Sunnis and Shia: The Schism Within Islam

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Gary
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Sunnis and Shia: The Schism Within Islam

Post by Gary » Wed Feb 14, 2007 1:29 am

The following is part of a weeklong series on NPR that explores the origins of the division.

Part 1

The Origins of the Shia-Sunni Split

by Mike Shuster

Morning Edition, February 12, 2007 · It's not known precisely how many of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are Shia. The Shia are a minority, comprising between 10 percent and 15 percent of the Muslim population — certainly fewer than 200 million, all told.

The Shia are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well.

Although the origins of the Sunni-Shia split were violent, over the centuries Shia and Sunnis lived peacefully together for long periods of time.

But that appears to be giving way to a new period of spreading conflict in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni.

"There is definitely an emerging struggle between Sunni and Shia to define not only the pattern of local politics, but also the relationship between the Islamic world and the West," says Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, author of Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran.

That struggle is most violent and dangerous now in Iraq, but it is a struggle that could spread to many Arab nations in the Middle East and to Iran, which is Persian.

One other factor about the Shia bears mentioning. "Shiites constitute 80 percent of the native population of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region," notes Yitzhak Nakash, author of The Shi'is of Iraq.

Shia predominate where there is oil in Iran, in Iraq and in the oil-rich areas of eastern Saudi Arabia as well.

The Partisans of Ali

The original split between Sunnis and Shia occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 632.

"There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession," says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History. "That is to say, who is the rightful successor to the Prophet?"

Most of the Prophet Muhammad's followers wanted the community of Muslims to determine who would succeed him. A smaller group thought that someone from his family should take up his mantle. They favored Ali, who was married to Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah.

"Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the Prophet," notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "And thus they were the partisans of Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split."

The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.

Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, but not before violent conflict broke out. Two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. War erupted when Ali became caliph, and he too was killed in fighting in the year 661 near the town of Kufa, now in present-day Iraq.

The violence and war split the small community of Muslims into two branches that would never reunite.

The war continued with Ali's son, Hussein, leading the Shia. "Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. "He stood up to the caliph's very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred."

Hussein was decapitated and his head was carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.

It is the symbolism of Hussein's death that holds so much spiritual power for Shia.

"An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force," Nasr says. "He becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration."

The Twelfth Imam

The Shia called their leaders imam, Ali being the first, Hussein the third. They commemorate Hussein's death every year in a public ritual of self-flagellation and mourning known as Ashura.

The significance of the imams is one of the fundamental differences that separate the two branches of Islam. The imams have taken on a spiritual significance that no clerics in Sunni Islam enjoy.

"Some of the Sunnis believe that some of the Shia are actually attributing almost divine qualities to the imams, and this is a great sin," Gause says, "because it is associating human beings with the divinity. And if there is one thing that's central to Islamic teaching, it is the oneness of God."

This difference is especially powerful when it comes to the story of the Twelfth Imam, known as the Hidden Imam.

"In the 10th century," says Vali Nasr, "the 12th Shiite Imam went into occultation. Shiites believe God took him into hiding, and he will come back at the end of time. He is known as the Mahdi or the messiah. So in many ways the Shiites, much like Jews or Christians, are looking for the coming of the Messiah."

Those who believe in the Hidden Imam are known as Twelver Shia. They comprise the majority of Shia in the world today.

"Twelver Shiism is itself a kind of messianic faith," Brumberg says. It is based "on a creed that the full word and meaning of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's message will only be made manifest, or real and just, upon the return of the Twelfth Imam, this messianic figure."

Political Power Fuels Religious Split

Over the next centuries, Islam clashed with the European Crusaders, with the Mongol conquerors from Central Asia, and was spread further by the Ottoman Turks.

By the year 1500, Persia was a seat of Sunni Islamic learning, but all that was about to change with the arrival of Azeri conquerors. They established the Safavid dynasty in Persia — modern-day Iran — and made it Shiite.

"That dynasty actually came out of what's now eastern Turkey," says Gregory Gause. "They were a Turkic dynasty, one of the leftovers of the Mongol invasions that had disrupted the Middle East for a couple of centuries. The Safavid dynasty made it its political project to convert Iran into a Shia country."

Shiism gradually became the glue that held Persia together and distinguished it from the Ottoman Empire to its west, which was Sunni, and the Mughal Muslims to the east in India, also Sunni.

