Procedures For Teachers

PrepPreparing for the lesson
StepsConducting the lesson
ExtensionAdditional Activities


Media Components

R&E videos connected to segments listed below.

Computer Resources:

  • computers with Internet access
  • LCD projector and projection screen

Print Resources

*CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE (CRS) REPORT FOR CONGRESS. “Islam: Sunnis and Shiites.” December 11, 2006. (online:

Esposito, John L. WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT ISLAM. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Nakash, Yitzhak. REACHING FOR POWER: THE SHI’A IN THE MODERN ARAB WORLD. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. ISLAM: RELIGION, HISTORY AND CIVILIZATION. San Francisco: Harper One, 2002


R&E NEWSWEEKLY 2004 VIEWER’S GUIDE. “Islam and Democracy.” Pgs. 2-6. (online:


Media Resources

Council on Foreign Relations
The Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Is Shia Power Cause for Concern?
Audio and video from a symposium on the topic of the emerging “Shia Crescent.”

The Shia Revival
Listen to/watch the Council’s Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Vali Nasr, discuss his book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

*National Public Radio
“The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics”
A five-part audio series exploring the two groups’ relationship.

Voice of America
“Shi’ite, Sunni Split Feeds Iraq Conflict”

Video accompanying article that reports on the conflict.

Web Resources

(These sites all include useful links to many additional related readings and resources.)

    Anthony Shadid
    October 14, 2005
    Conversation with Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and foreign correspondent for THE WASHINGTON POST. Shadid discusses Iraq’s religious landscape, civil war, political Islam, and the prospects for a democratic constitution.

    Battle for the Middle East
    August 10, 2006
    August 7, 2006 interview in Washington, D.C. with Vali Nasr, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California; adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and author of THE SHIA REVIVAL: HOW CONFLICTS WITHIN ISLAM WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE.

    Hume Horan
    December 19, 2003
    Interview with Hume Horan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a senior Coalition Provisional Authority advisor on religious affairs in Iraq. He speaks about the Shia and Sunni perspectives on government in Iraq.

    Iraq Shiites
    December 19, 2003
    Report from Iraq on the critical role Shia Muslims will play in the formation of the country’s new government, especially in determining whether Iraq will become a secular state, an Islamic state, or something in between.

    June 21, 2002
    Islamic scholar Roy Mottahedeh of Harvard University reports from Morocco on the history of the madrasahs — a place in the Muslim world for enlightened learning and teaching — and how the demand for a strictly Islamic purist school has resulted in highly controlled madrasahs that today teach a crude version of Islamic law along with the need for revenge against the West.

    Religion in Iraq
    April 25, 2003
    Report on the dynamics between religion and politics in the Iraq region and how this could shape the nation’s future governance.

    Role of Shia Islam in Najaf Negotiations
    August 27, 2004
    What role did the Shia Islamic religion play in the 2004 fighting between U.S.-Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army militia for three weeks in Najaf, and then in the subsequent cease-fire? This conversation with Professor Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim, a former Pakistani diplomat, and now professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington and author of ISLAM UNDER SIEGE, explores how this peace deal will affect the role certain clerics will play in the future politics of Iraq.

    *Shia/Sunni Conflict
    September 29, 2006
    Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, author of the influential new book THE SHIA REVIVAL, talks about the theological differences fueling the historic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites and whether there are any prospects for peace.

    Sunni/Shiite Relations in Postwar Iraq
    April 4, 2003
    Historian Phebe Marr discusses the potential roles Shiites and Sunnis will play in Iraq after the war is over.

    *Vali Nasr: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future
    August 10, 2006





  • chart paper and markers

Teacher Preparation:

Preview the lesson plan’s R&E videos and related online content before presenting them to your class. Bookmark relevant Web sites on each computer in your classroom, and/or create a handout that lists recommended sites and resources that supplement the lesson; or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility, such as, so that students can access the information on these sites. Make sure that your computer has the necessary media players, like RealPlayer or Windows Media Player, to show streaming clips (if applicable).

It is assumed that teachers and students do not have comprehensive background on the Shia-Sunni conflict. The introductory activity probes students’ prior knowledge about the conflict, but assumes it is minimal.

Become familiar with the Shia-Sunni split from both historical and present-day perspectives. Reference the sites marked with asterisks in the Web Resources section, as well as under R&E resources, for relevant background information. Select information that will ground students in the historic schism and its current status in Iraq.


Introductory Activity: Shiites and Sunnis: What Is the Conflict All About?
(2 classroom sessions)

Post news headlines around the classroom on recent Shia-Sunni events in Iraq (find headline sampling here). Allow students to peruse the headlines (and article sections) to determine what is occurring between the two groups. Invite students to discuss their understanding of the relationship between the two groups, either deduced from the headlines or based on what they actually know. One way to prompt this discussion is to ask students what they know about the split between Protestants and Catholics, and to frame the “when, how, and why” of that separation. This example indicates that after religions are “founded,” there are frequently schisms that develop later on. In fact, the Sunni-Shia divide has been likened to the Protestant-Catholic split.

Provide a brief but concise introduction to Shiites and Sunnis. The following excerpts from the book KEY WORDS IN ISLAM by Ron Greaves (Georgetown University Press, 2006) describe both groups:

    Shi’a/Shiah — The first division among Muslims after the death of Muhammad and the most important schism in Islam. The Shi’a believe in the succession of the direct descendents of Muhammad through the line of Ali [one of the foremost of the Prophet’s companions, his cousin by birth and son-in-law by marriage; known for his great piety and valor; all Muslims regard him as the epitome of nobility and chivalry] rather than through the Caliphate [the successors to the Prophet who lead the Muslim community]. This is known as the Imamate. The imams are considered to be infallible bearers of esoteric wisdom with a direct spiritual contact with Muhammad. They are the source of authority upon which Shi’a theology rests. The tradition has a strong passion motive originating in the violent death of Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, at Karbala at the hands of the ruling Umayyad dynasty [the first Arab Muslim dynasty founded after the death of Ali]. As a result of persecution and the passion motive, the Shi’a have developed a strong cult of martyrdom. The emphasis on living charismatic leaders has resulted in several divisions over leadership taking place among the Shi’a. The Twelve Shi’as who believe in the succession of twelve imams beginning with Ali are the dominant form of Islam in Iran and the largest Shi’a group. The next most prominent are the Ismailis or Seveners [because they believe that the seventh imam was the last and the greatest]. The other main group is the Zaidis [named for a grandson of Husain who claimed to be the fifth imam of the Shi’a community], but Shi’a has also given birth to non-Muslim religious movements: the Baha’i and the Druze.

    Sunni — The vast majority of Muslims who believe in the successorship of the Caliphs rather than the Imamate. They are the largest group within Islam and are the majority population in most Muslim nations, with the exception of Iraq and Iran. However, there are debates within the Sunni community as to its constitution. Both traditional Muslims influenced by the teachings of the Sufis and new revivalist movements such as the Wahhabis and the Salafis claim to be the genuine Sunni community to the exclusion of their opponents.

Describe the historic relationship between the two factions; emphasize not only the conflict but also the periods where they have bonded. Log on to the Web sites marked with asterisks in the resources section for relevant background.

Where appropriate, supplement “lecture” with audio/visual presentations, such as: “Shi’ite, Sunni Split Feeds Iraq Conflict”, and the audio slide show at

Show students the R&E segment “Shia/Sunni Conflict.” Engage students in postviewing discussion, posing all or some of the following questions. (Students may first discuss in small groups. If appropriate, distribute the segment’s transcript so students may grasp details.)

  • What has been the historic relationship between Sunnis and Shiites and what has contributed to the ongoing schism?
  • What is the difference between the two groups’ belief systems?
  • What is the root of the current conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq?
  • Do you believe the U.S. invasion of Iraq contributed to the groups’ heightened separation and violence? Explain.
  • Who have been and are key figures in the Sunni-Shiite relationship? What is significant about these individuals’ action with regard to the conflict?
  • How is the Shia revival in Iraq connected to Iran?
  • Do you concur with Nasr’s opinion that the sectarian violence is moving toward an all-out civil war? Explain.
  • What types of diplomatic tactics, particularly on the part of the United States, might prevent such a war?
  • Describe two or three different ways that the relationship between the two sects might play out in postwar Iraq. Engage in a collaborative discussion with others in your class; have the group decide which they feel is the most realistic scenario, and what the reasoning is behind the group’s decision.

Activity 1: Predicting the Future
(2-3 classroom periods)

Provide students with a timeline of Sunni-Shia engagements since the U.S. invasion of Iraq to date. Have them analyze the data to determine what has propelled the violence. Log on to the following sites for timelines:

Divide students into groups and have them rotate among “learning centers” that focus on what the future might look like in postwar Iraq. Each center should feature one of the following R&E episodes (a different one at each site), along with relevant print, audio, visual, and digital resources:

Instruct groups to take notes on the following (encourage students to note other points of view, perceptions, notions that emerge for them):

  • How the Islamic conflict might shape Iraq’s future
  • How Sunnis and Shias are vying for power and how that might materialize in the future
  • What the United States might/can do and what the chances are that it might be effective. If not, what do you feel the biggest factor(s) might be in its lack of success?
  • Who the key players are and how they do/will/can influence the shape of Iraq’s future

Culminating Activity: A Vision of Postwar Iraq (2-3 classroom periods)

Tell students they will assume the roles of an international community of advisors analyzing the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites. They will first isolate three concerns that the factions must address in order to heal their rift in postwar Iraq. Then they will offer corresponding suggestions on how the groups might address these concerns. The suggestions might take the shape of brief strategic plans that lay out action steps and anticipated results. (Students can work in small groups.)

Student groups share the identified concerns with the class, which then classifies and gives priority to a set of concerns, perhaps those that are most outstanding.

The class selects three concerns and then (either as a class or as small groups) creates a list of strategies the Sunnis and Shiites might pursue to end their conflict.

Students might first reference the following sites, which present current attempts at and ideas for ending sectarian divisions between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias: “A Call for Shia Sunni Dialog: Why and How”

United States Institute of Peace
“Sectarian Reconciliation in Post-Conflict Iraq”
“Working to Reduce Violence in Baghdad”

Students present their suggested strategies at a mock assembly of international advisors. The class evaluates the strategies to determine which seem(s) most doable, given the existing conflict.

OPTIONAL: As journalists, students write an editorial that reflects their perspective on what an appropriate plan of action would be for a future Iraqi government and peace, or a working relationship, between Shiites and Sunnis.

Extension Activities

Students can: