New CFR InfoGuide Explores Islam's Sunni-Shia Divide

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July 16, 2014

As sectarian tensions convulse Syria and Iraq, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has released a new interactive guide examining the roots and consequences of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Sunni-Shia conflicts have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf states. Growing clashes between these two largest Islamic denominations have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses dangers beyond the region.

The guide includes expert insight into the extremist groups behind today's sectarian violence and related flashpoints that threaten international security.

"As the public's questions about what is happening in the Middle East are mounting, we hope the guide can serve as an accessible new resource to help understand the developments," said Editor Robert McMahon.

The guide uses interactive storytelling tools to explore the history of the schism and the modern strains fueling a resurgence of conflicts in Muslim countries. Among the "Sunni-Shia Divide" InfoGuide's elements are:

  • an overview video with insights from experts such as Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Reza Aslan, Associate Professor at the University of California, Riverside, Deborah Amos, Middle East Correspondent at National Public Radio, and Ed Husain, CFR adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies;
  • two timelines tracing the origins of the schism to ongoing Sunni-Shia tensions;
  • an interactive map plotting the populations of Sunnis and Shias across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa;
  • various infographics, such as a breakdown that shows the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are 85 percent Sunni and 15 percent Shia; and
  • an interactive diagram depicting the relative size of the different branches within the Sunni and Shia sects.

This InfoGuide is the fourth in a series that also includes "China's Maritime Disputes," "Child Marriage," and "The Emerging Arctic." Produced by's editorial team, the guides utilize a responsive design for tablets and mobile devices. Various multimedia sections are embeddable, including the timelines, map, and infographics. CFR's interactive offerings also feature the Emmy Award–winning Crisis Guides and the Global Governance Monitor.

InfoGuides are made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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