This was the geography of Shiite Islam, and it would prevail into the 20th century.

There were periods of conflict and periods of peace. But the split remained and would, in the second half of the 20th century, turn out to be one of the most important factors in the upheavals that have ravaged the Middle East.

"Why has there been such a long and protracted disagreement and tension between these two sects?" asks Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. "It has to do with political power."

In the 20th century, that meant a complex political dynamic involving Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Persians, colonizers and colonized, oil, and the involvement of the superpowers.

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Gary
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Post by Gary » Wed Feb 14, 2007 1:30 am

Part 2

Shia Rise Amid Century of Mideast Turmoil
by Mike Shuster

Morning Edition, February 13, 2007 · At the beginning of the 20th century, the Shia of Iraq and Lebanon were ruled by Sunni Ottoman sultans. The Shia of Arabia were under the authority of Sunni tribal leaders. In Persia, the monarchy and the Shiite clergy coexisted so long as neither ventured into the other's realm.

In Shiism this has been known as Quietism. Shiite clerics by and large believed that politics was an imperfect practice, so it was better to look inward.

"They accepted the legitimacy of the rule of monarchs so long as they did not violate religious law, so long as they did not harm Shiism," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. "And as long as they helped the preservation of the community. So it was not expected that government would be Islamic in a perfect sense. All that was necessary was for government to protect religion."

That arrangement began to crumble soon after World War I.

The Shahs of Iran

In Persia, Reza Pahlavi, a military officer, seized power in a coup in 1925 and declared himself shah. Pahlavi changed the name of the state to Iran and set about creating a secular government, much to the dismay of some of the Shia clergy.

And in the 1930s, much to the dismay of the Great Powers, Shah Reza Pahlavi flirted with Nazi Germany.

Britain and the Soviet Union seized parts of Iran early in World War II, and in 1941 they forced the shah to abdicate the throne in Tehran in favor of his son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The young shah's reign was also marked with instability. In 1953, political turmoil broke out in Tehran, forcing the shah to flee the country, only to be returned to power in a CIA- and British-engineered coup that ousted the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

After that, the shah clamped down, creating a merciless secret police that sought to destroy all efforts to challenge his rule.

The one institution that the shah could not dominate was the mosque.

Khomeini and Dissidents in the Mosques

"Dissidents gravitated to the religious institution just because the secret police didn't and couldn't control it in the way they were controlling everything else," says Juan Cole, author of Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam.

One of those dissidents was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Born in 1900, Khomeini began to challenge the shah's rule in the 1950s. In 1963, he was briefly arrested and then exiled to southern Iraq.

In exile, Khomeini developed his concept of what an Islamic state would be: a Shiite Islamic state, under the control of the clergy.

"Khomeini said only the clerics had the true knowledge of the law, of Islamic law, to allow them to govern the state, to be the leaders, the political leaders of the state," says Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "This was an enormous innovation in Shia thought and still widely questioned and not accepted among major Shia religious figures."

At that time, among many Shia clerics in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Khomeini's views represented a challenge to a fundamental tenet of Shiism, the role of the Twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam who disappeared in the ninth century and who, according to the faithful, will return when God decides to establish justice on Earth.

"This ran in the face of the whole logic of Shiism, which believed that kind of authority belonged only to the Imams," the historical leaders of Shiism, Nasr says.

Revolution in Iran

In 1978, a popular movement exploded in the streets of Iran's cities, aimed at overthrowing the shah.

From exile, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the revolution's leader, and in early 1979, after the shah fled the country, Khomeini returned.

The revolution in Iran was a tempest of conflicting ideologies, mixing communism, anti-imperialism and secular pluralism with Khomeini's ideas about an Islamic state. In the midst of the chaos, Khomeini oversaw the writing of a constitution that gave most of the state's power to the supreme religious leader.

In 1979, Iranian revolutionary students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, making hostages of the diplomats there.

And in a referendum, Khomeini's constitution was adopted. But some doubt whether Iranians knew precisely what they were voting for.

Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, says: "I'm not quite sure if it was understood at that time by the frenzied Iranian populace just coming out of a revolutionary experience where they had managed a remarkable task of displacing what appeared to be a robust monarchy, that they were actually going to saddle themselves with an office whose prerogatives and powers would remain unaccountable."

