One can wonder what is going on in the Middle East these days, especially the civil and religious strife that is tearing Iraq and Syria apart.
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region and Iran vowed to do whatever necessary to protect the Shias in Iraq, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shia-led government forces.
Within the House of Islam ancient antagonisms between Sunni and Shia Muslims are alive which are sometimes overlooked.
The Islamic community is still divided by events that took place in 632 and 656.” Indeed, the factions that we call Sunnis -- 89 percent of the world's Muslims today -- and Shias (10 percent) trace the great divide between them to the seventh century and the aftermath of prophet Muhammad's death. Shias originated in the faction (shi'a) devoted to 'Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who contended unsuccessfully with Abu Bakr, Muhammad's disciple and also father-in-law, to succeed the prophet in the newly created post of caliph. In the years that followed, continuing intrigues and battles over this succession deepened the rift between Sunnis (those who follow the sunna or path of Muhammad) and Shias (the partisans of 'Ali).
This initial rift was compounded over the centuries by a recurring pattern of struggle within Islam between strains of militant puritanism and the less rigorous attitudes of various ruling classes. Such a puritanical ideology arose within Sunni Islam in the fourteenth century, exemplified by the teaching of a formidable Syrian scholar, Ahmad ibn Taymiyya. His doctrine, though popular among many Muslim Arabs in his lifetime, placed him at odds with Muslims of a more laxist point of view. In the eighteenth century in the Arabian peninsula, the reformist teacher Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab used the rigoristic ideas of Ibn Taymiyya to fashion the tradition of strict interpretation of Islamic texts usually called “Wahhabism” by non-Muslims today. To propagate his ideology, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab collaborated with the sheikh of an obscure village in north central Arabia, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, and between them they imposed unified rule and their new, rigoristic version of Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula. Muslim legal scholars belonging to the family of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab continue to the present day as religious and legal advisers of the House of Sa'ud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the presumed leader of the Sunni Muslims.
Other Sunni reform movements of a similar puritanical cast arose in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as in Egypt in the early twentieth century, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan al-Banna', and the even stricter reformers called “Salafis,” who refuse to recognize any religious developments in Islam after the period of the salaf (the upright ancestors), comprising the generation of Muhammad and the two following generations. Many Egyptian Salafis are, in fact, Wahhabis, but dislike that name for its political connection with the regime in Saudi Arabia.
The military defeat of 'Ali in the battle of Siffin on the banks of the northern Euphrates in Syria in 657, and his death at the hands of an assassin four years later, left his descendants as pretenders to the shadow headship of the Muslim world. They and their devotees created what came to be called the Shia Imamate on a grand scale that grew in religious significance over the two centuries following 'Ali's death. Its conception was and is deeply based in motifs of martyrdom. While Sunnis claim that 'Ali's son and successor, Hasan, died in bed of natural causes, Shi'ites consider him a martyr. Ali's younger son, Husayn, the third Imam in the Shia lineage, died on the battlefield of Karbala in Iraq in 680 fighting Yazid, the Sunni caliph in Damascus. Shias annually act out passion plays about the death of Husayn, mourning extravagantly for him, his father, and his entire family. Indeed the descendants of 'Ali to the ninth century are all believed by Shias to have died as martyrs, victims of oppression by the Sunni caliphate.
One can trace a line from these distant events and antagonisms, with their churning reversals of fortune, to the conflicts of today. At the death of the eleventh Imam in the Shia lineage, Hasan al-'Askari, it is said that allies of the Imamate hid his little son from Sunni enemies. Calling themselves the representatives of the Hidden Imam, four of these allies in succession governed the Shia community on behalf of the Hidden Imam for seventy years. Eventually a military upstart dynasty, the Buyids, originally based in Iran, took on the ideology of representing the Twelfth Imam and imposed themselves in 945 as his representatives -- and as the overlords and protectors of the Sunni caliphate based in Baghdad. Such Shia military supervision of the Sunni caliphate reduced the caliphate to a puppet dynasty, with only a few partial returns to genuine political power in subsequent centuries. Sunni resentment of Shias even today consciously or unconsciously recalls this humiliation.
Representing the Twelfth Imam has provided many subsequent Shias with a symbol for their political aims; the most recent representatives in Iran have been the Imam Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei.
The comparatively small numbers of Shias worldwide should not cause us to dismiss them as an insignificant minority. In Iran, Shias represent 90 percent of the population; in Iraq, 60 percent; and in Lebanon, at least 35 percent. And while only 1 percent of Syrians are Shias, a Muslim sect called the 'Alawites, adherents to a Gnostic version of Shia thought, make up 12 percent of the general Syrian population -- and a much larger percentage of the Syrian army.
Since 1971 two 'Alawites, father and son, Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad, have held the powerful presidency of Syria. 'Alawite military and political domination has given them totalitarian control. In response, certain members of Syria's Sunni majority -- more than 70 percent of the population -- have sought alliances with such Sunni powers as Saudi Arabia and Qatar in an attempt to oust the Assad regime. And Shia Iran and their southern Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, have come out in favor of the beleaguered 'Alawite-dominated government of Syria.
Now as the Sunni ISIS, a ruthless killing machine, has invaded the Shia-governed Iraq, which accused the Saudi government of funding the offensive against them, the civil war of Syria is expected to be joined by a new one. And this time the dominant but latent Shia-Sunni or Saudi-Iran proxy war in Syria will be exposed.
The fight for the leadership of Muslim world is still very alive. The Saudi monarch's contempt for Shias no doubt underpinned his WikilLeaked comment about "cutting off the head of the snake," meaning the clerical regime in Tehran.
Religion and history both dominate the current course of Middle East and the power struggle that erupted after the death of the prophet in the 6th century contributes a lot to it.