The Shia-Sunni divide: dangerous (re)-readings of Islamic History

By Sharjeel Imam

Out of the first four caliphs of Islam, the third i.e Uthman was an Umayyad, a powerful Quraish tribe based in Mecca whose leaders converted to Islam only after being besieged and defeated by a powerful force led by Muhammad in 8 Hijri. Uthman had converted to Islam in Muhammad’s early Meccan phase, but the bulk of his tribe did not convert till the fall of Mecca. Hence the Umayyads led by Sufiyan were not a part of the initial Muslim community of Medina which was formed of two groups: muhajireen (literally migrants i.e. those who migrated from Mecca) and ansaar (literally helpers, i.e. those who hosted the migrants). The first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali are all muhajireen. Two observations are interesting: 1) we do not hear much about ansaar after Muhammad’s death in common discussions, and 2) Uthman was the only caliph from a very powerful anti-Islam clan, and was the first Caliph to be murdered by Muslims themselves.

“Who killed Uthman?” is unanswered question at the heart of Islamic history, because what follows seems to have divided the early Muslims, and led to first civil war among the Arab Muslims. There are charges of nepotism, anger against the standardisation of Qur’an, but none of this can justify the murder of the caliph. Like always, there are Jewish conspiracy theories as well. We will not ex-plore this difficult dimension, because the historiography is too thin, and too late to be trusted. We return to the broader contours of the struggle which have left more traces. Muawiyah, the son of Sufiyan, who had also converted to Islam, was Uthman’s cousin, and had by then established a powerful base in Damascus, which will emerge later as the first dynastic/imperial capital of Muslims under the Umayyads. Muawiyah demanded revenge as his Islamic right, and refused to submit to any Caliph who will not revenge Uthman’s murder.

Meanwhile in Medina, Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was elected as the new leader and commander of the faithful. Sensing the danger of living in a relatively undefended city, Ali moved to garrison town of Kufa in Iraq, and made it his headquarter, and asked Muawiyah to submit to him. Here starts the first civil war among Muslims when after having sensed power, the Umayyads rallied behind Muawiyah in Damascus, and their opponents gathered behind Ali and his supporters. The term shia e ali, ie the party of Ali, can be understood in this context. The civil war continued for five years, and ends with Ali’s murder, after which Muawiyah is the sole contender for the post of Caliph.

Ali’s murder is another “Who killed Uthman?” question in Islamic history. The historiography men-tions khawarij, a section of Ali’s followers who declared that his peace treaty with Muawiyah un-dermined his Caliphate, and he had no right to compromise the divine responsibility. In other words, an extremely paradoxical trust in Ali, to the extent that he himself was seen as eneymy when he seemed ready to give up his caliphate. There are many other dimensions to this story, but lets return to the broader contours. Ali’s murder and the end of his caliphate ensured the emergence of first dynasty of Islam: the Umayyads, a tribe which was neither ansaar nor muhajir.

Lets fast forward to the first transition of power among Umayyads: Muawiyah sought to give power to his son Yazid. There is a consensus among Muslims of all sects that there was a brewing rebel-lion against Muslims, and Hussain ibn Ali emerged as the face of this rebellion. He along with scores of followers was massacred at Karbala, while he was trying to reach Kufa, the old base of his father’s time. Both Sunnis, and Shias till date mourn the Karbala event, but we will come to that later. Hussain’s murder marks the first transfer of power among Umayyads internally, and hence is one of the most important symbols of early Islamic history. Yazid, ever since, has become a sym-bol of tyranny in many Islamic discourses.

Over the next century, the Umayyads ruled from Damascus, and the Shia leadership lived under persecution, and the surviving children of Muhammad’s family, or at least the Imam, the flag-bearer of resistance, was a dangerous figure for the Umayyad clan. The early Shias derived their moral superiority by the fact that its them who are surrounding and fighting for Muhammad’s descendants against the dangers of a usurper Umayyad empire. In a century, the Umayyads are brought down, and the Shias and the Abbasids play crucial role in their downfall. The Abbasids traced their lineage from Muhammads uncle, and were opposed to Umayyads as much as the Shias were. However, the Abbasids were later able to monopolise the power, and Shias were left once again in the opposition. However, under the Abbasids, and after the founding of Baghdad, it seems that Shia have gained strength, and are able to proselytise more, as they reach more areas of the empire. The vilification of first three Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman started in the later Baghdad phase, and challenges to the succession of Abu Bakr seems to have gained popularity as well. The idea of Imam as the absolute leader has developed in these two centuries where the early Shias were seen as one of the oppositions by the state, and is a very contextual development of a age when tribal identity was an important aspect of the struggle, and survival of opposition was seen as important. However, it should be noted that from a principled anti-Umayyad position, one can easily slide into a only “children of Ali” position, and end up questioning Umar’s or Abu Bakr’s legitimacy. Consistency demands that opposition to one family’s rule does should mean that we oppose every family’s rule. All the Shias fall between these two extremes: anti-Umayyad, and only Ali’s children.

