Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Sunni-Shia split

The Shia Al Askari mosque in Samarra has been bombed again. It looks like another attempt to deepen the black chasm between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country even further.

What is the origin of this divide? The answer lies thirteen hundred years ago.

The Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD quickly precipitated a factional dispute over who should follow him as Caliph – a title meaning “the successor”. The murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, opened a schism between the Muslims of Iraq and Syria. When the fourth Caliph, Ali, refused to denounce his predecessor’s killing, a Syrian named Muawiyyah took matters into his own hands and seized the title from Ali; by doing so Muawiyyah became the fifth Caliph; Ali was subsequently murdered.

Ali’s hard-line followers were shocked by their leader’s murder and the speed with which his son Hasan hurried to reach agreement with Muawiyyah. They turned to Ali’s second son, Husein, to front their cause, calling themselves the Shia – short for Shia’t Ali, or the followers of Ali. At Kerbela, southwest of Baghdad, in 681 they were surrounded and massacred by an army loyal to Muawiyyah’s son Yazid, who had by now inherited his father’s mantle.

Thirteen centuries on, processions of Shia flagellants still gorily commemorate the anniversary of Husein’s death. After Mecca and Medina the Iraqi cities of Najaf, where Ali is buried, and Kerbela, where his son Husein met his fate, are the holiest Shia sites in the world. The Shia remain outnumbered by the Sunnis by more than two to one today. The split has its origins in what is now Iraq.

No comments: