Shia Crescent in the Middle East is a good news for Islam, democracy and the West

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Shia-phobia of Saudi Arabia and the institutional genocide of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future – by Vali Nasr


The Shia Crescent is a geo-political term used to describe a region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia Muslim or where there is a strong Shia minority in the population. It has been used to describe the potential for cooperation among these areas to contain the Saudi-Wahhabi (Salafist) influence in Middle Eastern politics. Despite their claim, Saudi-Wahhabis represent only a tiny minority of the World’s Sunni population and are found in significant numbers only in Saudi Arabia. The corresponding term for Shia Crescent is especially common in Germany where it is known as Schiitischer Halbmond (“Shia halfmoon”). The term was coined by Abdullah II, King of Jordan, after which it became popular in political debates – particularly used by Salafist lobbyists in Washginton D.C., London and other Western capitals to create and spread ShiaPhobia.

The nations where Shi’a Muslims form a dominant majority are Azerbaijan (75%), Iran (90%), Bahrain (75%) and Iraq (65%), a plurality in Lebanon (45%) and large minorities in Yemen (40%), Turkey (25%), Kuwait (25-30%), Afghanistan (20%), Pakistan (15-25%), Saudi Arabia (15%), India (15-25% of Muslims), UAE (15%), and Syria (15-20%). The shape of these countries put together does in fact resemble a crescent moon or a half moon.

Recent developments

The advent of democracy and equality of citizens in the Middle East is not only a bad news for the current dictators of the Arab world, Al Qaeda and its Wahhabi-Salafi affiliates too are equally worried.

Al Qaeda, Taliban and their Salafist-Deobandi affiliates in Pakistan and Afghanistan share one characteristic with the current Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia, i.e., acute hatred for Shia who they consider “worse than Jews and Christians”, “infidels”, “polytheists”, “traitors” and “Jewish agents”.

However, with democracy established in Iraq (65% Shia), a democratic revolution taking place in Bahrain (75% Shia) and also in Yemen (45% Shia), the epicentre of an extremely narrow Wahhabi brand of Islam, Saudi Kingdom, is shaking with real concern as Saudis remain clearly surrounded by a Shia crescent. Shias are also estimated to constitute 15-25% of the Saudi population. Further, Oman is an Ibadhi Muslim country; Shias and Sunnis constitute a minority of the Omani population.

Vali Nasr’s views

Most people did not notice while Shias are about 10-15 percent of the entire Muslim world (due to huge Sunni populations of Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc), about half the population of the Middle East are Shias.  We don’t have accurate statistics because in much of the Middle East it is not convenient to have them, for ruling regimes in particular.

The overwhelming majority of Shia population lives between Pakistan and Lebanon. Iran always had been a Shia country, the largest one, with about 60 million population. Pakistan is the second-largest Shia country in the world, with about 30 million population. And, potentially, there are as many Shias in India as there are in Iraq.

But in the Arab world there are significant population centers. Iraq is a Shia-majority country. In Lebanon, the Shias are the single largest community; looking at anybody’s estimate, they are from 35 percent to 45 percent of the population. Bahrain is a Shia-majority country; about 75 percent of its population are Shia. And then you have minorities of various sizes in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

But, regardless of where these Shias lived in the Arab world, whether they were majorities or minorities, their political and economic situation was the same, and that was that they did not have a share of power that was commensurate to their numbers.

Iraq in some ways changed this, and it changed it in a very significant country, a country that is traditionally one of the three most important Arab countries. Its seat of power, Baghdad, was the seat of the caliphate which is most associated with the suppression of Shiism. That is exactly why there are so many Shia shrines in Iraq all around Baghdad. That’s where the Shia leaders died at the hands of the caliphs and were buried.

Now, this important Arab country has become Shia, as a consequence of American intervention. It is the very first Shia Arab country. In many ways, as a result of the fight against the United States from the beginning, the insurgency was as much anti-Shia as it was anti-American.  (Source)

The myth of a Shia Crescent

In 2004, when for the first time King Abdullah of Jordan warned about the formation of a Shia Crescent – which he claimed consisted of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – he was looking to receive more than remarks of support from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia. He wanted to impede the installation of a democratic government in Iraq and pro-democracy movements in the Middle East. The failure to realize his goals signifies the shrewdness of Middle Eastern public opinion—against the will of regional and extraregional supporters of a ‘Shia-demonization’ project.

The demographic significance of Shias in the core-Middle East, i.e., areas surrounding Saudi Arabia excluding African Arab countries, is an incontrovertible fact. Also, it is a fact that throughout the history of Islam, Shias have always preferred interaction and unity with other sects of Islam as well as with other religions. While Saudi-Wahhabi inspired Al Qaeda, Taliban and other similar groups have killed thousands of innocent Shias, moderate Sunnis, Christians and other minority groups across the world, there is currently no Shia terrorist group which is involved in acts of terror against innocent civilians in the Middle East or in the West. Of course, Shia Muslims are not a part of any insurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

As much as the concept of a ‘Shia Crescent’ should not foster a sense of false pride for ordinary Shias, it must not also cause concern for unsophisticated Sunnis or Westerners. Those who exaggerate the power of a so-called Shia Crescent are actually trying to bring to the fore religious contrasts and challenges, create sectarian hatred, materialize them in the socio-political arena, and ultimately bring them into the field of diplomacy. Diversity – particularly in faith – has never been absent in any community. Civil societies should regard such differences not as a threat, but as an opportunity to cross-fertilize theories and philosophies.

Twisted debates over the increasing power of a ‘Shia Crescent’ aim to fuel tensions between the Shias and the Sunnis. Ironically, those Western countries that support the idea have witnessed –and engaged in- the most atrocious battles over religion before beginning to seek unity. On the other hand, at no point in its 1400-year history has the Muslim World engaged in sectarian battles and conflict comparable to the ones Catholics and Protestants have suffered for centuries.

Incidents such as the September 11 terrorist attacks and a U.S. attitude shift –from interaction to confrontation with Salafism (Wahhabism) – and a tilt in the balance of power in favour of the Shias of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain, impelled the pro-Saudi King Abdullah of Jordan to misrepresent ‘the Shia Crescent’. While no one should be allowed to misrepresent this term to foment the rift between Muslims, the development itself augurs well for a moderate, democratic and pluralistic future of Islam.

Overall, one-dimensional geopolitics neither exists nor is useful for any state. It is clear that Iraq prioritizes Arab identity over its Shia-identity majority. Policies followed by the Iraqi government towards the correct usage of the term ‘Persian Gulf’ and its approach regarding the three Iranian islands of the Persian Gulf claimed by the United Arab Emirates, are clear evidence of that. Simply limiting Iran to Shia geopolitics deprives it from access to a potential sphere of influence where the majority of dwellers are Sunnis. Equally problematic is the notion of stereotyping or equating Iran with all Shias and Saudi Arabia with all Sunnis.

It seems that behind the misrepresentation of the Shia Crescent, more than religious concerns, lies a fear of democracy in Arab countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan) and its institutionalization—a potential threat to the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Islam is intertwined with the identity of the Middle East. Serious promotion of democracy in the Middle East -while safeguarding the right of religious and ethnic minorities- could liberate Sunnis from the tyranny of their rulers. With the emergence of democratic governments in the Middle East, the Shia and Sunni will find more room for interaction, understanding and tolerance.

Adapted from Source

Sunni and Shia: The Worlds of Islam

While the Islamic world is predominantly of the Sunni sect, the Muslims who live in the Middle East, and particularly those in the Persian Gulf region, are often Shiite. Globally, the Shia account for an estimated 10 or 15 percent of the Muslim population, but in the Middle East their numbers are much higher: they dominate the population of Iran, compose a majority in Iraq and Bahrain, and are significant minorities in other nations, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria. Outside of the region, Shia generally constitute only tiny minorities in other Muslim countries, including Algeria, Sudan, and Egypt in Northern Africa and also in Indonesia and Malaysia. (Source)

Statistics on Shia Population in the World

Top 15 Countries with Highest Proportion of
Shiites in the Population

NOTE: This list is not based on the proportion of Muslims which are Shiite, but on the proportion of Shiites in the total population.

Country Number of
Iran 61,000,000 93%
Oman 948,750 75
Bahrain 400,000 65
Azerbaijan 4,700,000 61
Iraq 11,000,000 55
Lebanon 1,370,000 40
Yemen 3,170,000 36
Kuwait 550,000 30
Pakistan 26,700,000 25
Syria 1,300,000 17
United Arab Emirates 400,000 16
Turkey 6,000,000 15
Afghanistan 3,560,000 15
Saudi Arabia 620,000 15
Tajikistan 300,000 5


Top 10 Largest National Shiite Populations


Country Percent
Number of
Iran 93% 61,000,000
Pakistan 25 26,700,000
India 2.7 26,000,000
Iraq 55 11,000,000
Turkey 15 6,000,000
Azerbaijan 61 4,700,000
Afghanistan 15 3,560,000
Yemen 36 3,170,000
Lebanon 40 1,370,000
Syria 17 1,300,000



Counting the Shia in the core Middle East

Shias constitute 35 to 50% of the population in the core Middle East (50% after excluding Egypt as it is a part of African continent.)

Unless Shia form a large portion of the population of a given Muslim state, their numbers are not reported locally or even estimated by writers on Islamic matters. No resource, Western or Middle Eastern, for example, has ever reported any numbers for the Shia in North Africa. This is despite the strong political and numerical Shia presence there throughout medieval times and the persistent Mahidst movements there up to the present. It is worthwhile to remember that the most important center of Sunni learning, al-Az’har University in Cairo, was originally a Shia university, founded by the (Shia) Fatimid dynasty of Egypt. The present Alawi dynasty of Morocco has clear Shia roots, although its practices may now differ.

As a result, the number of Shia in the world is largely just an educated underestimate, ranging from a mere 3% (Wahhabi/Salafi web sites) to 10-15% (most Western scholars and newscasters). In fact this same rudimentary “10-15%” is still churned out by scholars writing of the poor condition of the Shia in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Somehow, this fictitious figure, born of guesswork and cliché, is accepted by those not inclined to do tedious research in the old, primary sources to arrive at least at a proper approximation.

But this gets worse. From Indonesia (and its Acehnese Shia history) and Uzbekistan (where the Shia ceremony of Ashura was celebrated with great fanfare until the Communist takeover), to Kenya and Tanzania (one of Ismaili Shia headquarters), no Shia inhabitants are reported at all, although this is largely due to carelessness not malice. Meanwhile in the core areas of the Middle East this under-reporting, or practically non-reporting (as in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) has been intentional and arises from the Sunni-Shia rivalry Egypt still does not admit Shia students into the al-Az’har University* a university founded by the Fatimid Ismaili Shias in the 10th century when they also founded Cairo itself!

Liberation of the Shia-majority Iraq (containing the holiest places in Shiism), de Russification of the Republic of Azerbaijan (with the largest proportion of Shia in any country), the steady rise of numbers and power of the Lebanese Shias particularly in its successful dealing with Israel, added to the new-found vociferousness of the Saudi Shia have all contributed to this steady sea change.

As a consequence, the recent “rebirth” of Shia political power, has been viewed with astonishment if not dismay by the local Sunnis, Wahhabis/Salafists, and Western scholars accustomed to old figures and models based upon the same. To realize that for every three Sunnis in the region there are two Shias, is a rude awakening to most Sunnis and the negligent Western scholars alike. This becomes even more startling when realizing that in order to arrive at this ratio, one needs to also include securlar Turkey and its huge population into the picture. Without this, the Shia would roughly match the Sunnis in their numbers in the very core areas of the Middle East! No surprise then, that given the aloofness of Turkey from the Middle Eastern affairs, the Shia are “on the march.” Already the Shia constitute the absolute majority of the inhabitants of the Persian Gulf basin. The odd and strong correlation between the Shia-populated areas and oil and gas resources, from Baku to Dhahran, has heightened everyone’s interest in this “rebirth” of the Shia in the Middle East (see the relevant map on the web site)

Statistics: Population figures are in millions and are based on 2008-09 mitimates. The number of adherents to a given religion are counted by cultural and not confessional criteria. (M. Izady)

State total Sunni Shia Other
Egypt 77.4 mil 67.2 2.24 7.96
Iran 74.9 8.09 64.94 1.87
Turkey 71.6 57.35 14.1 0.15
Iraq 30.7 9.92 19.4 1.38
Yemen 23.6 12.36 11.05 0.19
Syria 21.9 15.98 3.29 2.63
S. Arabia 28.7/17.3 9.0 4.33 3.97
Israel 7.3 1.17 6.13
Jordan 6.3 5.76 0.03 0.51
Lebanon 4.2 1.22 1.93 1.05
(Palestine) 3.7 3.14 neg 0.56
Oman 2.8/1.95 0.27 0.1 1.67
Kuwait 2.9/0.92 0.69 0.20 0.03
UAE 4.6/0.76 0.29 0.08 0.39
Bahrain 1.05/0.53 0.12 0.39 0.03
Qatar 0.97/0.32 0.11 0.06 0.15
ME Total 343.28 192.67 122.14 28.47
56.1% 35.6% 8.3%

Others” include Muslim Wahhabis, lbadis and Ahmadis, as well as the iristians, Jews, Bahals, Druze, Zoroastrians, Yezidis and animists.

