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The Shia/Sunni Shuffle

July, 2014
By Michael Pixley

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Americans may have noticed news articles referring to struggles between Sunni and Shia Iraqi Muslims, an internal clash that sharply escalated after 2007.  Americans can be forgiven for not being terribly interested in these bloody rivalries.

In 2011, however, the Syrian conflict slowly grew, starting first as a peaceful protest but soon escalating into all-out civil war pitting the governing Alawite minority (around 17% of the population) against the Sunni majority (about 70%).  Iran, Russia and the Lebanese group Hizballah (Shia, by the way)  sought to strengthen the regime of Bashar al-Asad whilst the Sunni majority began receiving not only material support from a variety of sources (mostly in the Gulf) but increasing numbers of Sunni Muslims began a pilgrimage to  Syria in order to help their side.  These outsiders have come from more than a dozen countries (Saudi Arabia, the US, France, Libya, Iraq, Norway, Russia, etc).  What makes the situation even more confusing is the nature of the combatants.  Hizballah has dispatched thousands of fighters from Lebanon during the last year to support al-Asad who in turn has created hundreds of units of ‘militia forces’ who fight (or do not), alongside the regular Syrian army.  On the other side, the situation is far more baffling.  Initially, there was the ‘Free Syrian Army’ but it was quickly outflanked as one local leader after another formed his own ‘battalion’ (kataib) to fight against Asad.  Alliances were quickly made and more quickly broken as these disparate groups sought to establish their own spheres of influence.  And then came al-Jabhah Nusra – ‘The Support Front’.  This group received the blessings of al-Qaida and was soon awash with money, weapons and other support, mostly coming from the Persian Gulf  (i.e. where our friends reside).  They were going to be the ‘lighthouse’ (manar in Arabic, if you really care to know) for proper Islam, and they began picking fights with the Free Syrian Army, whilst also attacking the Asad regime.   With the blessings of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Jabhat al-Nusra considered themselves the bastion of pure Islam and piety.  Were they ever wrong.

Out of the chaos that is Iraq there emerged a group once known as al-Qaida in Iraq.  It saw opportunities in Syria.  After all, al-Qaida in Iraq could only count on around 20% of the Iraqi population as Sunni Arab whereas in Syria, the numbers were much better – about 70% Sunni.  With that happy statistic in mind, increasing numbers of Iraqi Sunni Arabs (and others) began pouring into Syria spoiling for a fight.  Not content with attacking the Asad regime, they also attacked the Free Syrian Army and, eventually, also the Jabhah al-Nusrah.  Last year they assassinated an envoy from al-Qaida just to demonstrate their commitment to Islamic piety.  Fearing they had too few enemies, they also began attacking the Syrian Kurds (10 % of the population) and also massacring Christians when convenient.  In other words, the conflict within Syria has devolved into a multi-sided civil war in which over 160,000 people have been slaughtered, often in truly ghastly ways that would sicken a member of the Gestapo.

And so the question remains: what is the nature of this Sunni-Shia rivalry and why are people more than prepared to commit terrible acts of violence for their side?  Since we have to go back many years to begin understanding this situation, let’s start with the year 632 A.D.

And what’s so interesting about this year?  It was the date of the Prophet Muhammad's death.  When the Prophet died, he left behind no mechanism for continued leadership or even a deputy to assume the role of leadership within the inchoate Islamic community.  There was, in the eyes of some, an obvious candidate to assume this leadership: Ali. He was the Prophet's son-in-law (having married the Prophet's only surviving child, Fatima) and his first cousin.  He was also an early convert to Islam and a well-regarded warrior.  He had one fatal problem, however – at 30 years of age, he was regarded as simply too young a man to assume the mantle of khalif (deputy) of the Islamic community.  The elders in the community elected instead an older man named Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), much to the chagrin of ‘party of Ali’ (Shia al-Aliye: hence the eventual rubric of ‘Shia’ – patrons of Ali).   Twice more did the adherents of  ‘Tradition’ (the Sunnah) prevail in preventing Ali from becoming the caliph but he finally gained that office in 656 A.D. only to be murdered in 661 A.D. (Note: of the first four so-called ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’-the Rashidun –  3 were assassinated).  With Ali's death, one might assume that the ‘Party of Ali’ would, in essence, fade away.  It did not.

The adherents of the Ali faction now demanded that Ali's children should be given the reins of leadership but few Muslims took this claim seriously.  One of Ali's children, however, tried to overthrow the current Muslim leadership that had now formed the Umayyid Dynasty and relocated from Makkah (grim and ugly) to Damascus (large and prosperous).  Gathering together a pitifully small number of supporters, Husayn (the grandson of the Prophet through Ali) raised the banner of rebellion in Karbala (in what is now modern Iraq) only to be annihilated there in 680 A.D.  And that was, so it seemed, just about that for the Shia…  Almost.