Let us come directly to the development of the Sunni sectarian identity in 3rd century Hijri. A Ab-basid Caliph, Mamoon, who also appears to be a brilliant thinker, declared that like other metaphors used in Quran like the face of Allah, or the hand of Allah, the term word of Allah (kalaam ullah) is also a metaphor, and should not been literally. This is the context of a once hotly debated issue of form versus content, or the sacredness of Arabic language in Islamic history. Any scholar who declared that Quran is word of God was to be removed from his official position, and could be arrested as well. This imposition by the state continued by till the reign of Mamun’s grandson, who caved into resistance from the ulema, the scholarly class. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the last great-est founder of a Sunni school of thought, emerges as the leader of this opposition movement de-claring that Quran is the word of God, and that the state has no business telling us what to believe and what not to believe. The identity which emerges is called ahl e sunnat wa jamaat i.e people of tradition and consensus, or in short: sunni.

Emerging in the Abbasid epoch, the Sunnis are confident about Ali’s and Hussain’s legitimacy, against the Umayyads, although, they do not accept the Shia concept of Imamate vested in Ali’s family, which has, in their eyes, become superfluous after the ousting of Umayyads. The Sunnis also believed in the legitimacy of Hadith collections which had by 3rd century hijri been formalised. Like the early Shias, who wavered between anti-Umayyad-ism to the supremacy of Ali’s family, the later Sunnis also range from anti-Umayyad-ism and pro-Ali posturing to the defence of any hereditary but popular Quraish (or Arab) ruling dynasties. In terms of political ideology, both Shias and Sunnis become defenders hereditary power, and both bemoan the war against Ali, and large sections of both mourn the Karbala massacre.

Let us now fast forward to modern times. The Hanafis, the largest Sunni school of jurisprudence, mourn the Karbala along with the Shias, and these two groups form the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world. The founder of Hanafi school, Imam Abu Hanifa, was himself a student of an early Shia Imam, Imam Jafar. The Sunni villages in Bihar, for example, take out mourning proces-sions on 10th of Muharram with religious fervour every year. Both Barelvis and Deobandis, the two main Hanafi groups in Indian subcontinent, take similar stands on this issue, and the Barelvis outdo Deobandis in their love for ahl e bait i.e. people of (Muhammad’s) house. This would be the common theme running through most of the Sunnis and Shias. However, two dangerous trends, which have always been present, gain popularity in modern times.

In modern Iran, which emerges as the major Shia power in modern times, two extremes can be identified. Ahmad Kasravi, the famous Iranian historian who was murdered by Shia fundamental-ists, represents one extreme. Rejecting the Shia clergy was his starting point, but then he went on to reject the grounds of Imamate itself, and described the early battles as political struggle against Umayyad supremacy. On the other extreme was the clerical establishment of Shi’ism, who believe in Imamate of Ali’s successors, and some of them go to the extreme of rejecting Abu Bakr and Umar as well. The vilification and organised abuse against Abu Bakr and Umar follows from this. Apart from these two, stands Ali Shariati, who is often called the ideologue of the Iranian revolution, as he is the synthesis of these two extremes: he believed in Imamate in the specific context of anti imperial struggle, and sought to universalise this concept of Imamate for struggling and oppressed humans. He extracts justice and equality as the founding principles of Ali’s Shi’ism as opposed to the tyrannical and superstitious Shi’ism of the clergy. However, he was careful not to speak against the Abu Bakr and Umar, and even spoke favourably of them. Ali Shariati represents a compromise with the Sunnis inside the Shia framework. However, it must be remembered that not all trends in Iranian Shi’ism are as syncretic and as tolerant of Sunnis.

In modern Arabian peninsula, another extreme trend emerges, which rejects Shi’ism as un-Islamic. The importance of their re-reading is significant as their ruling classes control Mecca and Medina, and hold huge reserves of oil, and hence power and prestige across the Muslim world. In the di-verse range of Wahabbi rhetoric, the extreme point is the rejection of Ali’s caliphate itself, and a tacit justification of Hussain’s murder. The conspiracy theory that Shi’sm was started by a Jew named Abdullah ibn Saba who declared that Ali was God himself has gained enough popularity by now, and is representative of this new trend, which seeks to simplify geo-political struggles into simple categories. Another claim that all the companioins of Muhammad had noble intentions, seeks to justify Muawiyah’s rebellion against Ali’s caliphate for seizing power. Similarly, Zakir Naik calls God’s mercy on Yazid (he uses rahmatullah alaih) in order to further isolate Shia from the new Islam, the only Islam in their eyes. Here, the Sunni justification of popular monarchy is being used by the interested parties to defend the Saudi monarchy, against the ideological threat of democratic Islam emerging from Shia Iran. The effect of this rhetoric is slowly seeping through the Muslim world, and since such trends were always present, it has only strengthened them. The madrasahs and the mosques funded by Saudis are one channel, and the Indian or Pakistani professionals and labourers, who are more often than not suffer from inferiority complex vis a vis the rich and religious Arabs, working in the Gulf are another channel.

The geopolitical struggle is being once again caste into sectarian framework, and both the Shia and the Sunni extreme is harmful, and will have fatal consequences for the Muslim world.

[ Sharjeel Imam is Research Scholar in Deptment of CHS, JNU, New Delhi ]