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Sunni Islam In Iraq

The Sunni Arab population of Al Anbar feel that they are part of a community that shares a set of similar characteristics, values and experiences. They are proud of their religious and political history. They tend to regard themselves as the descendents and heirs to a long and great history of intellectual development, wealth, and political rule over the massive Islamic empire. They regard themselves as a group apart from other ethnic and religious groups, who they see as less worthy of political power and cultural-religious legitimacy. [Lin Todd et al., Iraq Tribal Study—Al-Anbar Governorate: The Albu Fahd Tribe, the Albu Mahal Tribe and the Albu Issa Tribe (Alexandria, VA: Quantum Research International, 2006)].

In Iraq, about one-third of the population is Sunni, although over 80 percent of the global Muslim population is of the Sunni branch. In Iraq, Sunni Islam is found among both Arabs and Kurds. Sunni Arabs are approximately 15 percent of Iraq's population; Sunni Kurds are approximately 20 percent. Sunni Arabs are primarily of the Hanafi school, while Sunni Kurds are primarily of the Shafi'i school.

The dominant school for Iraqi Sunni Kurds is Shafii. The other two legal schools in Islam, the Maliki and the Hanbali, lack a significant number of adherents in Iraq. There is no strict or cohesive Sunni identity in Iraq. Sunnis subscribe to a broad spectrum of ideologies and affiliations, many of which have little to do with religion. For Sunnis in Iraq, ethnic identity is a more potent force for either social unity or social discord than religious identity.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs inhabit the valleys of the Euphrates above Baghdad, and of the Tigris between Baghdad and Mosul. Sunni Arabs in Iraq comprise the country's ruling elite. A broad system of socioeconomic enticements, patronage, and cliental relationships ties Sunni Arabs together.

Sunni Islam is closely tied to Arab culture, both of which originated in the Arabian peninsula and spread north into contemporary Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis tend to regard themselves as descendants of and heirs to the golden age of Arab Islamic civilization, much of which took place under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad from the 8th to 13th centuries. Following the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate, non-Arabs (Turks) assumed control of subsequent Islamic empires, to the shame of the Arabs.

The Sunni Ottoman Empire, which governed Iraq from the mid-16th century through World War I, maintained Iraq as a Sunni-controlled state as a bulwark against the spread of Persian/Shia influence. As a result, Sunni Arabs gained the governing, military, and administrative experience that would enable them to monopolize political power in the 20th century.

In Iraq, the Sunni-Shia division has been, on the whole, a political and socioeconomic struggle over the allocation and distribution of wealth and political power.

Since its founding as a state in 1921, Iraq has been largely secular. The government in Iraq has largely controlled religious teaching and institutions, while expressing an appreciation of Islam's cultural heritage and its contribution to Iraqi national identity. Individual Sunnis in Iraq may follow Islamic rituals and live an Islamic lifestyle.

For a decade following the 1968 Baathist coup, Islam remained the official state religion. However, overall, the ruling Sunni elite attempted to defuse Islam as a political and social force. In response to the 1979 Shia Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War, Sunni Islam became, and has remained, an important part of the Iraqi regime's identity.

Radical Islamic movements in Iraq have been harshly persecuted and marginalized. Wahhabism from neighboring Saudi Arabia has never established a foothold within Iraq.

Kurdish society is marked by receptiveness to religious pluralism. Sunni Islam arrived among the Kurds somewhat later than among the rest of the Arab population. Islam gave key leaders in the Kurdish national movement an added authority that transcended the often-divisive boundaries of tribal loyalty. At the same time, the contemporary Iraqi government's manipulation of religious symbols and values against the Kurdish nationalist movement caused many Kurds to develop an ambiguous view of the relationship between Sunni Islam and Kurdish identity.

Many Iraqi Sunni Kurds belong to mystical Sufi orders, of which the Qadiri and Naqshbandi are the largest. Both orders have followers across the Middle East, Central, and South Asia. A Qadiri Sufi shrine in Baghdad attracts annual transnational pilgrimages. While Sufi Islam has broad acceptance in Iraqi society, Sufism has frequently been viewed by orthodox Sunni Muslim theologians with some degree of suspicion because of its strong mystical components. Shia Muslims tend to be hostile towards Sufism because they believe it is heretical.

Sufi orders serve to both strengthen and divide Kurdish society. Kurds of the same order feel a common bond, regardless of tribe. There is, however, tension between rival orders. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), follows the Qadiri order. The Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the influential Barzani family are Naqshbandi Sufis.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2014 19:16:25 ZULU