The Sunni- Shi’ite Divide & the Future
By Jacob Thomas
22 September, 2016
It is estimated that 90% of the Muslim population of the world (1.6 Billion) belong to Sunni Islam. The Shi’ites number around 160 million, living as majorities in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan. Shi’ite minorities live in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northeastern Saudi Arabia. I should add that The Shi’ite population of Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.
For most of the last 1400 years, Shi’ites have suffered from marginalization and discrimination. That had a profound impact on their psyche. On 6 September, 2016, the reformist/liberal online journal Al-Awan (Kairos ) published an impassioned essay by an Arab intellectual addressed to the Shi’ites in their homelands, pleading with them to change, and to stop hanging on to their age-long “Spirit of Victimhood.”
Before I share a translation of this thought-provoking essay, it is necessary to relate certain historical facts about the rise of schism in the Islamic Umma. This will take us back to the very beginnings Islam. It will reveal that the earliest divisions among Muslims were not related to religious themes. They were political, and had to do with issues of governance.
Muhammad’s victory over his Meccan enemies was completed by 630 A.D. He returned to Medina triumphantly as Prophet and Ruler. In June, 632, he became very ill and died without having made any arrangements for his succession as Head of State.
While Ali, cousin and son-law of Muhammad, was busy making preparations for the burial of the Prophet, other members of the Sahaba (Inner Circle of Muslim leaders) met under the leadership of Abu Bakr, the father of Aisha . They came up with the system of governance called the Caliphate; Abu Bakr becoming the First Caliph. The very day Abu Bakr died in 634, Umar a military hero, succeeded him. Under his rule, the expansion of the Islamic Empire gathered speed with the conquests of Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. When Umar was assassinated in 644; he was succeeded by ‘Uthman whose Caliphate lasted until his assassination in 656. While both Umar and ‘Uthman were from the Quraish Tribe, neither belonged to the Hisham Clan of both Muhammad and Ali. In fact, ‘Uthman’s Clan of Umayya, had been a strong opponent to Muhammad; and were partly responsible for his decision to leave for Medina in 622!
Between 632 to 656, the transition from one Caliph to another went on, more or less smoothly. When Ali assumed the position of Caliph upon the assassination of ‘Uthman, he faced many opponents. ‘Aisha joined the opposition group. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria and relative of ‘Uthman, led the opposition, claiming that Ali was complicit in the plot that led to ‘Uthman’s murder.
Civil war broke out between Ali and Mu’awiya; arbitration was suggested and accepted by the two sides. Even though Ali’s chance for victory was greater than that of his opponent, some of Ali’s supporters rebelled, and murdered him in 661. They are known as the Khawarej. That insured Mu’awiya’s victory! He assumed the role of Caliph in 661, moved the capital from Medina to Damascus, Syria. The Caliphate became dynastic, and is known as the Umayyad Caliphate; it lasted until 750.
Ali’s two sons by Fatima, were Hassan and Hussein. Hassan manifested no interest in politics; Hussein assumed the leadership of his father’s cause. Muslims who joined him, were known as “Shi’ite Ali,” i.e. Ali’s Party; later on, the term was abbreviated into “Shi’ite.” Muslims who had sided with the Umayyads, claimed they were true followers of the Path of the Prophet; in Arabic, the term was “Sunnat al-Nabi.” They are known as Sunnis, and have been the majority among Muslims during the last 1400 years.
Within three decades after the death of Muhammad, Islam had three contending parties: Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Khawarej! The latter became notorious for their crimes against other Muslims. Gradually, they faded from history; the term Khawarej, becoming a pejorative word attached to any dissident group within Islam!
For most of history, Sunnis had the power of the state on their side, while the Shi’ites remained as the Opposition Party, and went underground. When the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty died in 680 (61 A.H.), he was succeeded by his son Yazid. The people in Kufa, Iraq, did not swear allegiance to the new caliph, but sent letters to Hussein pledging allegiance to him and asked for his help.
Unfortunately for Hussein, his small group of followers were no match to the large army of Yazid. The battle scene was at Karbala, where Hussein was killed with most of his family and supporters.
That tragedy is known as ‘Ashura, the date was 10 October, 680 A.D. corresponding to the tenth day of the month of Muharram, according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The term ‘Ashura is derived from the Arabic ‘Ashrah, i.e., ten.
I trust this information is helpful in our reading of the following essay addressed to Shi’ites pleading with them “to stop hanging on to their age-long ‘Spirit of Victimhood.’”
