Shi’ite On A Sunni Day

imgresIs it me or is Islam imploding?

I certainly hope so. The reason I asked that question is based on two things:

  1. The current (or should that be eternal) troubles in the Middle East
  2. The schism within the Islamic faith between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

Allow me to explain.

In order to do that I must look at the differences between the two cults… And they are cults, just like every religion.


From the outside, the differences, theologically seem to be minimal.  Where the major disagreements lie is historical and political and also how the ‘fight’ for Islam should be handled.

Founded by Mohammed in the seventh century, the religion of Islam came into being when he created the first Islamic state. In 622 he founded a theocracy in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia located north of Mecca.

sunniThe Sunni’s believes that Muhammad’s successors, the first four caliphs took his place as the leaders of Muslims. They recognize their legitimate leaders to be the descendants and heirs of all four of the caliphs, and their bloodline ruled the Arab world in continuous succession until the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1.


On the other hand, the Shi’ite Muslims believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Muhammad. Apparently, the 12th Imam disappeared in the year 931, which was a critical event in the history of Shi’ite Muslims.

“Shi’ite Muslims, who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, had suffered the loss of divinely guided political leadership at the time of the Imam’s disappearance. Not until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978 did they believe that they had once again begun to live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.

– R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame

imgresThe Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” whose role is to bring a just global caliphate into being are another source of disagreement between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.  The Shi’ites believe that The Mahdi has already walked the Earth and is currently in hiding awaiting the time to emerge from hiding.  The Sunni, however, are of the opinion that ‘He’ has yet to visit the world.

In a special 9-11 edition of the Journal of American History, R. Scott Appleby explained that the difference between the opposing views is a great deal more significant than it first appears:

… for Sunni Muslims, approximately 90 percent of the Muslim world, the loss of the caliphate after World War I was devastating in light of the hitherto continuous historic presence of the caliph, the guardian of Islamic law and the Islamic state. Sunni fundamentalist leaders thereafter emerged in nations such as Egypt and India, where contact with Western political structures provided them with a model awkwardly to imitate … as they struggled after 1924 to provide a viable alternative to the caliphate.

In 1928, four years after the abolishment of the caliphate, the Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna founded the first Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Sunni world, the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Al-Banna was appalled by”the wave of atheism and lewdness [that] engulfed Egypt” following World War I. The victorious Europeans had”imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices.” Suddenly the very heart of the Islamic world was penetrated by European”schools and scientific and cultural institutes” that” cast doubt and heresy into the souls of its sons and taught them how to demean themselves, disparage their religion and their fatherland, divest themselves of their traditions and beliefs, and to regard as sacred anything Western.”14 Most distressing to al-Banna and his followers was what they saw as the rapid moral decline of the religious establishment, including the leading sheikhs, or religious scholars, at Al-Azhar, the grand mosque and center of Islamic learning in Cairo. The clerical leaders had become compromised and corrupted by their alliance with the indigenous ruling elites who had succeeded the European colonial masters.

To some Sunni Muslims, the end of the reign of the caliphs was cataclysmic. Osama bin Laden, who stated in a video he sent to Al Jazeera following his attack on the Twin Towers in 2001:

“What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. … Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more [than] eighty years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.”

The well-known historian of the Middle East, Juan Cole, says on his blog, Informed Comment, that the split between Sunni and Shiites in Iraq is of relatively recent origin:

I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 year s. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don’t see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we’re seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.

Professor Cole also summed up the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite this way:

Shi’ites are more like traditional Catholics in venerating members of the holy family and attending at their shrines. Contemporary Salafi Sunni Islam is more like the militant brand of Protestantism of the late 1500s that denounced intermediaries between God and the individual and actually attacked and destroyed shrines to saints and other holy figures, where pleas for intercession were made

In 2006, thee New York Times showed that even high ranking government officials, who one might expect to have a good level of knowledge about it, also ran into difficulty in differentiating between the two factions:

SURPRISE quiz: Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite? Which sect dominates Hezbollah?

Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.

“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

Not that he’s alone. Other members of Congress from both parties have also flunked on-the-spot inquiries. Indeed, some of the smartest Western statesmen of the last century have found themselves flummoxed by Islam. Winston Churchill — in 1921, while busy drawing razor-straight borders across a mercurial Middle East — asked an aide for a three-line note explaining the “religious character” of the Hashemite leader he planned to install in Baghdad.

“Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih with Sunni sympathies?” Mr. Churchill wrote, using an antiquated spelling. (“I always get mixed up between these two,” he added.)

And maybe religious memorization should not be required for policymaking. Gen. William Odom, who directed the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, said that Mr. Reyes mainly needs to know “how the intelligence community works.”

Yet, improving American intelligence, according to General Odom and others with close ties to the Middle East and the American intelligence community, requires more than just a organization chart.

A cheat sheet is in order.

The Review asked nearly a dozen experts, from William R. Polk, author of “Understanding Iraq,” to Paul R. Pillar, the C.I.A. official who coordinated intelligence on the Middle East until he retired last year, to explain the region. Here, a quick distillation.

What caused the original divide?

The groups first diverged after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and his followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.

The group now known as Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shiites favored Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. After the 11th imam died in 874, and his young son was said to have disappeared from the funeral, Shiites in particular came to see the child as a Messiah who had been hidden from the public by God.

The largest sect of Shiites, known as “twelvers,” have been preparing for his return ever since.

How did the violence start?

In 656, Ali’s supporters killed the third caliph. Soon after, the Sunnis killed Ali’s son Husain.

Fighting continued but Sunnis emerged victorious over the Shiites and came to revere the caliphate for its strength and piety.

Shi’ites focused on developing their religious beliefs, through their imams.

So how does this support my original question?


Just watch the news.

I’ll take one current news story, Iranian official says Saudi king ‘traitor to Islam,’ iterates support for Assad. In which it is reported that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is a traitor to Islam due to the assault on Iranian-allied fighters in Yemen.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Iran’s national security and foreign policy committee, speaking in Damascus, also reiterated Iran’s support for the Syrian government, which is battling an insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia.

All of this against a background of the various Islamic states picking sides, based on the political power of the Shi’ite and Sunni factions within their own borders.

Looks to me like the Belfast troubles between Catholics and Protestants all over again, but with different and vastly more powerful players.

“Shi’ite versus Sunni.  What’s the problem? After all, once they’ve wiped each other out, no more Islam. At least not one that we need concern ourselves with,” I hear you cry.

The problem as I see it is not just a religious issue within Islam… At least not as far as the rest of the world is concerned.  The problem is the subterranean black gold in that part of the world.

As the Islamic states – of whatever stripe – battle for supremacy as well as contending with terrorist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram.  They are not just killing each other.  All of the factions have Atheists, Christians and Jews in their cross-hairs too, and you know that at least one of them is going to take the fight to Israel as well as non Islamic states that border the region.

The consequences of which must be obvious.  Due to the oil that lies under the sand, there is a grave danger that every country in the world could be dragged into the fight.  Not for religious reasons, but economic ones.

After all, he who controls the oil, controls everything.

So if Islam is imploding, a possibility that I truly hope is an actuality, making it one more religion to be consigned to mythology, I only hope that the reminder of the world’s leaders can at least contain the fight within the Middle East.  And minimise the death and suffering of the innocents that is ongoing in that part of the world, rather than allow it to spill out and take over the entire planet.

Not an ideal solution, I know that.  I don’t have the answers, I wish I did.  I just know that yet again, religion is responsible for yet more death, horror and atrocity.

Feel free to let me know your opinions in the comments below.

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