Sunni-Shia Conflict: History And Contemporary Challenges (Part I) – Analysis


Traditional religious divisions regularly fuel conflicts in the Middle East. When it comes to the division of Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites, then not only the Middle East is divided, but also the Islamic world. The Sunni-Shia divide is very dangerous, as history shows again and again.

Along with all other factors (political, economic, cultural), disagreements between Sunnis and Shiites fueled the Arab Spring of 2011 and the consequent escalation of the bloody and long-running Syrian Civil War, as well as wars and violence in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Thanks to the religious schism, the cracks between Sunni and Shiite countries have widened. Saudi Arabia and Iran have led two mutually conflicting Islamic blocs. The growing conflicts of Islamic factions have also fueled the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalists who pose a threat to the entire world such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.

The Islamic schism, which has lasted for 14 centuries, is by no means the cause of all political, economic and other conflicts in the Middle East, but it is a very important factor that should not be ignored. In addition to the Sunni-Shia wars being waged in the Middle East, there are currently thousands of organized Sunni and Shia militants across Africa, the Middle East and Asia capable of causing serious conflict. Despite the messages of many Sunni and Shia clerics that tensions must be reduced and that we should turn to peaceful dialogue and suppress violence, many experts express concern that the division of the Islamic world will lead to new clashes that will pose a threat to international security.

Historical roots of the conflict

Interpreting the split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites is not easy since it is a complex topic, but the basic facts can be stated in the shortest terms. Prophet Muhammad revealed a new faith to the population of Mecca in 610. The new faith will become known as Islam – submission to God. It is a monotheistic religion that incorporated certain Jewish and Christian traditions and expanded with a new set of laws that governed all aspects of life, including politics.

Unlike Christianity which prepares believers for life after death, Islam is a religion that wants to establish a political Islamic order on Earth. Therefore, every Islam is political at the same time. Islam devoid of political connotations is not true Islam according to most Muslim thinkers. Both Sunnis and Shias have no disagreement regarding the Prophet Muhammad. Everyone accepts his teaching unconditionally. After moving from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 (Hijra), in the next decade he established an administration based on the principles of Islam. In the first half of the 7th century, Muhammad created a true theological state – the Islamic State of Medina. In that country, religion and the state were inextricably linked.

In 630, Mecca, which was the center of the Arab province of Hijaz, was conquered and thus ended an era. After that, the Muslim community (ummah) could freely spread further in Arabia. By his sudden and unexpected death in 632, Muhammad had undoubtedly consolidated power and secured the future of the new faith. In less than a century, his immediate followers built an Islamic state that would stretch from Central Asia to Spain. However, an intra-Islamic conflict occurs after Muhammad’s death.

Three caliphs

Muhammad died suddenly and did not precisely determine who would be his successor. In addition, he had no living male children, which further complicated the matter. In the period after his death, Muhammad’s closest associates, after fierce debates, chose the distinguished Muslim Abu Bakr as his successor, to whom Muhammad himself gave the title of Sincere (Sidiq). Abu Bakr was a particularly dear person to Muhammad since he was one of the first converts to Islam, a participant in the Hijra and the father of his beloved wife Aisha.

Given such an impressive biography, it is not surprising that he was chosen as the successor of the Prophet with the title of caliph (regent) who governs the Islamic state – the caliphate (officially the Righteous/Rashidun Caliphate) and is the supreme leader of all Muslims (amir-ul-muminin). To some extent, a comparable title to the Pope of Rome in Christianity. But unlike Muhammad, Abu Bakr was almost exclusively involved in politics and was not a messenger of God. In fact, he succeeded in replacing Muhammad as a political and military leader, but he did not become a spiritual leader. In the political and military leadership of the caliphate based in Medina, Abu Bakr was very successful. He ruled for just over two years and died in 634.

He was succeeded by caliph Omar ibn al-Katab, who ruled for ten years. Omar’s reign was impressive. After consolidating the power of the caliphate in Hijaz and Arabia, he embarked on military campaigns and brought under Islamic rule vast territories including Iraq, Persia, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and parts of North Africa. Because of his military successes, Islamic scholars gave him the title Faruk (Saviour). He was succeeded in 644 by Caliph Osman ibn Afan, whose reign lasted 12 years. His greatest merit is the compilation and standardization of the Koran. Under his leadership, the Caliphate launched campaigns to conquer parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Armenia. Despite the impressive achievements of the first three caliphs, they are recognized only by the Sunnis, while for the Shiites they are traitors and usurpers who are the main culprits for the schism of the Ummah.