Expatriate workers–often outnumbering the native populations of the most of the GCC states are not included in these figures. Here, two pulation figures are provided for each state to reflect this.


Approximate population of Sunni and Shia Muslims

World’s Muslim population can be approximately divided into the following main sects:

Hanafi Sunni Muslims: 35%

Shafei Sunni Muslim: 25%

Shia Muslims: 20%

Maliki Sunni Muslims: 15%

Hambali Sunni Muslims: 4%

Salafi Muslims: 1%

Hanafis and Shafeis constitute the biggest proportion of the Muslim world, a major chunk of their population is situated in non-Arab countries (e.g., Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc), many of these populations were not a part of the Islamic world during the Prophet’s (pbuh) or the Rashidun Caliphs’ (r.a.) era.

The overall population of Shia Muslims is relatively small on a global scale (20%), they, however, comprise a majority or significant minority in several countries in the core Middle East (e.g., Iraq 65%, Yemen 45%, Bahrain 75%, Iran 95%, Saudi Arabia 25%, Lebanon 40%, Syria 20% etc), a bitter fact which is hard to digest by Saudi Salafis due to not only ideological but also geopolitical reasons.

Salafis, a tiny puritanical minority of Sunnis, are found only in Saudi Arabia and a few Gulf statlets where they are the ruling elites. Hambali Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of population in Saudi Arabia followed by Shias and Hanafis.

Thanks to Saudi petro-dollars and mushrooming madrassas, an increasing number of otherwise moderate Sunnis (Hanafis, Shafeis, Malikis, Hambalis etc) in Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Morocco, Turkey, US, Canada, UK, Belgium and other countries are being radicalised and Salafi-ized (Wahhabi-ized). For example, the current wave of Shia and Sufi Sunni killing in Pakistan and Iraq is being carried out by those very few Sunnis (Deobandis) who have been radicalized by the Salafi-Wahhabi violent ideology. It is pertinent to recall that the Al Qaeda, its leadership and affiliates (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Zakir Naik in India, Farhat Hashmi in Canada, Taliban in Afghanistan, Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASWJ) in Pakistan, and Jamaa Islamia in Indonesia etc) represent the same fringe, Salafi-ized groups which do not represent the majority of moderate Sunni Muslims.

Most Indo-European people are Hanafi. Afro-Asiatic people usually aren’t Hanafi. The majority of East Africans, The Hui (ethnic Chinese mMslim), and the Malay are Shafei. Most Muslims in West Africa are almost Al Maliki, (including the Maghrib nations (North Africa), and other places where maghrib/berber/beurette culture has spread).

Persian Gulf states are mostly Hanbali but a lot of Hanafi, Shafei and Shia Muslims too live there.

Central Africa and Masr (Egypt) are mixed.

There are a lot of exceptions too. Nigeria has lots of Shafei and Hanbali colonies. Somalia has significant number of Hanabalis.

These are just Sunni Muslims breakdowns, a lot of countries have a thriving Shia Muslim community as well.

Imam Abu Hanifa: Born in Basra, Iraq, he is probably most influential Sunni Imam of fiqh. He was locked in prison and tortured by his enemies (Caliph), however, he continued to teach those while in prison. He was the most liberal of all of the imams, and earned the nickname “Imam of Imams”.

Imam Malik: He was born in Madinah. He created a beautiful code of fiqh for Muslims. His fiqh places so much emphasis away from individual interpretation (ijtihad), and places much emphasis on strictly and literally following the path of the Prophet.

Imam Shafa’i: he was Palestinian, specifically from gaza. He was conservative in matters of fiqh and was strongly against ijtihad. He published the book reliance of the traveller. It is a famous source of fiqh.

Imam Ibn Hanbal: was the most conservative of all the four Sunni imams. he was born in central Asia and travelled all the way to Baghdad, Iraq to teach and study. He has a strong influence on the Salafi/Wahhabi movement.



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