By Neville Teller
March 27, 2013
Ask most people in the West what they know about Islam, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Many are aware that the religion has two main branches – Sunni and Sh’ite - but as for the differences between them, or where each is mainly practised, most people haven’t a clue.
Classic explanations of Islam’s great divide usually include a statement like: “The so-called division of Muslims between Shia and Sunni is akin to the differences between Catholics and Protestants.” However true that may once have been, it needs qualification in the light of current circumstances. The Sunni-Shi’ite division is now far from “so-called”, and the present situation within Islam can best be compared to the intensive intra-Christian religious conflicts that ravaged Europe on and off for three centuries. Doctrinal differences have been transmuted into political altercations, and these have inevitably turned into a struggle for power and domination.
It is estimated that 75–90% of the world’s one billion Muslims are Sunni, while only some 10–20% are Shia. Sunnis form the overwhelming majority in most Muslim countries; Shia make up the majority only in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Bahrain (collectively known as the Shia Crescent).
The Sunni-Sh’ite divide has been polarized by the civil war in Syria. Up to quite recently Shi’ite dominance in the Middle East was growing rapidly. But now that Syrian President Assad’s régime, dominated as it is by members of the Shi’ite offshoot sect of Alawites, seems in danger of being overthrown, the balance of power in the region has shifted. Both Iran and Hezbollah have seen their reputations damaged, for their support for Assad runs counter to their support for Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere.
Tehran stands by the Assad regime to protect, what it calls the “axis of resistance” in the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip being the other members of the axis along with Iran and Syria. Assad’s fall would cost Iran - a Shia-Muslim but non-Arab state - an invaluable foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Shia-Islamist terrorist organization lodged in the body politic of Lebanon, would lose its main protector and also the route through which it receives vital Iranian weapon supplies. So would Hamas in Gaza.
Syria’s revolution is a Sunni-led rebellion against the government, but it is certainly not confined to internal Syrian elements. Naveed Hussain of the International Herald Tribune has described how Syria has become a magnet for global jihadis, including Al Qaeda, which has sent some 6,000 militants from Iraq and Turkey to help topple the régime. Nor is that all. Hussain points out that Sunni extremists from as far afield as Europe are trickling into Syria to join their ideological affiliates, Jabhat al-Nusrah (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and Ahrar al-Sham (radical Salafists), in a “jihad” against the “heretical regime” of Bashar al-Assad. The recent increase in suicide bombings and kidnappings is the signature of jihadi tactics.
In fact, the Syrian conflict has become a paradigm of the division between extremist Sunni and extremist Shi’ite elements within the Muslim world.
When did this great divide in Islam first appear? It goes back to the very origins of the religion. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, he left a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organised as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. He also bequeathed to his followers a dispute over who should succeed him and lead the fledgling state. His followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.
The group now known as Sunnis went for the latter option, and chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shi’ites, on the other hand, favoured Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called Imams. They not only lead the Shi’ites, but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. The two branches of the religion have developed along their chosen paths ever since.
Historian R Scott Appleby, who has written extensively on modern religions, explains that for Sunni Muslims the loss of the caliphate after World War I was a devastating blow. Up to that moment, the caliph had been continuously present as guardian of Islamic law and the Islamic state. In 1924 the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk constitutionally abolished the institution. and transferred the caliphate’s powers to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the parliament of the newly formed Turkish Republic.
The end of the caliphate saw the emergence of Sunni fundamentalist leaders in nations like Egypt and India. Then in 1928 the Egyptian schoolteacher, Hasan al-Banna, founded the first Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Sunni world, the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus Sunni religious fundamentalism was born from a combination of doctrinal differences and political action.
In the case of the Shi’ites, Martin Kramer has shown how a basic reinterpretation of Muslim history and ancient texts underpinned the thinking of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979 and opened the gates to a upsurge in Shi’ite fundamentalism.
Subsequently, fundamentalism in one branch of Islam inevitably fostered fundamentalism in the other, as sects in each camp sought to outdo one another in their religious zeal.
Now, equally inevitably, perhaps, the two camps are at each other’s throats.