With the two major Middle Eastern Islamic powers, one, Iran being 95% Shi'a and the other, Saudi Arabia being 90% Sunni, indulging in a bitter war of words, it is worth looking at the history of the religious differences between these two branches of Islam.
The origin of this schism goes right back to the events following the death of Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia in 632 CE. Muhammad himself had no male descendants, brothers or nephews so there was no clear line of succession and no rules of succession to be found in the Qur'an or Hadiths.
The early Muslim leadership, still centred on Medina, formed three different groupings; the first being the close associates of Muhammad who had made the hijra (the journey from Mecca into exile in Medina) with him; the later converts from amongst the leading families in Medina and the later still converts from Mecca. Whilst the first group regarded themselves as the natural successors to Muhammad and regarded the other two with suspicion as Johnny-come-latelies who had failed to support Muhammad in the early days.
The former companions of Muhammad felt entitled to nominate Abu Bakr a 'follower of the first hour' as the second caliph. He also had an additional though tenuous claim in being married to Muhammad's daughter A'isha. Nothing like keeping divine authority in the family! But the nascent Islamic empire was already running into problems as tribal leaders in the remoter areas felt their loyalty to Muhammad was personal and was not transferable to Abu Bakr.
Additionally, the prosperous and cultured areas in Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq were now being ruled from distant and peripheral centres in Arabia and Abu Bakr's rule could only be maintained through a system of regional governors with powers to levy their own taxes and maintain a standing army. These governorships were displaying a distinct tendency to resemble autonomous petty kingdoms with inherited succession and a resistance to central authority. In short, an empire which had expanded very quickly was beginning to disintegrate and implode.
There were also growing tensions in Arabia itself between the old guard still based in Medina and the growing political and military power of newer converts in Mecca. In effect there was a struggle for political supremacy between the two major cities of the Hejaz. The second caliph, 'Umar tried to reverse this trend by introducing a system of stipends for the early followers of Muhammad based on conversion and service. This created a wealthy and cohesive ruling elite but powers was still tending to be pulled north by the continuing moves towards autonomy by regional governors in Syria and Iraq.
By the time of the third caliph, 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (644-56 CE) who came to power when 'Umar was assassinated the situation was deteriorating further. He had been appointed from amongst the inner group of early followers of Muhammad but tried to control the regional governors and ensure their loyalty by appointing members of his own family to governorships. This alienating the Meccans who naturally saw this as an attempt to reassert Medinan authority over the empire. A general unrest led by soldiers from Egypt led to 'Uthman's murder in 656 CE and the first period of communal civil war in which the followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima, emerged as a strong claimant to the role of fourth caliph.
|Battle of Siffin|
After fighting an indecisive battle for some time the two sides agreed on a truce and to refer their dispute to arbitration by delegates from the two sides. This caused some of Ali's faction to abandon him because they felt he had abandoned the Will of God (as decided in battle) in favour of human arbitration. As the negotiations dragged on Ali's position weakened until he was assassinated. Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan proclaimed himself calif and Ali' son Hassan acquiesced.
This effectively ended the first period of Islam, the first four caliphs, and marks the traditional point of departure between the two major schisms. However, that schism was far from being recognised at the time. Two major streams of thought were emerging in Islam. The first held that there was no precedence in Islam save that of virtue and that support for an imam should be withdrawn when they ceased to be virtuous. 'Uthman had ceased to be virtuous because he had shown nepotism in appointing members of his own family and Ali has ceased to be virtuous by agreeing to arbitration on a matter of principle at Siffin.
The second stream of thought was that there was some quality of holiness and knowledge or understanding of the inner meanings of the Qur'an which descended from Muhammad to members of his family and therefore the imam should only come from this family. This special quality had passed through Ali meaning only his descendants could be imams. This faction became the 'Party of Ali' or 'Shiat Ali', hence Shi'a with this tradition being referred to as Shi'ism. It was given strength by the murder (and martyrdom), probably by Mu'awiya, of Ali's eldest son, Hassan in 680 CE then the death in battle of his second son, Hussain in 681 CE.
Although the Shi'ites were to gain temporary supremacy under the Umayyads, named after an ancestor, Umayya, which took power following a brief civil war which broke out during the short reign of Mu'awiya' grandson and then later by another family the Abbasids, named after Muhammad's uncle Abbas, Shi'ism was never universally accepted and the tradition of the virtuous imam remained strong in some groups. Additionally, the civil wars had resulted in the transfer of the centre of power from the Hijaz to Syria and Iraq, and Damascus and Baghdad in particular.
This resulted in several revolts with considerable support in Arabia. In an attempt to bring the factions together, the current caliph, Ma'mun declared Ali al-Rida, regarded by many Shi'ites as the eighth imam, his successor, arguing that he was the most worthy of Muhammad's family to succeed. This concession that virtue was the basis for succession within the family lent support to those who saw virtue as sufficient in itself. A move to support these theologians in return for their acceptance of the Abbasids' equal right to rule by virtue of their connection to Muhammad's family met with opposition from theologians who argued that the Qur'an and the habitual behaviour of Muhammad, literally interpreted, are sufficient guidance. The emphasis of the importance of the Qur'an and the practice (sunna) of Muhammad as related in the Hadiths led to the emergence of a philosophy which came to be known as Sunnism as distinct from Shia'ism.
So, there was no real point of departure of the two forms of Islam. It was not a sudden event but rather the emergence of philosophical differences stimulated by historical differences between various factions, geographical and cultural rivalries and even family ties and loyalties. The traditional point - the assassination of Ali - was merely a dynastic change, there being no fundamental difference in theology between the two warring factions at that time, the civil war having more to do with disputed succession such as was common in Medieval Europe over the succession to various thrones. Having no clear rules of succession - a surprising omission for a supposed God-given guide to perfect government of a peaceful society - it was never going to be easy to maintain a central authority in a rapidly expanding, culturally and geographically diverse empire.
Given the three major areas into which Islam expanded in Arabia itself, Hellenised Palestine, Syria and Iraq, and culturally distinct Persia (Iran) it is not surprising that the two major forms have settled in Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia'a) with a mixture in Iraq, Syria and Palestine. It is also not surprising that the remoter parts of the Islamic world such as Oman developed in their own way. Oman is nominally Shi'a but would hardly be recognizable as such to an Iranian.
Quite what the major differences that underpin much of the communal strife that characterises much of the Middle East is not clear to me, a non-Muslim. No-one now seriously argues that the leaders of Shia'ism are or should be all the descendants of Muhammad or that all the Sunni imams are the most virtuous of various candidates, nor is support for them withdrawn if they lack virtue. The two factions have simply become devices for maintaining the power base of clerics who rely on in-group versus out-group factionalism.
It would be difficult to find an ordinary Iraqi or an ordinary Saudi who could explain the differences in terms other than black and white 'we're right; they're wrong' mentality, or by reference to some folkloric tradition of martyrdom and battles won and lost. And of course with this black versus white mentality comes the belief that what is not right in Islam, is a perverted form of Islam created by Satan and his agents. What were once theological and philosophical differences have become simplistic issues of good versus bad and of Allah versus Satan.
And Saudi Muftis feel justified in condemning all Shi'ites as not real Muslims. The next step is to declare them the work of Satan and not real human beings.
Further reading: Albert Hourani, A History Of The Arab Peoples
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