Though all discussion of the Middle East, Islam, Iraq, the current military action in Najaf, and seemingly the future of the world, involves discussion of the Shiah and the Sunni branches of Islam. But how many actually know what the differences between the sects are and what they mean? I, for one, did not. Reza Aslan provides a very fine, brief primer:
- one must begin not with Ali’s tomb in Najaf, but
with the barren plain of Karbala, where Ali’s son, Husayn, along with most
of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, were brutally massacred in the year 680 by
the forces of the Syrian Caliph, Yazid I.
When Ali died, the caliphate, or leadership of the Muslim community, had
passed to the governor of Syria, a man named Muawiyah, in a complicated
power-sharing agreement that ensured the title would once again belong to
the family of the Prophet upon Muawiyah’s demise. However, after having
transformed Muhammad’s small community of faith into a dominant, rapidly
expanding, and ethnically Arab kingdom of enormous wealth and power,
Muawiyah had no intention of relinquishing his rule to a small band of
religious purists living in the distant Arabian Peninsula. He therefore
named his son Yazid heir to his throne.
To those who believed that the leadership of the Muslim community should
have never left the Prophet’s family in the first place, this was an
intolerably impious act. Throughout the Empire, but particularly in the
volatile regions of Iraq and Iran, a massive contingent of mostly non-Arab
Muslims calling themselves the Shiatu Ali (“the Partisans of Ali”) rose up
in revolt. The partisans sent a message to Ali’s eldest surviving son,
Husayn, to come to Kufa, the center of the rebellion in Iraq, to lead them
in battle against the evil usurper, Yazid.
Husayn agreed and prepared his family to march from their home in Medina to
Kufa. They never made it. Having already crushed the Kufan rebellion,
Yazid’s army intercepted Husayn and his entourage at Karbala and, over a
period of 10 days, massacred nearly every last member of the Prophet
The events at Karbala split the Muslim community into two major factions:
those who considered Yazid the legitimate caliph, and those who believed
that the rightful heirs to the Prophet’s mantle had been unjustly removed
from power. Yet while Karbala signaled the end of the political aspirations
of the Shiatu Ali and the beginning of the world’s first Muslim empire,
there was a far greater significance to the events than anyone could have
imagined at the time.
Four years after the massacre, a handful of the Shiatu Ali in Kufa gathered
secretly at Karbala, not only to mourn the death of Husayn but also to atone
for their failure to aid him at his hour of need. This concept of
lamentation as penance was an unprecedented phenomenon in Islam. Indeed, as
more and more partisans began gathering at Karbala, the Shiatu Ali gradually
transformed from a failed political faction who aimed to restore leadership
to the Prophet’s family into a wholly new religious sect-Shiism, a religion
founded on the model of the righteous believer who, like Husayn, willingly
sacrifices himself in the struggle for justice against tyranny and
Karbala launched a series of religious innovations in Islam that widened the
gap between the Shiah and the mainstream, or orthodox, Sunni. Chief among
these was the notion of atonement through sacrifice, a concept that existed
in many religions-including Christianity and Judaism-but not in Islam. It is
said that “a tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.” The Shiah
believe Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala, like Jesus’ sacrifice at Gethsemane,
was a conscious decision predetermined by God before the beginning of time.
They therefore celebrate his martyrdom every year with 10 days of
festivities that include passion plays dramatizing the events of Karbala and
funerary processions in which participants flog themselves with chains or
beat their breasts in contrition.
Most of the Sunni world condemns such acts of ritual devotion as contrary to
the original principles of Islam. The Sunni are particularly offended by the
Shiite notion that salvation requires any kind of intercession, something
the Quran absolutely rejects. Since only God can forgive sins, the Sunni
consider any intermediary between the worshipper and the divine to be a
desecration of the Prophet’s message.
But the Shiah believe that the Quran contains both an explicit message
accessible to all Muslims, and an implicit message meant solely for them.
This is, of course, a common belief among sectarian movements. The early
Christians, for example, eagerly sifted through the Hebrew Scriptures
looking for anything that could be interpreted as an allusion to Jesus. In
the same way, the Shiah scoured the Quran and found within its pages
numerous references to justify their distinctive beliefs and practices. They
also possess a secret, esoteric knowledge passed down through a mystical
transfer of consciousness from God to Muhammad, from Muhammad to Ali (and
his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter), from Ali to Hasan (Ali’s eldest son)
and Husayn, and down to the rest of the Holy imams.
The word “imam” has multiple connotations. In Sunni Islam, the imam is
simply the person who stands at the head of the mosque and leads the
congregation in prayer. For the Shiah, however, the imam is a divinely
guided leader and the living spirit of the Prophet. As the executor of God’s
will, the Shiite imam is infallible and sinless. He is created not from
dust, as other humans are, but from eternal light. He has access to
extra-Quranic texts such as The Book of Fatima, which recounts God’s
revelations to Fatima after Muhammad’s death. He knows the secret name of
God and is ultimately the only person with the spiritual power necessary to
reveal the inner truth of the Muslim faith.
The Sunnis consider the Shiite conception of the imam to be a heretical
innovation, at odds with the principal belief of Islam that God is
unrivaled, inimitable, utterly unique, and completely indivisible. To claim
that the imam is sinless and divinely guided, that he is different from the
rest of humanity is, for Sunnis, akin to giving a human being equal status
with the Almighty.
The Shiah counter that the imam is in no way equal to God. Like Catholic
saints, he is merely set apart from the rest of humanity. The imam may be
prayed to for intercession, and he may have the power to heal the sick, but
his authority is derived solely from his connection to the Prophet. And just
as there are a fixed number of prophets, ending with Muhammad, so are there
a fixed number of imams, ending with “the Hidden Imam,” known as the Mahdi.
Nearly all Muslims acknowledge the existence of the Mahdi, a messianic
figure who will return at the End of Days to usher in a time of peace and
justice. Sunni and Shiah alike believe the Mahdi’s coming will be an
apocalyptic event portended by earthquakes, wars, famine, and false
prophets. In Islam, the Mahdi’s return will herald the return of Jesus; both
prophets will rule the next world together.
However, as the Shiah shaped the doctrine of the Mahdi into the central
tenet of their faith, Sunni scholars began to distance themselves from
further speculation on the topic in an attempt to separate themselves from
what fast became a politically disruptive ideology. That’s because according
to the Shiah, the Mahdi’s principal task upon returning to earth will be to
avenge the injustice inflicted by the Sunni authorities upon Husayn and his
followers at Karbala. [Slate]
All religious factionalism seems foolish and arbitrary from the outside – this fundamental antagonism between the two main branches of islam would seem to be an excellent argument for separation of church and state.