Whenever I do a public lecture, questions come up about the Shiites and Sunnis. People read about their mutual hatreds and daily assaults on each other in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world, but really do not know how these groups differ and why they are so violent.
All religions eventually fracture into competing sects with very different interpretations of their common faith. We are well acquainted with this process in the deadly Protestant-Catholic wars, and those of us old enough can remember when families forbade dating and marriage between these communities.
Since emancipation of Jews from their long exile in Europe, Judaism too fractured into groups characterized by their observance of all aspects of Jewish law: Orthodox (most observant), Conservative (observant but integrated into modern society), and Reformed (maintaining Jewish identity but modern assimilated practice). Two new groups have emerged today: militant Ultra-Orthodox, and Secular. In Israel, these latter two groups are in conflict-verging on violence. Such hostility was not possible during millennia of living in Christian and Muslim worlds. Choice and freedom bring with them conflict.
Islam split into two groups almost immediately upon the death of the Prophet Mohammad, whose attempt to create a unified Arab world never survived his passing. The issue that split Islam was not religious practice, but was political. It had to do with how successors to leadership would be selected after Mohammad’s death.
The Prophet’s small cadre of followers in leadership used Bedouin practice of making decisions through consensus. They would vote until enough of them were satisfied that this was the group’s decision. But another process of deciding leadership reared its head for one of the leaders: the Persian practice of bloodline. Actually, at that time in history, the legitimacy of leadership was almost exclusively that of bloodline monarchy. The new Muslim rough democracy was a radical departure.
Although most of these warlords were related in some way to Mohammad, one of them was closest: Ali, a cousin of the Prophet, who was married to Mohammad’s one surviving daughter, Fatima. Ali’s followers (Shiites, which means “party of Ali”) lost in the first three selection processes after each “Caliph” died. Ali finally became the fourth Caliph, but was assassinated within a year of his election. Caliphs rarely died of old age in bed.
Following Ali’s death, the Shiite party urged Ali’s younger son to run for Caliph. He lost in a hopeless battle that took place in Iraq, where he and most of his family were killed. Thereafter, no one of the Prophet’s direct bloodline became Caliph.
The followers of Ali, now called Shiites, never forgot this insult and hold annual mourning rites for the martyred grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad. They have never recognized any leadership in the Muslim world to be legitimate (to this very day). Shiites from Iran make pilgrimages to Iraq, where Ali and his sons were buried, their tombs in extravagant shrines thought to have magical properties. These annual pilgrimages are now waylaid and terrorized by angry Sunnis, resentful over their loss of power.
Iranians, with a long history of monarchy, became the majority of followers of Shi’a Islam. Now Iraq has joined that company, which alarms the Sunni (Orthodox) Arab world. However, if history is any guide, once a religion splits into factions, more splitting comes. Since the 7th century, Islam had split into Sunni (majority), Shiite (minority), and from the Shiites into Sufi (mystical orders), and other pockets of Shia planted in the midst of the Arab world. The Alawites, who rule Syria, are a Shiite spinoff, as are the mysterious Druze. Shiite birthrates may have propelled them into the majority in Lebanon (no real census). Other Shiite minorities live precariously in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with pockets in Central Asia.
Unity is not a Shiite strong suit. Political chaos follows wherever devout Shiites live, but hope lies with an emerging secular population in Iran, where the majority is governed by a repressive Shiite state. This theocracy may finally fall in the near future.