History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

The Sunni-Shia split

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Muslim believers are divided into two main denominations – Sunni and Shia. Some 90 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 10 percent Shia, although the Shia constitute perhaps a third of the population of the Middle East. A majority of the population of Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are Shia, but they form a sizable minority in most Muslims countries. The split between Sunni and Shia arose already in the first generations after the death of the prophet Muhammad as a result of the conflict over succession. According to the Sunni, Muhammad did not designate a successor, but according to the Shia he did – Ali, his own son-in-law. This, according to the Shia, is the only legitimate line of succession, with Husayn, Ali’s son and the prophet’s grandson, set to follow his father. As the Shia would have it, however, Muhammad’s wishes were ignored and the caliphate was stolen Uthman and his family, the Umayyads, who were parts of Mecca’s traditional elite.

Although Ali eventually became caliph in 656, his rule was plagued by conflicts. First he was opposed by Aisha, Muhammad’s second wife and the daughter of Abu Bakr, who was unhappy to see the line of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, as successors. Then Muawiyah, a relative of Uthman’s and the governor of Syria, rose up in rebellion. At the Battle of Siffin, in 657, Ali’s forces encountered Muawiyah’s, but instead of fighting it out, Ali decided to settle the matter by means of arbitration. This led some of his disappointed supporters to abandon his cause, and in 661 Ali was murdered by one of them. Muawiyah succeeded him as caliph, the first of the Umayyad caliphs, but when he sought to make his son his heir, Husayn, Ali’s son and the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, rose up in rebellion. In 680, Husayn was ambushed and killed together with all of his family. Husayn is buried in Karbala, Iraq, and the mosque which was erected on the site is a place of pilgrimage for all Shia Muslims. Shia are those Muslims who are shaitu ali, followers of the “party of Ali,” and thereby also followers of his son Husayn.

Shia Muslims continue to believe that authority in the Muslim world is illegitimately exercised, and Husayn’s martyrdom is the chief proof of the injustices they have suffered. The Shia think of themselves as underdogs and they have a chip on their shoulder. They even blame themselves for Husayn’s killing, since not enough of his followers helped prevent his death. On the day of his death, Ashura, a festival of mourning and repentance is held when passion plays are staged and processions are held in which many believers beat their chests or mutilate themselves by cutting themselves with knives or chains. The processions held in Karbala, where Husayn died, are the most spectacular, with millions of believers attending. These processions have often been the targets of violence by non-Shia groups.

According to Shia beliefs, there were 12 legitimate imams, of which Ali was the first and Husayn the third. The twelfth imam, however, went into hiding and he is still hidden to this day. One day, on the day of judgment, he will return and reestablish rightful governance, bring peace on earth and justice to the Shia community.