Schism in Islam: Myths and Continuing Misconceptions Regarding the Sunni-Shia Split
The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq has been a disappointment, especially for the people there. The region is on a verge of total chaos and suddenly it has been infected with social diseases that, until recently, have been alien to the majority of the people. In the midst of newly unfolding events, Middle East and international affairs experts have been puzzled by the dramatic down turn and many have hopelessly attempted to map what the future holds for the strategically vital region. One of the most frightening scenarios is the “potential” civil war that is looming between the two major Muslim communities, Sunni and Shia. These communities have generally lived in harmony with each other for centuries.
In particular, throughout history, Iraq has experienced minor forms of sectarian tension (e.g. in the eleventh and twelve centuries demonstrations or heated religious debates took place). But it has never reached the magnitude and scale which has evolved since the invasion. For many decades, sectarianism was almost an alien concept for the majority of Iraqis. Following the invasion, sectarian terminologies have become conspicuously common in daily political discourse. Unfamiliar with Iraqi history and culture, senior officers of the occupational authority and the invasion forces have frequently issued sectarian statements, in a society that was mostly sectarian adverse. Worse, these statements have been perceived as an invitation to stimulate Shia-Sunni tension. Alienated and insecure, Iraqis have gradually fallen victim to sectarianism and some have started to espouse sectarian identity. This trend has been reinforced by al-Qaeda’s terrorist acts against Iraqis and the persistent sectarian message promoted by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and those who associate with his group.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in July 2006 and its fierce fighting with the Lebanese resistant movement, where Lebanese Shia constituted the majority, has further helped to infuse Shia-Sunni terminology into the Bush administration regular political discourse. Since President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have treated the Lebanese crisis, not as a political problem, but as a security challenge to their design for the Middle East, media outlets in the U.S. and the rest of the World have incorporated Shia –Sunni terminologies in their daily reporting without even a vague understanding of the terms and their historical or political underpinnings.
Western media, however, is not alone in misunderstanding and misusing Shia-Sunni terminologies. Arab and Muslim reporters, across the world, have found the sectarian subject alluring and have shown a conspicuous interest in perpetuating certain myths. These myths have poisoned the minds of unsophisticated individuals and deepened misunderstandings and social tensions. Arab governments and dictators, in particular, have seized on this opportunity and capitalized on the Shia-Sunni spilt to divert the attention of their own public from pressing issues pertaining to power abuse, lack of democracy, wide-spread corruption, economic and social inequality, and chronic economic crises. This destructive diversion appears to be working and the Middle East has become more than ever a boiling volcano.
Those who are intimately familiar with Islamic thinking and historical Arab politics argue that the Shia-Sunni split should be understood as a sociopolitical development that is associated with the early formation of the city state in Arabia before and immediately after the arise of Islam. In fact, those who objectively trace the evolution of the Shia-Sunni split point out two fascinating aspects that often stand out. These do not revolve around how a clannish struggle for power and influence evolved gradually and persistently into political aspirations expressed in religious beliefs. Rather, these two aspects are linked to the fact that unchallenged myths often emerge as powerful force and, accordingly, are often treated as reality. The first aspect is the blind acceptance of certain myths by intellectuals, including reporters, both in the West and in Muslim dominated countries, and how they subsequently have failed to formulate a reasonable knowledge-driven outlook to comprehend this historical development. The second aspect is the never-ending utility, for politicians, of employing this split as a means to optimally serve their political aspirations and consolidation of power. In this regard, an attempt is made in this paper to briefly deconstruct the most widely held myths. These myths are outlined below:
- Schism in Islam between Shia and Sunni began immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad around 632 as Muslims were divided into two groups; those who supported Abu Bakr as the first successor (Caliph) of the Prophet Mohamed and those who believed that Mohamed’s son-in-law and immediate cousin, Ali, should be the Caliph.
- There was a bloody civil war between the two communities immediately after Abu Bakr became the caliph.
- The sectarian split and conflict between the two Muslim communities intensified after bin Umayyad came to power as Maawiya Ibn Abu Sufyan became Caliph in 661.
- Unlike the Shia, the Sunni communities uniformly condone all caliphs.
The article begins by framing the evolution of the Shia – Sunni split into five general stages. These stages briefly capture the most significant factors including tribal, political, and religious which have shaped the nature of the division in Islam and ultimately changed the course of action in Islamic polity. The outline offers a better understanding of the progression of the split across centuries. More importantly, the presentation, at each stage and collectively, helps to deconstruct the preceding myths without underestimating the historical value attached to the emergence of the division or compromising the integrity of its key actors.
- The Family Feud (Mid 400 to 610)
The Arab historian, Ibn al-Athir, (d.1210, p. 193) traced the origin of the rivalry in Islam to family feuds and jealousies long before the inception of Islam. He reported that when the great-grandfather of the Prophet Mohamed, Abd Manaf (mid 400), died, his son Hashim rather than Abd Shams assumed the responsibilities of hospitality (a cherished value and a source of prestige) and of providing water to pilgrimages to Mecca in Arabia (for a brief outline of the most important figures in the evolved conflict, see Figure 1). Abd Shams’s son, Umayya (the father of the Umayyad dynasty), sought to project himself as generous as his uncle but could not deliver and could not uphold his reputation among the elite of Mecca. This further infuriated him and subsequently he challenged his uncle to a duel. The elite of Mecca set conditions for the duel: in the event of a defeat, Umayya had to provide 50 camels for a feast and had to go into exile for ten years in al-Sham (Syria). This first incident deeply embittered the Umayyad dynasty. In fact, after the revelation of Islam to the Prophet Mohamed in 610, most members of the Umayyad dynasty were determined to force the defeat of Mohamed and the suppression of his message. At the time, Abu Sufyan, the patriarch of the Umayyad declared, “We competed with them [the family of Mohamed] . . . like two race horses. As soon as we were equal in all fronts, they announced they had a prophet with a revelation from God. When will we be able to attain the same? I swear to God, we will never believe him or his faith.”
Most historians have overlooked the significance of the forced exile into Syria for the Umayyad dynasty. In fact, this development turned out to be a blessing as it enabled Umayya to position himself as a trade chief for commercial relations between Arabia and Syria. More importantly, it allowed him to enlarge his network with tribes along the trade road which provided protection for trade caravans. This latter allowed his dynasty to gain military power and prestige. While members of the Hashim dynasty were famed for their generosity and prided themselves on being morally responsible, the Umayyad dynasty accumulated military and economic power and eventually became an undisputed player among the aristocracies of Mecca and its Quraesh tribe.
- The Ideological Demarcation (610-661)
The emergence of Islam was a major challenge to the established aristocracy and its most influential figures such as Abu Sufyan of the Umayyad dynasty. Those individuals saw the new message of equality and prohibition of usury, trade monopoly and abuse of power, as a threat to the established political and social order and a gathering storm that would end their monopoly on trade. So for almost twenty years, every effort was made to weaken Islam and defeat Mohamed. However, as the prophet Mohamed conquered Mecca around 630 and defeated its aristocracy, its members came to accept Islam.
Two of the senior members of the Meccan aristocracy and the most influential members of the Umayyad dynasty, Abu Sufyan and his Son Maawiya, espoused Islam as well. This event, while it militarily strengthened Muslims, reinfected the new Muslim community with the old but undying Arab tendency, with clan rivalry and a fierce loyalty (asabya) to
The origin of Schism in Islam
tribe. The Prophet Mohamed denounced these pre-Islamic attitudes and instead promoted an all-inclusive spirit, a loyalty to faith only, and a rejection of differences based on color, tribe, or ethnicity. It should be mentioned that while Mohamed vigorously denounced asabya, he equally stressed the importance of accepting differences in perspectives among learned members declaring that “The differences [of opinion] among the thinkers of my community are a blessing.” Muslims, however, deferred to his judgments in religious affairs. And Muslims, regardless of their views, rallied behind Mohamed’s inclusive message.
After the death of the prophet Mohamed, differences in opinion and rivalry sprang to the surface. The selection of Abu Bakr as successor to the Prophet Mohamed caused ill-feelings among a few senior leaders of the Muslim community e.g., al-Abbas, Ali, al-Zebar ibn al-Awam, Talha Ibn Abeidallah, and Saad Ibn Abada. However, with the exception of the last one, the rest accepted the leadership of Abu Bakr. In fact, Ali was a close adviser to the first and second Caliphs; the second Caliph (Omer) was his son-in-law. This by no means suggests that differences were completely eradicated ill-feelings uprooted. Rather, it testifies to the fact that there was a disagreement on who should be the Caliph which, had it not been managed on a timely basis, could have gotten out of hand and endangered the newly established State.
Early Arab historians documented that alliances among elites in Medina, after the death of the Prophet Mohamed, were constructed along two major fronts: ideological and tribal. The tribal front was led by Abu Sufyan. This charismatic tribal chief was not about to accept marginalization and had the capacity to sabotage the political process to his advantage. He challenged the rising influence of Abu Bakr and Omer (who became first and second caliph respectively) and questioned their qualifications to assume leadership due to what he believed was the low social status of their tribal lineage within Quraesh. Arab historian, al-Andelesy, (p. 245) quoted Omer saying to Abu Bakr, “He [Abu Sufyan] is coming and he will do evil,” and demanded that he should be co-opted. Abu Bakr found Omer’s preposition pragmatic. This strategic move enabled the Muslim community to defuse a serious threat.
The second front was ideological and manifested itself in differences in opinion regarding the nature and appropriateness of the process that led to the selection of Abu Bakr as a Caliph. That is, those who voiced opinions acted within the boundaries of Islamic polity and had in their minds what was perceived as the most preferred approaches to secure the safety of the community. Al-Masudi (d. 968, Vol. 2, p. 307) quoted the first Caliph Abu Bakr stating that there was discontent and that ill feelings were evident among members of the Prophet Mohamed’s family, but this was not a civil war. Similarly, Ibn al-Athir, (p. 278) documented that Caliph Omer asserted the same. Ibn Abed Raba al-Andelesy (d.985, Vol. 4, p.265) reported that Caliph Omer stated the reason why the Prophet Mohamed’s family did not obtain the Caliph’s position was because Quraesh thought if the Hashim dynasty held both the prophecy and the Caliphate, nothing would be left for others and that the gift of prophecy which was bestowed on the Prophet’s family gave it a great prestige.
It should be mentioned that despite the fact that Ali had considerable influence among the many senior followers of the Prophet Mohamed and that there were a significant number in the Muslim community, among the intellectuals and the poor, who appreciated his knowledge, leadership, and contributions to the newly established State, he appeared to give priority to the continuity and unity of the Muslim community but not to tribal solidarity. Ali declined the offer by his uncle, al-Abbas, to declare allegiance to him as Caliph. More importantly, historians al-Andelesy (p. 245) and Ibn al-Athir (. 277) report that when Abu Sufyan informed Ali that he would gather a great army to remove Abu Bakr from the leadership and restore it to Ali, the latter refused stating, “Your objective is to create discontent. We have no use for your input as you have always sought to harm Islam.”
Analysts and Islamic affairs experts often overlook the fact that Abu Bakr, Ome, and Ali viewed the position of Caliph as secular with a responsibility to civic duty, not divine responsibility. This is evidenced by historical records of their sayings and actions. According to al-Masudi (d. 968, Vol. 2) neither Abu Bakr nor Ali aspired for the position of Caliphate. Moreover, Ali declined to name a successor before he died. His advice was that people should select who they thought was the most capable (p. 425). His reasoning was that people are entitled to elect their ruler, stating, “If the presence of the entire people was necessary for the validity of the selection of the Caliph, then there should be no other way. However, since it is impossible to command such gathering, then those who are eligible should represent those who are absent.”
- Tribal Demarcation and the Deepening of the Feud (661-750 )-the Ascendancy of Asabya
After Ali assumed the Caliphate in 656, Maawiya declared war on the Caliph as Ali declined to retain him as governor of Syria. The war was costly and led to serious divisions among Muslims. Subsequent to the death of Ali in 661, Maawiya secured the Caliphate for himself. Al-Masudi (Vol. 2, p. 351), along with other Arab medieval historians reported that, around 644, Abu Sufyan told members of his dynasty to take over the State stating, “O Sons of Umayyad, pick it like a ball. In the name of He whom I swear by, I have been yearning to get the reign for you and to your offspring, a hereditary.” This goal eventually came to fruition when Maawiya became Caliph in 661. This development constituted a turning point in the history of Muslims and the evolution of Islam. This is not only because it set the stage of hereditary tradition for governance in the Arab and Muslim world, but because it also revived the Arabs’ fierce tribal solidarity (Asabya) and enabled the Umayyad to use expeditions and the infrastructure of the State in the service of commerce.
