Shi’ia and Sunni

This post is part 7 in the series “Islam and the West,” the first post to be part of the series since July 17, 2008.   Click the link under “pages” to read what the purpose of this series is. There are links to the first six parts of the series at the end of this post.  Additions to this series appear occasionally on this blog, hopefully every week or two moving forward.

In his book “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End” Peter Galbraith, the son of famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith makes the claim that President Bush  and people high in the Bush administration did not know of the difference between Shi’ia and Sunni forms of Islam.  If true, the title of Galbraith’s book is spot on — anyone even thinking of a major foreign policy initiative in Iraq (especially starting a war) should have analyzed carefully the religious and cultural dynamics of the Sunni-Shi’ite split.   It is also important for people in the West to at least have a passing acquaintance with differences within Islam.

Muhammad died in 632 leaving no clear successor.    Most expected one of his first converts, Ali, to be made Caliph (leader of the Muslim world).  But Abu Bakr was chosen instead (Ali was not even invited to the decision making session), and Abu Bakr made strict rules to prevent familial succession.  This led to bitter feuds between Ali’s wife Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter), and an early political division between the “Party of Ali” (Shi’a) and the majority Sunni (from Sunna, meaning the customary practices of Islam following the ways of the Prophet Muhammad).    Even one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, opposed Fatima and Ali.   Ali did become the 4th Caliph late in his life, but was assassinated, as the divisions remained.

After the assassination Muawiyah became Caliph, stationing the capital of the Muslim world in Damascus.  His armies had fought Ali’s troops, and Muawiyah arguably did not take the religion of Islam as seriously as he did power — Shi’ites still doubt his conversion.  He governed more as a true Arab King, expanding power, and conquering most of the rest of the region.  To the followers of Ali, who had been very devout and committed to the faith, not just power, Muawiyah’s rule was contrary to the spirit of Muhammad.

Ali’s son Hasan had been chosen to be Caliph by the supporters of Ali, who were based in Kufa (located in modern Iraq), where had Ali moved the center of the Caliphate.  He was unable to assume the position because of Muawiyah’s power. Hasan and Muawiyah reached a deal whereby Hasan recognized Muawiyah’s rule, but was promised that the Muslim community will reach a consensus on the next Caliph.  Yet when Muawiyah died, he was replaced by his son, Yazid.   Needless to say, this angered the followers of Ali, who believed the Caliphate was no longer true to the letter and spirit of the Koran.  Hasan had died, however and now Hussein, Ali’s second son, was leading the Shi’a.

Hussein decided to go to Kufa from Medina to support an uprising against Yazid.   En route, in the city of Karbala (in modern Iraq), Yazid’s forces caught up with Hussein and his followers, and laid seige.  They trapped them, cut off water and supplies, and as his people were dying, Hussein made a final, futile attack alone into the heart of the Syrian army. He was killed, of course, but his martyrdom would change Islam.

In 684, four years after Hussein’s death, his followers gathered in Karbala to mourn his martyrdom, and started rituals which would define Shi’ite Islam.  The most famous of these is the ritual of Arbaeen, which still draws tens of millions of pilgrams to Karbala annually (though it was banned during Saddam’s rule).  Men would cut themselves with small chains, designed less to create pain than draw blood to show their devotion to Hussein. Hussein was a hero and a martyr, but originally the theological differences were minor.   In fact, Yazid, who paraded Hussein’s head through the streets in Kufa to warn Ali’s followers of what could happen, quickly developed a bad reputation among the Sunni — this was the head of the Grandson of the Prophet, after all!

The majority Sunni saw the Caliph as a political but not a religious authority, while the Shi’ia believed it should combine both — sort of like a Muslim Pope.   Over time, however, significant theological differences would develop. First Hussein became a mystical figure through which one can gain salvation.    Shi’ites also came to believe that after Muhammad men called Imams (not to be confused with how the term often gets used to just describe teachers) emerged as infallible leaders, blessed with implicit as well as explicit knowledge of the Koran.   The Shi’ite profession of faith expanded on the Sunni profession, adding a bit about Hussein:  “There is no god but God, Muhammad is God’s Messenger, and Ali is God’s Executor.”  (Execute as in executing Allah’s will).

These changes also meant the development of Shi’ite sects. The Imams were Ali, Hasan, Hussein, Ali (son of Hussein),  and Muhammad al-Baqir. They followed familial lines, with the father chosing which son would be the next Imam.  When one chose a son who died before he could take power, some decided that since the Imam is infallible, that son was the final Imam, currently in occultation (a kind of divine hiding).  This group is called the 7-ers.  The most common group (and the current dominant group in Iran) is the 12-ers who followed the family line until it ran out (no sons) with the 12th Imam.  They believe the 12th and final Imam is in occultation, to return at the end of the times when the world converts to Islam.  Interestingly Isa (Jesus) will also return to help the conversion.  What an amusing scene that would be — Jesus returns and as the faithful praise him he says “psst – by the way, I’m Muslim.”

The differences between the two have political implications.  Because the Shi’ia believed the leader to combine both religious and political power, they are more open to a theocratic state.  After the 1979 revolution many hinted that Khomeini (who was the first leader) might be the 12th Imam, and some have suggested that about the current President Ahmadinejad. However, unlike the Sunnis, who (as will be described in future blog entries later in this series) rejected ijtihad, or the ability to use reason to interpret the Koran into different times, the Shi’ites allow their clerics to engage in ijtihad.  That potentially opens the door for a rationalist movement in Shi’ite Islam (and, of course, they could pressure the Sunnis to bring back ijtihad, which was rejected for political reasons).

Why is it important for us to know this history?   After all, how many Americans, even Christians, really understand the reformation that split the Christian world?  I think it is important to understand both, if we’re going to handle the difficulties of forging a partnership between cultures in an era of globalization.   It makes a difference, for instance, that the Taliban is made up of Sunni extremists, while Iran is Shi’ite.  We need to realize that the extremists of each distrust the other, often considering the others to be not true Muslims.  On the other hand, throughout history most Muslims have accepted the split without major conflict (later the Sufis would emerge as another group).

Most importantly — and a goal in this blog series — is that Islam and the West are two cultures shaped by long, complex histories, and we need to understand both our own culture in the West (something most people fall short on these days) and the culture of the Islamic world.  Ultimately reconciliation and partnership will only be possible if we know and understand each other, otherwise it’ll be fraught with misunderstandings and caricatured thinking.   I’ve heard of people watching coverage of the Karabala rituals and thinking them barbaric due to the drawing of blood, not understanding what is really happening.  The challenge of globalization is not just political, economic or even environmental.  All of these are part of a challenge to understand and respect each other’s cultures.

Earlier Posts in the Islam and the West Series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6, 2008)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15, 2008)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22, 2008)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30, 2008)
Part Six: Jews, Christians and Muslims (July 17, 2008)

  1. #1 by henitsirk on May 13, 2009 - 04:42

    I think we like to have an “other”, and right now Islam is our other. And if we try to really understand it, it no longer functions as an other, and we fear that state of being without an other.

    A more cynical view would be that we never really cared about Islam, other than staying friends with the Saudis and helping the Taliban when it was politically expedient in Afghanistan. Even with the hostages in Iran, it was seen as just a fluke, I think, and not evidence of something wrong with our relation to this huge section of the world.

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