An Emboldened Shia

These events in Iran would have a powerful effect on the wider Islamic world.

"The upheaval generated by the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1978-79 emboldened Shia in the Middle East," says Yitzhak Nakash, author of The Shi'is of Iraq. "And it reinforced the trend of activism within Shiism that continues to this day."

Khomeini's revolution had a powerful influence first in Lebanon, especially after Israel mounted an invasion in 1982 to eliminate Lebanon as a base for guerrilla attacks of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Israelis ousted the PLO from Lebanon but sparked the creation of a new enemy: Hezbollah.

"This was initially created by Iran," says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History, "with the active participation of these young Lebanese clerics, really in many cases simply students in their 20s. And this began as a sort of cat's paw of Iranian influence in Lebanon."

Sunnis Reject Khomeini's Revolution

But Khomeini and his followers did not want his version of Islamic Revolution and the Islamic state limited to Shiism. He wanted the Sunni world to embrace it as well.

Initially Khomeini's revolution attracted some Sunni enthusiasts.

"Certainly for many Sunni activists that were resisting their reactionary governments," Takeyh says, "it was an indication of what power of faith can do in terms of displacing powerful incumbent regimes."

But most Sunni Muslims rejected the Iranian revolution as a model for their own societies. Sunni governments reacted aggressively, with Saudi Arabia taking steps to strengthen Sunni fundamentalist movements across the Middle East.

Saddam Hussein was most aggressive of all. In 1980, he ordered an invasion of Iran, to topple the Persians, as he dismissively called them, and to seize the Iranian oil fields.

This would further deepen the division in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Wed Feb 14, 2007 4:29 am

Sunni vs. Shi'a: It's Not All Islam
By Ralph Peters

Among the worst members of the it's-all-a-conspiracy pack are those who insist that every Muslim is in on a vast Jihadi conspiracy to make Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks wear a chador (not a bad idea, aesthetically speaking). But those most anxious to condemn Islam in its entirety skip over annoying facts: Overwhelmingly, the victims of Islamist terror have been other Muslims; even the Taliban or the Khomeinist regime never rivaled the Inquistion's ferocity; and Europeans, not Muslims, long have been the heavyweight champions of genocide (with the Turks a distant runner-up).

All monotheist religions have been really good haters. We just take turns.

But the biggest obstacle to establishing the Caliphate in California is that Shi'a "Islam" never bought into the Caliphate at all. At bottom, it's a different religion from Sunni Islam. They're not just different branches of a faith, as with Protestantism and Catholicism, but separate faiths whose core differences are more-pronounced than those between Christians and Jews.

Technically, Sunni militants are correct when they label the Shi'a "heretics." Persians and their closest neighbors, with long memories of great civilizations, were never comfortable with the crudeness of Arabian Islam--which the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss aptly called "a barracks religion."

The struggle has never ended between the ascetic, intolerant Bedouin faith of Arabia, with its fascist obsession on behavior, and the profound theologies of Persian civilization that absorbed and transformed Islam. While Shi'ism only prevailed in Persia within the last millennium (nudging out Sunni Islam at last), "Aryan" Islam had long been shaped by Zoroastrianism and other ineradicable pre-Islamic legacies.

Persians made the new faith their own, incorporating cherished traditions--just as northern Europeans made Christianity their own through Protestantism. It's illuminating to hear Iran's president rumor the return of the Twelfth Imam, since the coming of that messiah figure is pure Zoroastrianism, with no connection to the Koran or the Hadiths.

Even the rhetoric of Iran's Islamic Revolution, condemning the U.S. as the "Great Satan" divided the world into forces of light and darkness--Zoroaster again, as well as Mani, the dualist whose followers we know as "Manicheans." Iranians excitedly deny such pre-Islamic influences--then worship at the ancient shrines of re-invented saints, celebrate the Zoroastrian New Year, and incorporate fire rites into social events.

The Prophet's attempt to discipline Arabian hillbillies produced a faith ill-fitted to Persia's complex civilization--or to Mesopotamian Arabs, who despised the illiterate desert nomads. Islam was bound to change as it occupied this haunted real estate.

