The conflict between the Shia and Sunnis has been mainly ideological. While the two sects agree on various fundamental principles such as acceptability of the Qur’an as the Holy Book and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as Allah’s last prophet, certain minor differences mostly premised on history rather than the Prophet’s teachings, have driven a wedge between the two (Moojan, 1985).
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Today, the situation cannot be said to be any better though there has been the occasional cessation of hostilities throughout the years. Nasr (2006), states that the invasion of Iraq by the US has catapulted tension between the Shia and Sunnis in that country and indeed in the region. While most differences between the two divides were often attitudinal, the volatile Iraqi situation has bred a more violent conflict.
Iraq is now more or less a battlefield where these differences are played out. A good example of how things are out of control is the bombing of the Shia mosque at Samarra which was a shrine for the Shia sect. Such attacks have led to a radicalization of an otherwise peaceful country in the pre-invasion period (Cordesman & Sullivan, 2007).
Hezbollah, a Shiite radical group has been one of the organizations that have caused some of the biggest problems in the Syria, Jordan and Lebanon area. When the group fought Israel in Lebanon and seemed to have held up, there was a perception in the Middle East that the Hassan Nasrallah-led outfit was growing in leaps and bounds.
This caused most of the larger Sunni Muslim world to worry that there was a growing Shia revival. A perception of this revival has not helped in the bridging of the gap between the two groups since the Sunni have always perceived the Shia to be a form of heretic cult (Nasr, 2006).
Nasr (2006) states that the Israel-Palestine conflict that has been ongoing for years may have at first helped to create alliances but seemingly, it is becoming clear that the Shia believe that the Sunni are too sympathetic towards Israel. The fact that Hezbollah, a Shia group, did not receive any backing from the Sunnis world during their war with Israel is cited as an example.
The fact that Saudi Arabia and Egypt which are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim countries have been good allies of the US at a time when it has destabilized the region by invading Iraq and threatening Iran which have large Shia populations, has also been an exacerbating factor.
In this thesis, I plan to show how these three Middle East wars have affected the relations between these two Muslim sects. I will argue that the invasion of Iraq, the Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon and the Israel-Palestine conflict have negatively affected Shia-Sunni alliances. I will also show that the destabilization of Iraq and the search for nuclear energy by Iran have threatened chances of peaceful alliances between the two sects.
Origins of the Shia-Sunni divide
The death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the year 632 saw the beginning of dissent between Muslims. While the good Prophet had worked hard to ensure that he left a united Muslim front, succession through the Caliphate system become the seed of discord.
After his death, supporters of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin) claimed the Caliphate from Abu Bakr (the first Caliph) based on their opinion that the Caliphate should only go to persons from the Prophet’s family. Abu Bakr enjoyed the support of the majority and though there was still calm, a certain part of Islam felt disgruntled. Two more Caliphs succeeded Abu Bakr; Umar (634-644) and Uthman (644-656).
When Uthman was killed by unknown assailants in a mosque, Ali finally stepped up to take the Caliphate. However, Ali’s problems began when Aisha (one of the Prophet’s wives and Abu Bakr’s daughter) opposed him for not hunting down Uthman’s killers (Rafiabadi, 2007).
Ali defeated Aisha’s army at Camel (656) following which she apologized and withdrew to Medina but his problems were not over yet as Mu’awiya Ummayad, Uthman’s cousin, waged war on him on the same accusation of being lax on pursuing Uthman’s killers. This time, Ali was defeated at Suffin when his soldiers were afraid to fight Umayyad’s army for religious reasons.
Ali sought a compromise with Ummayad which caused his supporters to kill him in 661. Ummayad then declared himself Caliph and the Sunni (supporters of Sunnah (traditions)) supported him and the later Ummayad dynasty. However, the Shia (from Shiat Ali or supporters of Ali) revolted and the division was cemented (Rafiabadi, 2007).
According to Moojan (1985), there was an opportunity for Muslim unity in 750 when almost the entire Ummayad family was killed in the Battle of Zab in Egypt by Abu Al Abbass al-Saffah aided by several Shia militants.
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Abu pledged to install the Shia Imam Jafar As-Siddiq from Ali’s & the Prophet’s lineage as Caliph. However, Abbass died in 754 before this plan was finalized whereupon Abbas’ son Al Mansur murdered Jafar and declared himself Caliph.
The last member of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lineage was the Shia Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared within days of inheriting the title aged four years in 873. Hoping for his return, Shia’s remained without an Imam.
Decades passed by and the Shia group settle on coming up with a spiritual council which was known as Ulema and was composed of twelve spiritual intellectuals to opt for a supreme Imam. This is still the system today with a modern example being the late Ayatollah Khomeini (Moojan, 1985).
The Shia-Sunni divide today
While the Shia have this formal religious structure, Sunnis on the other hand have no formal kind of leadership (Broadhead & Keown, 2007). The Shia believe that their supreme leader draws inspiration from Allah himself. The martyrdom and suffering of the Shia under Sunni hegemony has over time made them resilient and radical while inspiring other dissenting non-Arab groups such as Indians and Persians towards Shi’ism (Nasr, 2006).
Both Sunnis and the Shia believe in the five (Sunni) pillars of Islam; Prayer (salat), Shahada (declaration), Saum (fasting), Zakah (giving alms) and Hajj.
However, the Shiite Shahada includes ‘Ali is the friend of Allah’ which is not found in the common Shahada. Both sects regard themselves as Muslims and fast together during Ramadhan. Their schools and universities are actually recognized as Muslim regardless of sect (Broadhead & Keown, 2007).
However, some of the ideological differences that have divided Muslims are mainly to do with perception. For example, many Sunnis believe that the Shia take the fundamentals of Islam and the teachings of the Qur’an for granted, choosing to dwell instead on ‘non-issues’ such as the martyrdoms of Ali and his son Hussein.
Every Ashura (all sunsets over a time of ten days), the Shia remember the Battle of Karbala via theatrical sobs, chants, wails and chest beating. Sunni Muslims also accuse them of not being keen in converting non-Muslims to islam, but instead prefer to devote their attention to converting other Muslims to become Shia (Nasr, 2006).
Salat is conducted quite differently by the Shia. Wudu is done in a way dissimilar from that of the Sunnis and sujud is done by placing one’s forehead on hardened clay from Karbala and not onto the mat that thy pry on. They occasionally pray three times instead of the recommended five a day.
The Shia hadiths are mostly those narrated by Ali and Fatima. They permit muttah, a form of temporary marriage; an act looked down upon by Sunnis. Muttah was a permitted practice at the Prophet’s (PBUH) time and is being promoted in Iran (Nasr & Meyers, 2006).
Currently, Sunnis account for approximately 89% of the Muslim population. The Shia are only dominant in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Azerbaijan (Miller & Tracy, 2009). The Sunni-Shia conflict today is only violent in Pakistan and Iraq.
However, the differences between the two groups are not always violent as most countries such as Saudi Arabia have Muslims living peacefully amongst each other regardless of sect. However, Alliances in the 21st century between the two groups are getting weaker due to the factors discussed hereunder.
The Middle East Crisis
Since the state of Israel was created in 1948, the situation in the Middle East has been characterized by hate, animosity and turmoil pitting the Jews against the Arab (Whitelam, 1996).
While many perceive the Israel-Palestine problem as political, over time it has taken a religious dimension with most Muslims associating with the plight of the Palestines who have been denied their right to be a free and independent state. They see the suffering of Palestines as a victimization of Islam as a whole by the Judaist state.
Nasr & Meyers (2006), state that originally, most Muslims were not so angry at Israel’s settlement but after the horrors it has visited on Palestine, its invasion of the Gaza strip and continued settlement outside the agreed boundaries have turned opinion of almost all Muslims against Israel.
Consequently, peace has been very hard to come by in the region with most radical Islamic groups backed by their states have attempted and sometimes succeeded in attacking Israel.
At first, these radical groups were mostly Sunni (being the largest sect in Palestine) through Hamas, a political and militant Palestine organization.
Governments which were keen to see the downfall of the Israeli state funded these radical groups since declaring direct war on Israel would be self-defeatist (drawing from lessons learnt in the 6-day war) and also because Israel has enjoyed the backing of the Western powers mostly the US.
After consultations, in the later part of the 20th Century, several Arab countries mostly Sunni such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt lessened their anti-Israel rhetoric and seemed to turn a blind eye to the situation in Palestine (Nasr, 2006).
Meanwhile, tension was growing between the initially quiet Shia sect and Israel with states such as Iran even refusing to recognize Israel as a state. Hezbollah, a radical Shia grouping, eventually protracted Israel into an unexpected war in Lebanon in 2006 which the Muslim fundamentalists particularly Shia, claimed to have won (Sultan, 2008).
According to Nasr (2006), this new turn of events seemed to anger the Sunni faction which was more focused on the US as its major enemy after the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Israel- Hezbollah War in Lebanon
This conflict began after some Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah in 2006. Its refusal to hand them over after negotiations caused the then prime minister Ehud Olmert to advance into Lebanon in an effort to uproot Hezbollah. However, the efforts to beat Hezbollah backfired and the Israeli were forced to withdraw from southern Lebanon (Harel & Issacharoff, 2009).
This apparent victory which the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah termed as ‘divine’ cost Olmert his premiership and helped to radicalize the Shia even more after the infallibility of Israel was found to be more theoretical than practical.
Nasr (2006) states that the effect of this ‘win’ was that the Shia sect now claimed a moral high ground by accusing Sunnis of forsaking Palestines and supporting ‘the enemies of Islam’. They (the Shia) were of the opinion that they had at least acted on the matter.
This assertion angered Sunnis mostly because they had been more preoccupied with the US and its war on terror which most Muslims saw as a war on Islam and thus felt that the situation in Palestine was a lesser priority.
Matters were not helped by the fact that there had been demonstrations by various Shia Muslims against the September 11th attacks on the US which were carried out by the fundamentalist Sunni group- Al Qaeda in places such as Pakistan.
