Most people know that much of the ‘discord’ in the Middle East, Iraq in particular, is caused by some sort of rif between Shia and Sunni ‘extremists’. Do you know the difference? Here is a short primer followed by a summary written by a devout Shia from Pakistan that may help you figure out who is who.
Ending a tense 4-month siege of the sacred city of Najaf, the U.S. military rolls toward Shiism’s holiest shrine—the magnificent golden-domed Imam Ali Mosque—where the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his black-clad “Army of the Mahdi” gather feverishly around the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, convinced that the End of Days is at hand and ready to fight to the death both the American occupiers and the infidel Sunni establishment of Iraq.
Sometimes trying to understand the current crisis in Iraq can be like preparing for a vocabulary exam. Who is the Mahdi and why does he have an army? Why is Najaf so sacred? What is an imam? Are the differences between the Shiah and the Sunni so deeply rooted that they could ultimately destroy the stability of Iraq?
To answer these questions 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 Muhammad’s family.
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 oppression.
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.
So, when Muqtada Sadr and his band of disaffected and impoverished Iraqi youths managed, during those first hectic months after the fall of the Sunni tyrant Saddam Hussein, to take control of the sacred cities of Kufa, Karbala, and Najaf, it seemed that the Army of the Mahdi had truly arrived to finally avenge Husayn. Sadr has stoked the traditional sentiments of Iraq’s Shiite community by brazenly framing his rebellion in apocalyptic terms. He sets himself apart as the herald of the messiah and calls his followers the last true Muslims in Iraq. Taking refuge next to the body of the blessed Imam Ali, in what was once the most glorious shrine in Shiism (but which has now become a wrecked and ramshackle garrison), Sadr claims he is fighting a holy war against both foreign oppressors and treasonous hypocrites. Vowing to follow in the footsteps of Husayn, he has convinced his ragged band of followers to fling themselves recklessly at American troops, only to be mowed down by the hundreds.
Of course, now that most of Iraq has turned against him and the American and Iraqi forces seem intent on capturing or killing him once and for all, the End of Days may be nearer for Sadr and his Army of the Mahdi than they think.
Shia and Sunni, A Ludicrously Short Primer
Even now, many people who hear these terms daily on the news are confused about what the real differences are between Sunni and Shia Muslims, so I, having been brought up in a very devout Shia household in Pakistan, thought I would explain these things, at least in rough terms. Here goes:
It all started hours after Mohammad’s death: while his son-in-law (and first cousin) Ali was attending to Mohammad’s burial, others were holding a little election to see who should succeed Mohammad as the chief of what was by now an Islamic state. (Remember that by the end of his life, Mohammad was not only a religious leader, but the head-of-state of a significant polity.) The person soon elected to the position of caliph, or head-of-state, was an old companion of the prophet’s named Abu Bakr. This was a controversial choice, as many felt that Mohammad had clearly indicated Ali as his successor, and after Abu Bakr took power, these people had no choice but to say that while he may have become the temporal leader of the young Islamic state, they did not recognize him as their divinely guided religious leader. Instead, Ali remained their spiritual leader, and these were the ones who would eventually come to be known as the Shia. The ones who elected Abu Bakr would come to be known as Sunni.
This is the Shia/Sunni split which endures to this day, based on this early disagreement. Below I will say a little more about the Shia.
So early on in Islam, there was a split between political power and religious leadership, and to make a long story admittedly far too short, this soon came to a head within a generation when the grandson of one of the greatest of Mohammad’s enemies (Abu Sufian) from his early days in Mecca, Yazid, took power in the still nascent Islamic government. Yazid was really something like a cross between Nero and Hitler and Stalin; just bad, bad in every way: a decadent, repressive dictator (and one who flouted all Islamic injunctions), for whom it became very important to obtain the public allegiance of Husain, the pious and respected son of Ali (and so, grandson of Mohammad). And this Husain refused, on principle.
Yazid said he would kill Husain. Husain said that was okay. Yazid said he would kill all of Husain’s family. Husain said he could not compromise his principles, no matter what the price. Yazid’s army of tens of thousands then surrounded Husain and a small band of his family, friends and followers at a place called Kerbala (in present day Iraq), and cut off their water on the 7th of the Islamic month of Moharram. For three days, Husain and his family had no water. At dawn on the third day, the 10th of Moharram, Husain told all in his party that they were sure to be killed and whoever wanted to leave was free to do so. No one left. In fact, several heroic souls left Yazid’s camp to come and join the group that was certain to be slaughtered.
On the 10th of Moharram, a day now known throughout the Islamic world as Ashura, the members of Husain’s parched party came out one by one to do battle, as was the custom at the time. They were valiant, but hopelessly outnumbered, and therefore each was killed in turn. All of Husain’s family was massacred in front of his eyes, even his six-month old son, Ali Asghar, who was pierced through the throat by an arrow from the renowned archer of Yazid’s army, Hurmula. After Husain’s teenage son Ali Akbar was killed, he is said to have proclaimed, “Now my back is broken.” But the last to die before him, was his beloved brother, Abbas, while trying desperately to break through Yazid’s ranks and bring water back from the Euphrates for Husain’s young daughter, Sakeena. And then Husain himself was killed.
The followers of Ali (the Shia) said to themselves that they would never allow this horrific event to be forgotten, and that they would mourn Husain and his family’s murder forever, and for the last thirteen hundred years, they have lived up to this promise every year. This mourning has given rise to ritualistic displays of grief, which include flagellating oneself with one’s hands, with chains, with knives, etc. It can all seem quite strange, out of context, but remembrance of that terrible day at Kerbala has also given rise to some of the most sublime poetry ever written (a whole genre in Urdu, called Marsia, is devoted to evoking the events of Ashura), and some of us, religious or not, still draw inspiration from the principled bravery and sacrifice of Husain on that black day.