Taking a Close Look at Islam’s Great Divide

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2007 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Rite and Reason:What passes for religious difference does not always stand close scrutiny. The youth with a Kalashnikov in hand at a sectarian flashpoint is not generally arguing a doctrinal point, says Richard Whelan

Nonetheless, much conflict involves people who claim allegiance to a creed, however far from their professed beliefs their actions take them.

The context in which religious differences are being played out in the Middle East includes conflict between modernisers and strict traditionalists, the impact of nationalism and race, and attempts to acquire or hold power.

The majority in the region are Arabs, while Persians (Iranians) are a significant minority. The Kurds have been marginalised for many centuries.

The key difference in religious terms is between the Sunnis and the Shias. The Sunnis make up 84-90 per cent of Muslims. Sunni means “tradition”. Sunnis see themselves as followers of the traditions of Muhammad, and of the first two generations of the community that followed him.

The Shia form approximately 10 per cent of Muslims. The Shia are the “party of Ali”, believing that Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, was his designated successor and that Muslims should be led by a descendant of Muhammad.

Sunni movements include the Wahhabis (based on an alliance of an 18th-century reformer, Muhammad al-Wahhab, with the House of Saud, which helped to turn Saudi Arabia, through oil riches, into a power within Islam), the Muslim Brotherhood (set up in Egypt in the 1920s and now in many countries in the world, including Europe), and the Salafis.

The Salafis seek to return to the world of the al-Salaf al-Salih (“the righteous ancestors”) of the first two generations after Muhammad. Al-Qaeda is a radical offshoot of these Sunni movements and other historic influences.

Shia Muslims are divided into sub-groups, the main ones being Twelvers, Seveners and Fivers, based around a Shia imam (a descendant of Muhammad recognised by Shias as leader). While religious differences between Sunnis and Shias are minor, historical differences have caused much bloodshed.

To the Shia, the injustice done to Ali, and his son Husayn, and fear of the imposition of Sharia law, together with their history of persecution, have caused significant tensions. To Sunnis, the Shia ritual of cursing the first three (Sunni) caliphs is highly offensive, while the often necessary Shia practice of dissimulation (taqiyya), or concealment of their beliefs, and their acceptance of temporary marriages (mu,ta) appear hypocritical.

Shias are a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain (under Sunni leadership) and Azerbaijan. In most other countries in the region, the Sunnis are the majority, particularly in Saudi Arabia, now the centre of the Sunni world. In Lebanon, the Shia comprise about 38 per cent of the population, with political representation of 21 per cent, while the Sunnis and Christians make up most of the balance.

Syria is unique. A Sunni majority state, it is ruled by the al-Assad and related clans, who are Alawis. The Alawis were regarded for many centuries as heretics. In the 1970s they moved closer to mainstream “Twelver” (Iranian) Shia Islam, and in 1973 a fatwa was issued declaring that they were true Muslims. Some relationships between Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians can be explained by the unique makeup of the Syrian regime and the continuing power which Iran, the centre of Shia political power, has over it.

In Iraq, the majority Shia population, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime, are Arabs with a historical antipathy towards the Persian Iranians.

The Kurds complicate matters: neither Arabs nor Persians, in Iraq they are mainly Sunni.

Al-Qaeda, a virulent form of Sunni radicalism, views the Shia as negatively as it does Jews. Some consider the Shia part of a Jewish conspiracy, in league with the US, Israel and Iran to destroy Sunni Islam. In the event of a takeover of any state or region by Sunni activists who think like this, the Shia and other minorities would face devastation.

Shia activism emanating from the current theocratic Iranian republic is focused on maintaining the current regime in power. It successfully deploys its support for Hizbullah, the Shia group in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad (both Sunni groups) in the Palestinian areas, in an attempt to break out of the strait-jacket of its minority status.

This escalating conflict between Sunni militants and Shia radicals is particularly destabilising to the region.

A key assumption by many outsiders is that Islam has a central authority which could stamp out such excesses.

However, Islam is not monolithic. In the Sunni tradition there is no religious leadership as we know it. Many young Sunni Muslims, ignorant of religious matters, create their own interpretations and act them out through terrorism, frequently against fellow Muslims deemed apostate.

All this is a long way from the founder’s intention that Islam be tolerant and respectful of others’ beliefs, and from the wish of the majority of Muslims to live in harmony with the rest of the world.

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