What we've gotten ourselves involved in today is an old and endless struggle between the desert and the city, between civilization and barbarism. Long oppression may have made Shi'ism appear backward, but it's inherently a richer faith than Sunni Islam. With its End-of-Times vision, founding martyrs and radiant angels, its mysticism and wariness of the flesh, Shi'ism is closer to Christianity than check-list Sunni Islam ever could be.

Further confounding the strategic situation, there are other, parallel struggles within Shi'ism and Sunni Islam. Over the centuries, both faiths developed sophisticated urban classes that are now under assault, as they periodically have been, by intolerant simplifiers preaching the reform-school Islam of seventh-century Arabia.

Simultaneously, there's been some bizarre cross-fertilization: Osama bin Laden, a Sunni who hates the Shi'a more fiercely than he does Americans, has grafted a Shi'a End-Of-Days vision onto Sunni Islam. Meanwhile, the mullahs who locked down Iran obsess about behavior--a Sunni approach to faith--at the expense of Shi'ism's tradition of inner luminosity (in the Sunni world, the persecuted Sufis were the mystics).

We're a fringe player in multiple zero-sum struggles: Persian Zoroastrianism in Muslim garb vs. Bedouin fascism; multiple insurgencies within the Sunni global campaign to re-establish the Caliphate; an interfaith competition to jump-start an apocalypse; an old ethnic struggle between Persians and Arabs; and a distinctly Zoroastrian struggle between good and evil (alert the White House).

Many will reflexively reject this interpretation of Shi'ism and Sunni Islam as two separate faiths with profoundly different inheritances. Blog Bedouins and "scholars" alike will feel threatened. That's part of our problem: We're often as close-minded as our enemies. The greatest power in history thinks small.

As I remarked to an Arab-American friend last week, faiths are like bad neighbors--they borrow a great deal, then deny it. There is no such thing as a pure faith today. All have been influenced by their predecessors and peers, by internal evolutions and their historical environments. But even individuals who reject such a view when it comes to their own faith do themselves no favors by refusing to contemplate Islam's complexity.

What does all this mean to us? First, wherever there are irreconcilable differences, there are strategic opportunities. Second, our insistence on seeing the Middle East through the eyes of yesteryear's failed statesmen has been disastrous--we need to reinterpret the Muslim world.

Third, we've entered a new age when all the great faiths are struggling over their identities. As the religions most-immediately besieged, Shi'ism and Sunni Islam are the noisiest and, for now, the most-violent. But all faiths are in crisis--even as every major faith undergoes a powerful renewal.

In my years as an intelligence analyst, I consistently made my best calls when I trusted my instincts, and I was less likely to get it right when I heeded the arguments around me. Today, those surrounding arguments damn Iran.

My instincts tell me our long-term problem is with Arab Sunnis, whose global aspirations have veered into madness. We have a problem with the junta currently ruling Iran, but not with Persian civilization. Meanwhile, the Bedouin fanaticism gripping so much of the Middle East has no civilization.
Ralph Peters’ latest book is “Never Quit The Fight.”

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Post by Gary » Wed Feb 14, 2007 10:42 pm

Part 3

Export of Iran's Revolution Spawns Violence

by Mike Shuster

Morning Edition, February 14, 2007 · 1979 was a pivotal year in the Muslim world.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Ayatollah Khomeini led a Shiite revolution that swept the Shah of Iran from power and put in place the modern world's first Islamic republic.

But Khomeini had more grandiose goals.

"Khomeini did not envisage himself as making a revolution in one country," says Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "His ideology of clerical rule, rejection of the Western colonial heritage, he felt was a universal message."

Khomeini put forward the claim that he was the leader of the entire Muslim world, not simply of Shiite Iran.

That message was not well received among the Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East.

"Some Sunnis began to resist that notion," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, "because regardless of the fact that Khomeini saw himself as an Islamic leader, they saw Khomeini as a Shia leader."

That view was not necessarily shared by the poor and disenfranchised, dazzled by the popular movement that toppled the Iranian monarch.

Emphasizing Sunni-Shiite Differences

So, to win over the wider Arab public, some Sunni leaders, especially in Saudi Arabia, sought to sharpen the differences between Sunni and Shia. They emphasized "more hard-line radical Sunni views that tend to be more intolerant of Shias," Nasr says. "A great deal of investment was made."

The result was the emergence of new and far more dangerous Sunni fundamentalist groups.

Sunni fundamentalism had existed in the Middle East since the 1920s. But these new groups would prove to be far more aggressive and violent than their predecessors.

This was particularly true of the Arab fighters who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden. They received a great deal of support from Saudi Arabia, but after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they turned on their sponsors in Riyadh. They were also fiercely anti-Shia.

"Their objective was not just the overthrow of secular governments and the establishment of Islamic states," Nasr says, "but rather, their objective very particularly was anti-Shiism."

Saddam's Violent Reaction

The most violent reaction to Iran's Shiite revolution came from Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 to seize its oil fields and destroy Khomeini's revolution. But Saddam did not cast the conflict in sectarian terms.

"Saddam largely represented himself as the bastion of Arab nationalism resisting Persian hordes," says Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.

Despite Iraq's aggression and Saddam's brutal regime, Iraq had no trouble attracting the support of all of the Sunni Muslim leaders in the region.

The war killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. It was fought initially in Iran's oil-rich region, then on the other side of the border in southern Iraq, where Iraq's Shiite population was concentrated.

"Iraqi Shia fought desperately in the trenches, against their co-religionists in Iran," says Wayne White, a former senior intelligence officer in the State Department. "And it wasn't because Saddam Hussein was holding a gun to their head. In many cases it was because they didn't like what they saw across the border."

But the loyalty of the Shia of Iraq won them scant approval from Saddam.

"Saddam Hussein was very suspicious of the Shiis and their loyalties," says Augustus Norton, professor of Middle East history at Boston University. "Army units were rotated much more frequently than was militarily wise, because he suspected the loyalty of these units that were predominantly Shii Muslim."

Reverberations in Lebanon

Then war broke out in yet another corner of the Middle East.

In 1982, Israel launched an all-out invasion of Lebanon, ostensibly to stop guerrilla attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the conflict would have unexpected and profound repercussions for the Sunni-Shiite divide and for the security of the United States.

To get to Beirut, Israeli troops had to march through and occupy southern Lebanon, where the population was overwhelmingly Shiite. It was this invasion that soon would expand the reach of Iran.

"The most important reverberation of the Iranian revolution was in Lebanon," says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History. "This revolution provided a context for another organization to emerge, and this was Hezbollah, 'the party of God.'"

Not only did Hezbollah and other Shiite militias target the Israelis, but after President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops to Lebanon as part of a peace-keeping force, Lebanese militias attacked the Americans as well. In 1983, suicide car and truck bombs exploded at the U.S. embassy in Beirut and at the U.S. Marine barracks, with more than 300 dead, all told.

After the bombings, President Reagan angrily declared that the United States would not be intimidated: "These deeds make so evident the bestial nature of those who would assume power if they could have their way and drive us out of that area."

But he soon reversed himself and pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon, leaving the divided nation to an additional six years of war.

The Iran-Iraq war ground on as well and saw Iraq's widespread use of chemical weapons. It finally ended in 1988.

Its aftermath brought no rewards for Iraq's Shia, further deepening the Sunni-Shiite divide.

"They were still treated as outsiders," says Vali Nasr. "This attitude was the same one that Saddam Hussein had at the moment of his hanging [in December 2006], when he referred to all the Shias as Persians."

Peace in the Persian Gulf lasted for just two years. And then Saddam embarked on another ill-fated military adventure: the seizure of Kuwait.

Second-Class Citizens

After a U.S. military force of a half-million troops ousted Iraq's army from Kuwait, the Shia had had enough of Saddam and rose up against him. Saddam put down the rebellion brutally.

"No one came to their assistance," Norton says. "Not neighboring Saudi Arabia, not the United States, which had called for the rebellion. No one came to their assistance, except the Islamic Republic of Iran."

From that point on, the Shia of Iraq began to understand that it didn't matter how much blood they shed, how much they defended the country, they still were treated as second-class citizens.

Or worse.

In the 1990s, Saddam systematically set about destroying the senior Shiite clerical hierarchy. At least 10 ayatollahs and their sons and other relatives were murdered by Iraqi agents.

Iraqi and Arab nationalism proved less and less attractive to the Shia of Iraq. They became more religious and more sectarian in their outlook.

Then came the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which unleashed forces of Muslim sectarianism unseen in the Middle East in modern times.

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