Scattered around the Islamic world, the Shia still had their followers and began developing their own theology at odds with the ‘orthodox’ Sunni majority.   They contended that the leadership of the Muslim world could only be legitimate if it passed from Ali down through his children, and their children and their children…Such leaders were called ‘imams’.  There were some disputes among Shia scholars as to who were the rightful heirs due to brotherly rivalries involving the children of the fourth and sixth recognized imams: this resulted in Shia sects called ‘Fivers’ and ‘Seveners’.  The vast majority of Shia, however, generally followed the views of their scholars regarding the correct line of imams.  All of that came to an end around 874 A.D. (or was it 872 A.D.?  I simply don't remember….) when the 12th designated imam (then around 5 years of age) wandered into a cave and never returned.  Untroubled by this, Shia scholars simply argued that the 12th imam was now in a ‘state of occultation' and would someday return.  Not surprisingly, Shia who cherished this 12 member line of imams became known as… Twelvers.  And so they remain.

In the 10th century, however, the Shia gained some traction when a North African dynasty called the Fatimids adopted Shia Islam as their creed and marched east into Egypt which they conquered in 969 A.D.  They preached toleration among all faiths and, among other things, founded Cairo.  Within 200 years, however, they were gone and Shi'ism seemed a cult of the past.  And once more the critics were wrong.

Around the year 1501 AD, a dynasty appeared in Persia (Iran) that called itself the Safavids.  For reasons that are delightfully obscure, the new head of the dynasty decided that the people should become Shia Muslims.  They embraced this conversion by the millions and suddenly Shia Islam was no longer the fringe of a fringe – it was the beating heart of a large and powerful state centered in what is now Iran.  Perhaps (and this is but a guess), it was a way for Persian Muslims to say to Arab Muslims that ‘we are not like you.  We had a rich and glorious imperial history before Islam at a time when the Arabs were but dwellers in tents.’  At the very least, there was no love lost twixt Persians and Arabs.  And so it remains today.

To no small degree, Shia Muslims have made a point of emphasizing that they are not like Sunni Muslims, in both small and not so small ways.  Shia pray in a manner that is different from Sunni and the way in which they ritually cleanse themselves before prayers is also different.  For Shia, shrines to the ancient imams or other celebrated figures is laudable whereas Sunnis generally find this practice distasteful at best or vulgar at worst.  Within Sunni Islam, there is no formal religious hierarchy whereas Shia Islam embraces such a structure (a Grand Ayatullah being superior to a mere Ayatullah).  One Shia doctrine in particular appalls many Sunnis: the so-called ‘muta’ marriage.  For Shias, the muta marriage is simply a contractually defined marriage of a specific duration: a week, a month, etc.  Sunni Muslims view this as nothing more than legalized prostitution.

Overall, Shia Muslims represent around 10 to 15% of the world's approximately 1.5 billion Muslim population and they represent the majority of Muslims in only three countries: Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan.  There are, however, substantial minorities of Shia in several other countries such as Bahrayn, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia.

And yet none of the above observations can explain how, in the last few decades, tension between two schools of Islam has become so intense.  To be sure, that tension has always been there but it has usually been fairly muted save for occasional outbursts: consider the attack on Karbala (in modern Iraq) by Wahhabis in 1801 in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Shia men were butchered. 

I certainly do not have a single magical explanation for this current carnage.  By way of example, if good Catholic Christians in the 13th century thought it completely reasonable to slaughter non-Catholic Christians (think Albigensians in this case), why should we expect the children of the Prophet to be different?     

Perhaps everything comes down to the Khomeini revolt and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  After the abolishment of the Caliphate by the Turks in 1924 (since the caliph had been a Turk, it was theirs to abolish), the Muslim world writ large had little to celebrate.  Even if individual Muslims had no particular grievances, as a community the Islamic world was in obvious decline: no empires, no states, and no caliph proclaiming the grandeur of Islam.  Perhaps most humiliating was the ‘birth’ of Israel in 1948 and the utter failure of Egypt, Jordan and Syria to throttle it.  It was one thing to be defeated by a Great Power (read France and Great Britain); it was an entirely different thing to be crushed by a people who had hitherto been regarded with contempt.  The Jews in the Middle East, after all, were mere tinsmiths:  the Arabs were conquerors.   For them to fail at removing these second class entities was a catastrophe and a dagger in their heart. The dogs had defeated the lions….

And Khomeini changed all that. The all-powerful Shah had been defeated by the words of a Muslim clad in black with but pious words as weapons.  The Soviets slaughtered over a million Afghans yet ultimately failed and left in 1989.  Islam was, at last, on the rise in the hearts of millions of Muslims, at least in the Middle East.

And so it continues today.  Tens of thousands of Muslims, whatever their religious stripe, are keen to show their mettle and to demonstrate their piety in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.   If the collateral damage involves the deaths of tens of thousands of their co-religionists, then so be it.  After all, they would be rewarded in heaven as martyrs...

If there is a bright side to this carnage, I do not see it and nor will the ‘experts’.  After all, the average individual is wrong about the Middle East at least half the time.  The experts, on the other hand, are right around 50% of the time…

(Editor’s Note:  Transliteration of Arabic words into English is subject to the ear of the writer.  Having spent many years in Iraq and Turkey and being a speaker of more than one Arabic dialect, we defer to Mr.Pixley’s preferred transliterations)

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas, primarily in Turkey and Iraq. He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.