Maawiya’s seizure of the Caliphate angered some members in the Quraesh tribe and devout Muslims because of his past history before joining Islam. Maawiya, however, was an outstanding politician who based his power strictly on his family’s prestigious Arab lineage, military strength, and vast wealth. He compromised when it was essential and used force when the rewards outweighed the cost. Nevertheless, Maawiya was driven by his fierce loyalty to members of his dynasty and was fascinated by the events that dominated the rivalry between the two dynasties. Al-Andelesy (d.985, Vol. 1, pp. 334-348) recorded, on different occasions, a debate between Maawiya and several visiting noble Arab women. In all his arguments, Maawiya again and again revisited the battles of Badr, Auhed, Sufien (in the first the Prophet Mohamed and the Muslims defeated Maawiya’s father and his army, in the second, the latter achieved semi–victory over the Prophet, and the last was the war between the armies of Imam Ali and Maawiya) while the women reminded him that the Prophet and Imam Ali had built the foundation of Islam.
None of the early Arab historians (e.g., al-Masudi, d. 968; al-Andelesy, d.985; Ibn al-Athir, d.1210) recorded that members of the Umayyad dynasty used religious virtue or religion, in general, to justify their ascendancy to power. In fact, according to al-Masudi some Umayyad Caliphs never internalized Islamic faith. In particular, he quoted Caliph al-Walid II (743-4) stating (Vol. 3, p. 229) that Prophet Mohamed fabricated his message “A Hashimi [Prophet Mohamed] enjoyed his reign, thought there was no revelation or a book from God.”
According to recorded history of the time, tribalism and Asabya, rather than sectarianism, were the common forms of division among Muslims during the Umayyad era. That is, sectarianism in the form of the Shia–Sunni split did not appear. In fact, the word Shia (supporters) was used to describe both Ali’s and Maawiya’s camps. In the agreement between the two during the battle of Sufien,it was stated,“This is what is agreed on between Ali Ibn Abu Talib and Maawiya Ibn Abu Sufyan, the arbiter for Ali representing the people of Iraq and those who are their Shia among Muslims and the arbiter for Maawiya representing the people of Sham (Syria) and those who are their Shia among Muslims. . . . .” Al-Masudi (vol. 3, p. 151), as well, used the term Shia to specify the supporters of al -Hajaj (a brutal leader during the Umayyad era). However, al-Masudi (vol. 3, pp. 102-3) also reported events and stories in which the supporters of Ali, during this era were called Turabyoon (in reference to Imam Ali who Prophet Mohamed gave the nickname, Abu Turab, because of his austerity and disregard of the material world).
It is commonly reported that the emergence of Shia as a political movement started after the killing of Imam Hussein at the hand of Umayyad in 680. This may not be accurate. The slaughter of members of the Prophet Mohamed’s family, especially his grandson Hussein, was not condoned by any Muslim sect. The killings, however, to this day, reinforce the belief that illegitimate authority is more disposed to commit wrong doings than legitimate authority. All Islamic schools of thought which evolved later agree on this. Even the most contemporary conservative “salafi” theologian, Abu al-Hassan al-Nadawy (1990, p. 189) has stated that those who governed after 661, including the Umayyad--except Omer Ibn Abdul-Aziz-- and the Abbasids, deviated from the spirit of Islam and were not qualified for the Caliphate.
- The Ideological Articulation of the Division (754-1258)
Sunni theologian Jalaldeen al-Syuadi (d. 1491, 224) documented that the division of the Hashim clan between two the families, al-Abbas and Ali, took place a few years after the Abbasids seized power from the Umayyad in 749. Before that time both families had led the fight against the Umayyad and generally advocated the goal of restoring the Caliphate to Ali’s family. Historians report that during the last years of the Umayyad era, Mohamed Ibn Ali, the father of the first Abbasid Caliphs, claimed that Abdullah Ibn Mohamed Ibn al-Hanafia before his death (a grandson of Ali, see figure 1) had transferred the Imamate to his sons Abu al-Abbas al-Seffah and al-Mansur, respectively and they had eventually regained the caliphate. When the first seized power in 749, he murdered members of the Umayyad dynasty who were directly or indirectly responsible for the killing of Imam Hussein and other members of his family.
As al-Mansur assumed the Caliphate in 754, he understood that a showdown with members of Ali’s family was inescapable and he feared that the majority of his base supporters who originally rallied behind the message of restoring the Caliphate to Ali’s family might revolt against him. He understood too that, in addition to using force, a purposeful and concentrated religious indoctrination would serve the goal of sustaining the Abbasid’s power. Al-Mansur recognized that the senior member of Ali’s family, Jafar al-Sadiq, was a well-respected jurisprudent and that most doctors of law deferred to him in important religious matters. Furthermore, al-Mansur discovered through his network of spies that al-Sadiq had been confirmed as the chosen Imam. This was a nightmare that deeply disrupted and threatened his reign.
In an effort to counteract the threat, Al-Mansur actively sought jurists to spread his views and to perpetuate his religious virtues by establishing schools of thought to legitimize the Abbasids’ claim for power. He lucratively rewarded jurists and made some of them his confidantes, while others were appointed as judges in major centers in his vast empire. His primary objective was to gradually refute Ali’s family’s claim for the Imamate. He approached Malik Ibn Anis (the Sunni Maliki School is named for him) and Abu Hanifa al-Naman (the Hanafi School is named for him) to work for him and to declare their allegiance to him. The first initially refused and was punished severely by the governor of Medina.
The fathers of the two major Sunni Schools of thought, Abu Hanifa and Malik, until their deaths, refused to swear allegiance to al-Mansur or the Abbasids. According to Jalaldeen al-Syuadi, Malik issued a fatwa for all to renounce allegiance to al-Mansur and to support Mohamed Ibn Abdullah, a grandson of Ali’s. Al-Mansur put Abu Hanifa in jail for his refusal to renounce his allegiance to another grandson of Imam Ali. The significance of this is that the fathers of these two major Sunni schools, Abu Hanifa and Malik, seem to have differentiated between their political allegiances, and their judgments on matters of interpretation of issues under religious domain. Probably, one of the most significant contributions of Malik to the theory of Caliphate and diversity of opinions is his proposition that any allegiance (such as the one to al-Mansur) which “was taken under duress and was declared under coercion [was] not valid.” Furthermore, Malik declined the request by al-Mansur to formally write his opinions and have them made into treaties and instructions to spread throughout the empire.
The third founder of the Sunni schools al-Shafai (the Shafai School is named for him) was a deeply pious thinker and a devout and tolerant philosopher. He was quoted saying, “If we love Ali’s sons, we will be killed, but if we dislike them, we will go to hell.” Apparently, al-Shafai did not alleviate differences in judgments and opinions on matters not addressed in the Quran or the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings on schism and conflict. The last founder of a major Sunni school is Ahmed Ibn Hanbal (the Hanbali School). Though he studied with al-Shafai, he displayed a disinterest in logic and discounted reason. Thus, unlike the previous three jurisprudents, he was not known to display tolerance or to support Ali’s family’s claim to the caliphate. His followers exhibited a strict interpretation of the Quran and readily labeled those who did not agree with them infidels. Wahhabism, which appeared in the eighteenth century in the desert of Arabia, subscribed to some of his teachings.
For about 100 years after the death of al-Mansur, the Abbasids were not able to come up with sound religious justifications for their seizure of power. They were successful, however, in gradually steering the evolution of the preceding schools of thought to serve their political campaigns against their rivals. It is during their era that Sunni and Shia thinking was articulated. In fact, since the early years of Abbasids, the term Shia has been used exclusively to mean the supporters of Ali. It is more likely, too, that the term Rafdhia (those who rejected Caliphate) was introduced, during this era, to describe those who promised allegiance to the family of the Prophet Mohamed and followers of Ali.
The invasion of Baghdad by the Persian Buyid dynasty about 945 and then by the Turkish Saljuqi dynasty (1055), gave a religious dimension to what emerged during the early Abbasid era as a politically motivated conflict. These dynasties espoused Shia and Hanafi schools of thought, respectively. Both dynasties, initially, had little understanding of Muslim historical precedents and viewed religion through their narrow political interests and rigid sectarianism. Various jurisprudents put their knowledge to the service of such dynasties’ political aspirations.
- The Institutionalization of the Division (1258-1914)
The situation worsened after the Mongol dynasty captured Baghdad. This led to the fragmentation of the Muslim world and the end of the Abbasid Empire. Two developments took place during this period. The first is the institutionalization of sectarian allegiance and partisanship especially among the various independent emirates which emerged after 1258. The leaders of these autonomous States publicly declared the adoption of a particular sect and expected their subjects to follow. The second development was the rise of dogmatic thinking among some religious scholars who exhibited a zeal and intolerance to opposition views.
The subsequent rivalry between the two Turkish dynasties, the Ottomans (1281-1922) and the Safavi (1501-1732), enlarged the gulf between the two Muslim sects. The first espoused Hanafi and dominated Turkey and most of the Arab and Muslim world. The second adopted the Shia school of thought in Iran and areas that came under its control. At time of rivalry between these Turkish dynasties, sectarianism was used as a means for legitimization and political ventures.
- The Politicization of the Division (1914-)
Sectarianism, too, emerged as an instrument for subjugation after the First World War as new nation-states were established in the Arab and Muslim lands. The new rulers used religion as an instrument to sustain their power and sectarian differences were highlighted when deemed necessary. Independent thinking was prohibited and sectarianism and tribalism were promoted. Western powers which controlled the Middle East and most of the Muslim countries used sectarianism selectively, and strictly to perpetuate their domination. For example, France gave the Alawis (part of Shia Islam) access to power in Syria, but marginalized the Shia community in Lebanon. The United States, until 1979, had equally strategic relations with the monarchies in Iran and Saudi Arabia, which too had a strong alliance, though both countries have different governing sects. This was changed when the Shah’s regime was disposed in 1979 and Washington publicly and strongly denounced the new regime. Recently in Iraq, the U.S. has played the enabling role in its relations with the Kurds who are mostly Sunnis, shown indifference in dealing with Arab Sunnis, and subtly performs, at best, a constraining role in relations to the Arab Shia.
Because of cultural discontinuity, generations after generations, especially in the Arab world, have formed a vague understanding of how pre-Islam tribal rivalry for fame and prestige has manifested itself into political struggles and then acquired ideological differences and religious fervor. This is not to ignore that differences between Shia and Sunni, which were articulated during the Abbasid era, were also accompanied by competing views relative to family and personal affairs and the theory of government and justice. With few exceptions common among extremists, the schools within both Muslim sects agree on the pillars of Islam and the principles of worship. Misunderstandings had taken place and foreign concepts incorporated, but these misunderstandings have never reached a level of wholesale killings. Fanatical elements existed in the tenth and eleventh centuries and reappeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Recently, these elements have found fertile grounds especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In terms of current political developments, both advocates of Shia and Sunni schools espouse elements of economic and political liberation. Reformers in all schools promote democratic transformation and modernity. The seemingly increasing popularity of the politicization of religion is in fact a manifestation of the frustration with political and economic stagnation. As in Christianity and Judaism, the recent rise in extremism in some Muslim dominated countries is mostly a reflection of the deepening state of hopelessness. Extremists, however, have shown an exceptional zeal for using sectarian factors, when appropriate, to strengthen their cause and poison the minds of the innocents.
In recent years, Arab and Muslims rulers have found religion and sectarianism a useful tool for maintaining their grip on power and effectively controlling the public discourse. Probably, these rulers consider turmoil and instability an end state.
Western leaders, who have little knowledge of what drives the Islamic world, would be well advised to acquaint themselves with the history of sectarianism in Islam before making uninformed judgments. Certainly, Western leaders’ fueling of the sectarian division plays into the hands of extremists and is welcome by ruthless dictators. More importantly, it could eventually lead the Middle East, and probably the world, to a tragic destination.
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