Washington, D.C. — This week Sunni and Shia Muslims ushered in the Islamic New Year and the beginning of the holy month of Muharram. For Shias, the month also is a time to mourn the events that sparked the centuries-old schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims. A new Pew Research Center analysis of polls conducted in 2011-2012 finds high levels of concern about sectarian tensions in several countries where Sunnis and Shias live side by side. Among the five Muslim-majority countries surveyed, these concerns are particularly pronounced in Lebanon, where fully two-thirds of all Muslims, including about half of Shias and 80% of Sunnis, say sectarian tensions are a very big or moderately big problem. Roughly half of all Muslims in Iraq, more than four-in-ten in Afghanistan and nearly a quarter in Iran say the same.

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Concerns about religious extremism in general also are widespread in the countries surveyed, with about two-thirds of all Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, half of all Muslims in Lebanon and roughly a quarter of all Muslims in Iran expressing worry about radical religious groups. However, when members of the two sects are compared, Shias tend to express less concern than Sunnis about extremist groups, despite the fact that Shias are a minority among Muslims globally and often have been targets of religious violence.

With regard to religious beliefs and practices, the polls find that majorities of Shia and Sunni Muslims share key tenets of the Islamic faith. However, they differ substantially in their attitudes toward certain rituals commonly practiced by Shias during Muharram. On the 10th day of Muharram, Ashura, Shias commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, by making pilgrimages to holy shrines. The polls show that visits to shrines are nearly universally accepted by Shias, while Sunnis are significantly less likely to say it is permissible in Islam to visit the shrines of saints.

The polls were conducted from November 2011 to May 2012 among a total of more than 5,000 Muslims in five countries with substantial numbers of both Shias and Sunnis (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon). Although Shias make up only about 10%-13% of the world’s Muslims, three of the five countries surveyed (Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan) have Shia-majority populations. The full report, including comparisons of religious beliefs and practices among Shia and Sunni Muslims, is available on the website of the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.


Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

Twitter: @PewReligion