“Shi’ism has been based on two foundations: Suffering from Victimhood and Asking for Justice. With the passing of time, these basic principles became deeply embedded and accentuated. The tragedy morphed into a catastrophe accompanied by an unbearable weight. The resulting sadness turned into a melancholy transcending time and space. (Emphasis added)
“Wherever Shi’ites live has become Karbala, and all time is now ‘Ashura. The main purpose of the believer has become an act of bemoaning the historic Event, and transforming it into a contemporary Event that must be both actualized and condemned. (Emphasis added)
“A leading Shi’ite authority has declared that even in Paradise, they would be still mourning the death of Hussein!
“Furthermore, seeking Justice has changed into a powerful quest for vengeance. It has become the source of dreams, anticipating with alacrity, the execution of the demands for justice. This powerful motif is then passed on to the following Shi’ite generations. (Emphasis added)
“The Shi’ite Eschatology (the End Times) has these unique features: at the return of the Twelfth Imam, he will be accompanied by Ali and his sons, as well as by their enemies; now resuscitated, in order to receive the just retribution they deserve!
“Thus, instead of seeking justice, Shi’ites dream of a grotesque vendetta. For example, Aisha, the youthful wife of Muhammad and an enemy of Ali’s Caliphate, would be publicly lashed; Abu Bakr and Umar, will be crucified and burned!
“Such Shi’ite tales that describe horrific methods of torture would surpass Dante’s description of the Inferno in his Divine Comedy!”
“What a wonderful day that would be when Shi’ism would have transcended that legacy that has become integral to their acts of worship, adopting an ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation!” (Emphasis added)
The author of the essay lives in Iserlohn, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
Epilogue by Jacob Thomas
My purpose in translating the essay was its relevance to the present situation in the Middle East, and throughout the World. This unresolved animosity and rivalry between Sunnis and Shi’ites has caused unprecedented problems to our contemporary world.
Personally, as a Levantine Christian, the unresolved “Sunni/Shi’ite divide” has had dire consequences for the lands of my youth. The Civil War in Syria, now in its fifth year, is a glaring example for that animosity.
In mid-March, 2011, Sunnis in Syria rose up against decades of authoritarian rule by the Assad dynasty, members of a splinter Shi’ite sect. The regime would have crumbled without the assistance of Iran, and its Lebanese surrogates, the Shi’ite Hezbollah. Millions of Syrians, both Sunnis and Christians, have had to migrate to neighboring countries; with some attempting to reach European lands! The small country of Lebanon has been coping with the 1,500,000 Syrian refugees. At the same time, due to the political conditions, Lebanon has been without a President now for the last three three years!
In neighboring Iraq, the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, eventually morphed into an unending struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite groups. That gave occasion for the rise of Da’esh (ISIS). The official announcement for the re-birth of a Sunni Caliphate took place at the Grand Mosque of Mosul, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as the Caliph, choosing the very name of the First Caliph who took over the leadership of the Islamic State in 632 A.D. upon the death of Muhammad.
The rest is history. The Christians in Mosul, numbering around 100,000, had to leave their homeland, to find shelter elsewhere. The Caliphate territory expanded into Syria, with the city of Raqqa becoming Da’esh’s capital.
Repercussions from the rise of Da’esh have impacted the world. Just think of those horrible massacres in 2016 that took place in Orlando, Florida; Nice, France, and most recently in New York City and in New Jersey 17/18 September, to realize that this movement has become ubiquitous with no end in sight, to its Global Jihad!
All Islamic communities from Indonesia and Malaysia all the way to Morocco on the Atlantic, need desperately peace and tranquility as they face huge domestic problems.
The images I see of Aleppo, a lovely city that I had often visited and where my relatives lived, is now in ruins. It was in the news again this evening (22 September) the sight of the destroyed apartment buildings is shocking even a long distance!
One thought keeps haunting me. What’s the future of the youth who will survive the unending bombings? I’m referring to their education. While their daily language is learned at home, Modern Standard Arabic (known also as Classical Arabic) has to be learned at school. It took me years of learning, memorizing, preparing for national examinations, to finally be able to read the written unvoweled Arabic script.
One last question? Who will finance the rebuilding of Syrian cities? After WWII, America’s “Marshall Plan,” enabled the shattered part of Europe to rebuild and recover!
Are the “rich” Arab states ready with their “Plan?”
URL for the Arabic text: