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John McHugo discusses how time has affected the Sunni-Shi‘i divide

We live in a dangerous world in which history is an ideological tool, while historical memory becomes ever more short term. Simplistic explanations to complex problems provide copy for journalists. But never forget that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

When people look at the bloodshed in the Middle East, many now see the Sunni-Shi‘i divide as its root: a never-ending struggle between competing fanaticisms that has endured throughout the history of Islam. There are many who find this easy to grasp, and some latch onto it with passion. Then there are those who find it convenient for their own agendas.

Yet few in the West had heard of the divide before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Would that have been the case if the divide had always been as bitter as it is portrayed today? In the bloody partition of British India in 1947, the 70th anniversary of which falls this year, the divide was between Hindus and Muslims, not Sunnis and Shi‘is. Indeed, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a Shi‘i – something that hardly anyone seems to have noticed at the time. Intra-Muslim sectarian differences played a negligible role in the partition and the violence that followed.

In Iraq at the end of World War I, Sunni and Shi‘i Arabs combined to oppose direct British rule. When an Iraqi contingent assisted the Palestinian uprising against the British mandate in 1936, volunteers came from each community. Going further back, in the nineteenth century many tribes in southern Iraq converted to Shi‘ism. This appalled their Sunni Ottoman overlords, but they did not respond with violence.

And what of the many other causes of instability in the region that have nothing to do with the divide? This year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. What about the legacy of colonial and mandatory boundaries? What about the Kurdish issue, low literacy levels, corruption and cronyism, lack of transparency and accountability, and the failure to build modern economies that provide jobs? The Sunni-Shi‘i divide has little to do with any of these.

Nevertheless, the reason the Sunni-Shi‘i divide seems to provide a convenient explanation for today’s chaos is not hard to find. Reading about early Islamic history can encourage this perception. Within 25 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the Muslim community descended into civil wars over the succession to the Prophet. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali always believed the Prophet had intended him to succeed, but allowed himself to be elbowed aside for the good of the community. Violence had already begun before Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, and he was unable to unite the community. Throughout the 90 years of the Umayyad Caliphate after his death, uprisings were led by descendants who aimed to restore his line. These continued into the reigns of the Abbasid caliphs from 750 onwards. Those who supported the cause of the House of Ali were known as Shi‘is. Those who accepted the legitimacy of the Umayyads and Abbasids became known as Sunnis.

Looked at like this, it is easy to see the Sunni-Shi‘i divide as essentially a dynastic dispute. It then becomes possible to imagine that modern conflicts between Sunnis and Shi‘is are no more than a continuation of that old dispute in an updated form. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding. The Abbasid Caliphate was snuffed out by the Mongols in 1258, and its most powerful Shi‘i rival, the Fatimids of Cairo, had been ended by the famous Saladin over 80 years earlier. If it had all been about struggles for supremacy between dynasties, that would have been that.

Seen across the totality of the more than 14 centuries of Islam, the divide has not been about dynastic politics – or, in fact, any kind of politics. It has been about how Muslims should discern the teachings of their religion. Both sides accept the Qur’an. Beyond that, the Sunnis look to the actions and sayings of the Prophet’s companions to fill in the gaps that remain. This was because Sunnis consider the companions, who often came to be revered as saints, as the most trustworthy sources to transmit the traditions about the Prophet’s practice, or Sunna.

This was problematic for Shi‘is because they believed that Ali had always been intended to be the successor to Muhammad. Therefore, they saw most of the companions not as saints but as traitors to Islam because they had frustrated his cause.  Instead of looking to the companions, Shi‘is turn to Ali and his successors, the imams, who, as descendants of the Prophet, were close to God in a special way and came to be seen as sinless and infallible. For the largest group of Shi‘is – known as the Twelvers – the twelfth and last imam is said to have gone into hiding in the 870s to escape murder by the caliph. Known in English as the Hidden Imam, he will reappear in the Last Days to usher in an era of justice.

Since then, in Twelver Shi‘ism the religious scholars have gradually taken over the role of the imam. Yet, although there is a more formal structure to religious scholarship in Shi‘ism, its principles have much in common with those in Sunnism. Indeed, religious scholarship has always overlapped between both sects. Back in the eighth century, two of the greatest Sunni lawgivers, Malik bin Anas and Abu Hanifa, sat at the feet of Ja’far al-Sadiq – the sixth Imam in the eyes of Shi‘is – and all three regarded the others with mutual respect.  There have been many other examples across the centuries.

Sectarian differences did play a role in the rivalry between the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and that of the Persian Safavids, who converted Iran to Twelver Shi‘ism in the sixteenth century. Yet this ended from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. As Sunnis and Shi‘is faced the impact of the West in the nineteenth century, more often than not they put aside their differences and cooperated. Sometimes, they closed ranks – which is how Iraqi Sunnis and Shi‘is combined to oppose the threat of direct British rule.

The big change came in the 1970s. Fuelled by new oil money, Saudi Arabia’s intolerant brand of Wahhabi Islam exported hostility to Shi‘is, who were often demonised as apostates worthy of death. Then the overthrow of the Iranian Shah in 1979 led to a revolutionary Islamic republic, in which government was overseen by Shi‘i clerics. Since then, Saudi Arabia and Iran have struggled for hegemony and tried to turn Sunni and Shi‘i communities into proxies for extending their influence. There have also been two other developments. Wahhabi-style hatred of Shi‘is has spread to Sunni revolutionary movements such as Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, while insecure governments have found it convenient to manipulate the divide.

Much of the worst religious violence has been in Iraq and Syria, where dictators from religious minorities recruited their brutal security services disproportionately from their co-sectarians – Alawis in the Syria of the Assads, Sunnis in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. In an atmosphere of repression and the absence of democratic accountability, it is unsurprising that this has led to an element of vicious sectarianism in each country.

But all is not lost. In July, the Iraqi politician and Shi‘i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia for talks. It would be premature to say that the shared bonds of Arabness and realpolitik have trumped the sectarianism that has spread over the last 45 years or so, but it may indicate that the oil tanker has begun to turn round. Sectarianism, after all, is a blind alley.

A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo, £20, Saqi Books



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