Return to the scene of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali

Throughout the reign of the three caliphs, another pretender to the leadership of the ummah lived on the margins of society – Ali ibn Abu Talib. He was Muhammad’s nephew (closest male relative) and also son-in-law (husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima) and father of two of Muhammad’s grandsons: Hasan and Hussein. In 656 Caliph Osman was assassinated by coup plotters due to an internal crisis and Ali was finally elected Caliph. However, not all Islamic scholars accepted his choice.

A relative of the murdered Osman, Muawiya from the Umayyad dynasty ruled in Damascus. He was an aspirant to the position of caliph because his brother was killed and he did not want to hand it over to Ali lightly. Several years of wars between both sides followed, but neither could overcome the other. The Ummah has undoubtedly split (fitna) for all time. Muawiya controlled Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and Ali controlled Iraq. The Iraqi Arabs accepted Ali as the only legitimate heir because of his blood relationship with Muhammad and because he was a humble person of great spirituality. As a child in Mecca, he was among the first converts to Islam, worked as Muhammad’s recorder and was one of the foremost experts on Sharia law. In addition to all this, he was a magnificent warrior to whom Muhammad handed over his famous sword Zulfikar.

Ali’s followers will become known as Shiites (from the Arabic name party) and the followers of the first three caliphs as Sunnis. Sunnis are called that because they follow the Sunnah (the works of Muhammad) and believe that the Prophet did not leave a successor, who is chosen.

The appearance of the Kharijites

During the moments when Mauwija and Ali were fighting for power, a group of Muslims broke away from them and founded a new faction of Islam. They were Kharijites. They claimed that God’s will is manifested in war and that whoever wins the war has the right to lead the ummah. The Kharijites initially supported Ali, but after he signed a truce with Muawiya in 661, they turned against him.

In fact, they wanted to liquidate both pretenders for caliph. They only managed to wound Muawiya, but they killed Ali in 661 with a poisoned dagger while he was in front of the mosque before prayer. In the following centuries, the Kharijites were aggressive Muslims who killed all those Muslims whom they considered not pious enough. They were the first faction within Islam to consider violence a legitimate form of struggle. The Kharijites never adhered to either Sunnism or Shiism and became known as the Ibadis based in Oman. Over time, they calmed down, which allowed Oman to develop into an advanced country.

Definitive schism

After Ali’s murder, Muawiya managed to bribe Ali’s older son Hasan, who renounced the title of caliph and came to live peacefully in Mecca. Muawiya declared himself Caliph in Jerusalem, abolished the Rashidun Caliphate and established the Umayyad Caliphate. He ruled until his death in 680 in Damascus. His dynasty remained in power until 750. Muawiya was succeeded in power by his son Yazid.

Unlike his brother Hasan, Ali’s son Hussein did not want to give up the title of caliph and challenged Yazid. While he was traveling to Iraq near Karbala in 680 on his way from Arabia, Hussein was intercepted by Yazid’s soldiers and he and his numerous entourage were killed during the battle. The Battle of Karbala is the greatest tragedy in the history of Islam. Since the massacre took place on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, that day is celebrated in the Shiite countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere as the Day of Ashura, or the Day of Mourning.

In Shiite Islam, Karbala symbolizes the eternal struggle between good and evil, the pinnacle of self-sacrifice and the definitive sabotage of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. Historically speaking, the event served to organize the Shia community into a separate denomination and remains an integral part of their religious identity to this day. Hussein was buried in Karbala, which is the second holiest place in Shia Islam after Najaf, where his father Ali is buried. Najaf, Karbala, Qom, Kufa, Damascus, Baghdad, Mashhad, Samarra are holy cities where millions of Shiites make pilgrimages because there are holy Shiite places that the Sunnis do not recognize.

In addition to the tragic battle of Karbala, three key events followed that further sharpened the Sunni-Shia divide until today. The first significant event was the rise of the Persian Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, which forcibly transformed Iran/Persia from a Sunni center into a major Shiite stronghold in the Middle East. Shiism became the official religion of the Persian Empire.

The second event took place after the end of the First World War in 1918. Namely, then the victorious Allies divided the territory controlled by the abolished Ottoman Empire, in such a way that centuries-old religious and ethnic communities were divided into several states. Often two different Islamic factions found themselves in the same state or one community was separated from the rest due to illogically drawn borders.

The third event took place in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, which enabled the promotion of Shi’ism. It was a manifestation of radical Shiism that many moderate Shiites in other countries did not accept. However, without the Iranian revolution, the contemporary Sunni-Shia conflict would not have had this great significance. In the coming decades, Shiite Iran will clash fiercely with Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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