The Dispute of Islam and the Rise of the Islamic State

Lately, the Islamic State (ISIS), a militant Islamic group that just recently decapitated two Japanese hostages, a freelance journalist Kenji Goto and security contractor Haruna Yukawa, caught the attention of the world.

Why does Islam continue have internal disputes amongst itself, and why does ISIS continue to kill innocent people in the name of Islam?

To understand this dispute of the Islam, we need to examine the deep-rooted tensions between Islam's two main sects: Sunnis and Shiites.

Muslims are split into two main branches, the Sunnis and Shias. This split originates from a disagreement amongst the followers of Islam as to who should lead the Islamic faith after the death of the prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad died without leaving a son as a successor, so a caliph, a person considered a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad, was going to lead the Muslim community, but this caused a power struggle.

This power vacuum led the Muslim community to divide into two different sects: Sunnis and Shias.

The differences between Sunnis and Shias are demonstrated in following diagram:

Islam table
(Photo : Jin O Jeong)

The dispute between Sunnis and Shias intensified greatly after 661, when Hussein ibn Ali and his household were killed by the ruling Umayyad Caliph, Yazid I. As a result, the hostile relationship between Sunnis and Shias has continued for more than one thousand-four hundred years.

Let's examine the distribution of Islamic the population in the world.

Islam table
(Photo : Jin O Jeong)

As we can see from the above chart, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis – figures suggest that is somewhere between 85% and 90%. In contrast, Shias are the minority, with figures showing that they compose around 10-15% of the Muslim community. However, from looking at the graph, we can see that the world figures do not accurately represent Iraq. The majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, around 60%, and Sunni Muslims represent about 35% of the population.

Even though Shias Muslims are the majority in Iraq, the Sunnis Muslims have constantly kept its hold on political power for more than a century. A typical example of this was Saddam Hussein, as he was a Sunni Muslim. Under his rule, the Shia Muslims suffered indirect and direct persecution.

However, in 2003, after a coalition led by the U.S. and the U.K. invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, a new Shia led government was formed.

The governing regime of Iraq was composed predominantly of Sunnis for nearly a century until the 2003 Iraq War.

This situation is one of the causes that led up to the current, continuing strife between the minority Sunnis and the majority Shias. A terrorist group, Islamic State (ISIS), is a Sunni group that aims to establish a "caliphate", a state ruled by a single political and religious Sunni leader.

The dispute of Islam and the terrorist acts carried out by the Islamic State should compel Christians to reflect on their mission and strategy towards approaching Muslims. According to the Chinese classics author, Sun Tzu in his work entitled, The Art of War, “If you know your enemy and yourself, you can win every battle.” Christianity’s aggressive evangelization towards Muslims in the name of ‘the mission’ brought the Christian Church into conflict with Islam. It is important for Christians to understand what Islam is, in order to preach the gospel in peaceful manner.

Pastor Jin O Jeong 2
(Photo : Pastor Jin O Jeong)

Reverend and Doctor Jin O Jeong is an assistant pastor for the Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email :

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