This war was propagated by George Bush, the then US President, against the wishes of the United Nations (UN) in a claim that Saddam Hussein was holding weapons of mass destruction, a claim that has since been found untrue.
In effect, the invasion caused the dilapidation of an otherwise functional country and the destabilization of the entire region. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups found this as a grand opportunity to finally face the US in open conflict (Nasr & Meyers, 2006).
To most Sunnis, the invasion of the US in Iraq was seen as an act against Islam never mind the fact that Saddam made Iraq almost a complete secular state. However, being a Sunni Muslim, there was a feeling of victimization.
However, for the Shia in Iraq, this was a great opportunity to get rid of a dictator who had suppressed their (Shia) rights. In fact, it is rumored that Saddam had once approached the Shah of Iraq seeking to get permission to kill the Ayatollah Khomeini, a plea the Shah refused (Nasr, 2006).
According to Nasr (2006), jubilation ensued among the Shia population in Iraq when Saddam was finally caught by the US and they were quick to hand him over to them for prosecution for his various atrocities on Iraqi citizens.
His trial was marred by irregularities and he was eventually hanged before a worldwide audience. This did not help the situation as even moderate Sunnis and elements of Al Qaeda now moved in causing a civil war of sorts.
The bombing of the Shia mosque at Samarra was a culmination of attacks aimed at the predominant Iraqi Shia population. The bombing in turn led to even more fundamentalism with radical Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr calling for revenge attacks on the minority Sunni population. Meanwhile, reports from US troops on the ground confirmed the worst that there was an all out war and that neighboring Iran was funding it (Nasr, 2006).
Though Iran has continuously denied being involved in the Iraqi situation, the evidence to the contrary has been glaring. Both Sunnis and the Shia have pointed a finger at the American intelligence services for characteristically ‘keeping the war alive’ (Kechichian, 2001).
A damning report by a top civil rights body recently released footage that showed Americans dressed as Arabs carrying out acts of terrorism (Wikileaks, 2010). In fact, Muslims do not doubt that the US has been capitalizing on this age-old conflict for political as well as economic agendas. However, this knowledge has not improved relations (Nasr, 2006).
Effects of these wars on Shia-Sunni alliances
in 1959, prominent Sunni lmam and scholar Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot head of Al Azhar theological school in Egypt issued a fatwa stating that the various schools of thought in Islam were not fundamentally different and that none was inconsistent with the Holy Qur’an.
He also called for the recognition of various Shia schools as centers for Islam such as the Jafari School. at the time, tension between the sects was low and debate between the two was even encouraged. Ayatollah Khomeini also attempted to bring peace by stating that the two groups did not differ fundamentally (Ahmed, 1999).
Compared to 1959, the present situation is fundamentally different. Alliances which had been formed in countries such as Lebanon and Pakistan (Jalalzai, 1998) where Sunni and Shia Muslims lived harmoniously among each other have since broken down almost irretrievably (Jaffrelot, 2002).
The Middle East region is increasingly becoming volatile with more and more youths being recruited into fundamentalism which ironically intended to defend Islam, is tearing it apart (Nasr, 2006).
The search for nuclear energy by Iran which most people have construed as the search for a nuclear weapon has not helped relations in the region. Being predominantly Shia and judging from the Shia history of persecution and suffering under the majority Sunni sect, such an acquisition would lead to an arms race of sorts.
Moderate nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would be concerned about their security (since they are seen as sympathizers of the west) and would want to acquire nuclear weapons as a result ( Nasr & Meyer, 2006).
What the future holds
The future of the Middle East is dependent on the quick resolution of the ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan. Peaceful solutions to these conflicts and return to normalcy would go a long way in providing room for talks and ceasefires between the sects.
In Pakistan, the situation needs to be resolved politically so that certain sects do not feel left out of government (Sarma, 2005). In Israel, the conflict seems to have no permanent solution with some scholars such as Neumann (2005) stating that peace will only come when Israel retreats to its 1948 boarders.
The US needs to withdraw its troops from Iraq while providing support to rebuild Iraq so that the youth there can get employment and thus avoid being recruited into hate mongering groups (Cordesman & Sullivan, 2007). Both Sunni and Shia leaders need to sober up and bring the two sects together as Muslims through dialogue (Rafiabadi, 2007). Already such alliances have been planned (O’leary, 2009).
It remains to be seen how the above solutions to the crisis shall be implemented. Prominent Scholar Nasr states that the US has been averse to the threat posed by the radicalization of Muslim sects. An unstable Middle East could be a threat to peace the world over as it would likely spill over into countries in Africa and Asia that also have large Muslim populations.
The crisis between the Shia and Sunnis though age old needs to be addressed permanently. Debate should be encouraged and tolerance should prevail. This conflict is reminiscent of the Catholic-Protestant wars of old that were finally put to end once countries embraced democracy and freedom to practice religion.
Perhaps democracy could be the answer to this conflict as is evident in secular democratic nations such as Turkey, U.A.E and Dubai that do not have these religion-based conflicts. It is imperative that a lasting solution needs to be sought and new alliances forged.
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