Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as they pray inside the Grand Mosque during the annual pilgrimage, known as the hajj, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as they pray inside the Grand Mosque during the annual pilgrimage, known as the hajj, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

By Jonathan Lyons

Instability across the heart of the Muslim world underscores an undeniable fact of modern life: religion matters as much today as it did more than 1,300 years ago during the formative period of Islam.

The upheavals introduced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings have laid bare communal tensions between majority Sunni Muslims and the Shiite minority, tensions that date to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632.

Civil war in Syria, spillover into neighboring Lebanon, sectarian clashes across Iraq and unrest in Bahrain and Yemen are just some of the bitter fruits of the Shia-Sunni rift.

The religious roots of these tensions are often obscured by geopolitics or economic interests. But it is religious difference that creates opportunities for unrest and mobilizes the forces that fuel it.

It is no accident of geography that rivalry between regional superpowers Iran, ruled by Shia clerics, and Saudi Arabia, under a strident Sunni monarchy, is seen as a reprise of religious difference grounded in the 7th century.


Who is a good Muslim? And who gets to say?


At the center of the split is a question of religious authority and political legitimacy. Islam embraces a worldview that makes no formal distinction between politics and faith, and Muhammad exercised power over both spheres.

But the Prophet named no clear successor, leaving the community to grapple with two central questions still facing believers: Who is a good Muslim? And who gets to say?

Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a rite of the annual hajj near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Little is known in any historical sense of Islam’s early years. But both Sunni and Shia have developed powerful traditions to explain their respective pasts, justify the present and express future hopes.

The same traditions have given birth to distinct cultural and ritual differences, although the central tenets of Islam are common to both communities.

“Rejecters” and “Usurpers”

To the Sunni, it is accepted that the first Caliphs (from khalifa, or successor) were chosen from among Muhammad’s companions, those who followed his example.

These figures testified to the Prophet’s deeds and sayings, which form the basis of much of Islamic law and practice. Refusal to recognize these leaders lies behind the Sunni charge, popular among today’s Salafis, that the Shia are “rejecters,” or heretics.

For the Shia, the acceptable succession follows the Prophet’s bloodline, from his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and through the male descendants, considered defenders of truth and justice. For the Shia, the Sunni are “usurpers” who stole the Prophet’s mantle from its rightful heirs.

The most prominent Shia grouping today, the Twelver Shia concentrated in Iran, Iraq and parts of Lebanon and the Gulf, recognize the authority of Ali and his 11 descendants.

They believe Twelfth Imam went into hiding in 874 to escape the Sunni assassins who killed his predecessors, and his eventual return at an indeterminate future date — eagerly awaited by Shia everywhere — will bring in an age of peace and justice.

Other Shia groups, most prominently the Islamailis and the Zaydis, follow different lines of succession.

In all, there are around 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, with the Shia representing around 12 percent of that figure. As many as 80 percent of them are concentrated in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.


Jonathan Lyons

Jonathan Lyons served as a foreign correspondent and editor for Reuters for more than two decades, much of that time in the Muslim world. He is the author of three books on the region. He lectures frequently on the relationship between Islam and the West, and is currently working on a revisionist history of the Muslim world.

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World Middle East Bitter fruits of a split in Islam