A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is

John McHugo

"Excellent … McHugo is a lucid interpreter of complex events."
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The 1,400-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shi’is is currently reflected in the destructive struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with no apparent end in sight. But how did this conflict begin, and why is it now the focus of so much attention?

Charting the history of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, John McHugo describes the conflicts that raged over the succession to the Prophet, how Sunnism and Shi’ism evolved as different sects during the Abbasid caliphate, and how the rivalry between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi’i Safavids ensured that the split would continue into the modern age. In recent decades, this centuries-old divide has acquired a new toxicity that has resulted in violence across the Arab world and other Muslim countries.

Definitive, insightful, and accessible, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is is an essential guide to understanding the genesis, development, and manipulation of the schism that for far too many people has come to define Islam and the Muslim world.

Table of Contents

List of Maps

Part One
1. In the Beginning: Before There Were Sunnis and Shi'is
2. How Civil War Came to Islam
3. Of Umayyads and Abbasids
4. The Split Between Sunnis and Shi'is
5. Of Ismailis, Assassins, Druze, Zaydis, Gnostic Shi'is, Alawis and Sufis
6. How Iran Became Shi'i
7. The Ottoman Empire, India and the Muslim Reformation

Part Two
8. The Long Nineteenth Century and the Coming of Western Dominanace
9. Between the Two World Wars
10. Tides Ebb and Flow
11. The Iranian Revolution and The Iran-Iraq War
12. From the Iran Revolution to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq
13. Wedges into Fault-Lines

Family Trees
Sources and Further Reading


"McHugo’s main accomplishment lies in his ability to present Shi’ism as one of the two main political-religious currents rather than a grouping that split from the mainstream after the death of the Prophet. He skillfully weaves parallel academic narratives about the evolution of Sunni and Shi’i Islam."—Arab Studies Quarterly

"McHugo guides readers through the complicated history of how succession led to the Sunni/Shi’ite division. But, more importantly, he underlines the two divergent theological approaches to how a Muslim believer should guide his or her life. McHugo contends these two approaches emerged early in Islam."—Jewish Herald-Voice

"An important corrective . . . provides the reader not just wish all the historical background he or she could want, in an accessible and comprehensive fashion, but also employs this sound knowledge to a clear-headed appraisal of the modern Middle East."—Times Literary Supplement

"It is no mean feat to cover over 1400 years of history...Masterful and fascinating"—Jordan Times

"Excellent … McHugo is a lucid interpreter of complex events."—Law Society Gazette

"McHugo's excellent book is vivid and engaging. At the same time, it is an erudite work that offers an account of the historical and contemporary tension between Sunnis and Shi'is with both depth and clarity."—Joy Gordon, author of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions,

"John McHugo takes us through the Sunni-Shi‘i divide over 1400 years of Islamic history with good judgement in balancing the various accounts, and a great clarity of expression."—Moojan Momen, author of Shi‘i Islam: A Beginner’s Guide

"In lucid and accessible prose, John McHugo shows that there is nothing inevitable about the so-called Sunni-Shi'i divide."—Madawi Al-Rasheed, author of A History of Saudi Arabia

"It is clearly written in accessible language.... I would not hesitate to recommend this book or assign it to an advanced class of undergraduates."—International Journal of Middle East Studies


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

John McHugo is an honorary senior fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Syria: A Recent History and A Concise History of the Arabs.

347 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-586-1
Apr 2018

347 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-587-8
Apr 2018

347 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-62616-588-5
Apr 2018

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