Sectarian violence in Iraq last week resulted in 379 deaths and 458 wounded, the Iraqi government announced on Tuesday. A weekend curfew had been put in place to de-escalate the strife between Sunnis and Shiites that boiled over after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine. Amid all this conflict, how can Shiites and Sunnis tell each other apart?
It’s not easy. For the most part, you can’t tell a Shiite or a Sunni by how they look, talk, or dress. There are Shiite and Sunni regions and neighborhoods in Iraq, and members of small communities may know the religious affiliations of their neighbors. You might also get some idea of which sect an Iraqi belongs to from his family name. Chalabi, for example, is a well-known Shiite name, and Pachachi tends to be Sunni. But surnames aren’t reliable either, given the number of intermarriages that occurred under Baath party rule.
First names could give a clue, given the history of the sectarian split. The two groups diverged after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century, when one side chose Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s companion and adviser, to succeed him, and the other thought it should be Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. Shiites view Ali and his two sons, Hassan and Hussein, as the first of the 12 imams, or holy leaders of Islam. Sunnis don’t accept the imams.
This tradition makes it more likely that a man named Ali, Hassan, or Hussein would be a Shiite. A man named Omar, Abu Bakr, or Yazid would almost certainly be a Sunni, since these names correspond to the opponents of the first imams and the major villains of Shiite history. (Yazid, for example, is said to have assassinated Hussein.) Other names can’t be linked to one sect or the other: You’ll find plenty of Muslims from both camps named after Mohammed or his daughter Fatima.
Ultra-religious Sunnis and Shiites are much more easily distinguished. A very pious Sunni man in Iraq may wear a long beard, and a pious Sunni woman might cover her face except for the eyes. A very conservative Shiite man may be unwilling to wear a tie. Very religious families might decorate their homes with religious posters or signs specific to their sect.
The difference in dress code is even more obvious among clerics. Shiite holy men wear either a black or a white turban (depending on their lineage) and a robe. Sunni clerics in Iraq rarely don a black turban, and the white headpieces they do wear look markedly different from the Shiite versions.
Each sect has its own call to prayer with slightly different language and timing. You can also tell a Sunni from a Shiite based on where he goes to pray: Locals would know the affiliation of each mosque, and outsiders may be able to tell by reading the banners or inscriptions. (The text on Shiite mosques, for example, will mention the imams.) Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq also differ in the way they hold their hands during prayer—up toward their chests or down at their sides, respectively. *
Certain religious rituals are another giveaway. Only Shiites would whip themselves with chains on the day of Ashura, to commemorate the murder of Ali and Hussein.
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Explainer thanks Susan Dakak, Masoud Kazemzadeh, and Zainab al-Suwaij.
Correction, March 7: The original version of this piece stated that Sunni clerics never wear black turbans, and that Sunnis pray with their hands up toward their chests. The words “in Iraq” have been added to the piece, since the column addresses only the question of how Sunnis and Shiites tell each other part in that country. (Return to the corrected sentence.)