism, a tolerant, mystical practice of Islam, has millions of followers in Pakistan but is opposed by extremists. In Year 8 students learn the basics about the denominations of Islam in their Flipped Classroom half-term of learning about What is means to be a Muslim. This means that for one half-term students get homework every week to prepare for the forthcoming lesson. They are supposed to have the facts and knowledge about the lesson’s topic before they walk into the classroom, and once they are in there they will have the chance to debate, discuss and use their knowledge to make and produce things.

TrueTube have a good video explaining the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the BBC has a page explaining Sufism.

Syria’s Banksy

A Syrian rebel fighter has been likened to Banksy for his politically motivated street art around Syria. The artist Abu Malik al-Shami has created some striking wall murals which send a strong political message.

This one made me remember talking about agape with Year 10 students…


What’s your interpretation?