One day, on a school morning Murtaza and his father Ali were shot dead on a Monday morning for committing the ultimate sin in Pakistan, being Shias. From the massacre of the Hazara Shias in Quetta to the never ending friction between states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran the greatest divide in the Muslim world is perhaps the Sunni-Shia divide, a divide that has led to an unfathomable body count on a global scale. But what is this division really, that leads to a hate so intense and vehement that people take the lives of others for it and then feel proud of it as if they have carried out God’s will. If we were to ask a modern day layman about this split within Islam then the most popular response from both sides would be that the other doesn’t follow the true principles set out by Islam and as a result the other is committing the crime of saying that they are believers of Islam when they are actually non-believers who should be put to death. And in fact it is this very kind of ignorant and extremist thinking that leads to almost every religion related problem that world faces, it comes to down a gross misinterpretation of the religion and a lack of analysis of historical context, and all that is required is people with influence and a mass of people ready to make the opinion of a certain religious cleric their way of life instead of actually understanding how their religion plays out. Something that is extremely evident in the Sunni Shia clash that exists today, because all the blood that is being shed in the status quo is has nothing to do with religious beliefs, the roots of this schism exist in varying political ideologies formed over 1300 years ago. It was then that the first major divide in Islam occurred, born not out of a difference in faith, or the practice of faith but rather out of a political standpoint of how the caliphate should be run. To understand how this political disagreement deteriorated to become one of the largest splits within Islam we must first understand why this occurred in the first place and then how it evolved to become a variance in the fundamental beliefs held by either party.
Empires built atop centuries of expansion and development have often unraveled at the moment of succession whereby with multiple contenders to the throne, the throne was lost and the Islamic caliphate was no such exception. While some argue that the Shia group was formed after the succession of Ali, as the fourth caliph, more believe that by the time this succession did occur a separate group of Muslims already existed. And this group traced its origins to the very first succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad where a number of people felt that the mantle of the caliph should be given to Abu Bakr due to the simple fact that a majority of the people wanted him elected, but at the same time there were those who sought to elect Ali due to him being the son-in-law of the Prophet. This sect became the partisans of Ali and believed that succession should have been kept within the family of the Prophet as they were the truly appointed Muslim leaders, anointed by the Prophet and God. This was noted in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report by Christopher M. Blanchard in which he wrote, “The historic debate centered on whether to award leadership to a qualified and pious individual who would lead by following the customs of the Prophet or to preserve the leadership exclusively through the Prophet’s bloodline. The question was settled initially when community leaders elected a close companion of the Prophet’s named Abu Bakr to become the first Caliph. Although most Muslims accepted this decision, some supported the candidacy of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima.” Initially Ali accepted the rule of Abu Bakr and there were no real differences with society even after Ali was passed over for the candidacy twice after that which began the respective rules of Umar and Uthman. The end of Uthman’s caliphate was brought about by his assassination (according to sources such as the CRS, orchestrated by a few partisans of Ali) which left Ali, as the new caliph, with the administrative issues that came with his position as well as the pressure of bringing justice to those who had assassinated the previous caliph. Ali however set out to maintain stability in the caliphate, as a result there were those who accused him of being too lenient with the murders of Uthman and hence he was incapable to rule, foremost amongst them being Abu Sufyan, also known as Muawiya. This saw the first civil war within the Muslim world as the Battle of Camel was waged in 656 with Ali and his supporters on one side and others such as Aisha, a wife of the Prophet, and Muawiya on the other. This civil war cemented the first real divide between the Shias and Sunnis, although those terms did not yet exist, and the two separate camps started to differ in more than just how the Muslim polity should elect its leaders and with the assassination of Ali in 661 this difference created the very first sects within Islam.
The followers of Ali now looked to the direct descendants of the Prophet through Ali as the true imams of the Muslim community, thus the next in line was Imam Hasan, the eldest son of Ali. However Muawiya laid claim to the position of caliph at the same time and managed to garner more support that Hasan, as a result he was able to challenge Hasan and succeed in consolidating power, through signing a treaty with Hasan that forced Hasan to abdicate. Things took a turn for the worse though when both Muawiya and Hasan passed away within a similar time frame, both leaving behind successors, for Hasan it was his younger brother Hussain and for Muawiya it was his son Yazid. The accession of Yazid was widely seen as a controversy since it was the first time that a proper dynastic rule had been established, something that went against tradition. As a result the people of Kufa pledged allegiance to Hussain, who then set out for Iraq to govern them. Yazid upon learning about this dispatched armies to intercept the caravan of Hussain. Hussain and his followers were ambushed at Karbala and every one of them was killed. The incident of Karbala to this day holds a significant place in Shia faith, and it is here where the Shia and Sunnis divide into two groups and hence began a divide that would spell out the death for many millions of innocents in the name of faith.
Now initially the political divide between these sects gave rise to interpreting the Quran and Hadith in entirely different ways, however soon the beliefs held by these also showed visible differences. The Sunnis retained their belief of following the principles they did under the Umayyad’s and later the Abbasid’s however the Shiites now became absolute followers of the Imams who traced their lineage to the Prophet and the majority of Shias were the Twelvers who believed in a messiah figure known as Imam Mahdi, otherwise the twelfth imam. Maysam Faruqi noted this when she wrote, “Shī‘a theology differs distinctly from Sunnī theology in its interpretation of the Qur’ān and of early Islamic political history. On the basis of these differences, it is postulated that Shī‘a thought is also epistemologically different from Sunnī thought and that it builds on a radically dissimilar vision of the world.” Clive Ponting also highlighted this difference in ‘A Green History of the World, The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations’ where he wrote,” They also stressed the idea of a divinely inspired knowledge passed on by Muhammad to his designated heirs. Thus, the true Muslim was the faithful follower of the imams who carried out Muhammad’s blood and spiritual authority.” As a result differences arose within the fundamental beliefs held by each group which later translated into religious practices and sub sects within Islam and from there it was only a short step to stop identifying other sects as Muslims but rather as people from an entirely different faith.
Nothing changed in what the core beliefs of what these people were, nothing changed in the fact that they were charged with spreading kindness in this world, yet political distances spelt out their destiny of being at war within themselves and self-destructing at a rate that would only benefit those who sought to take advantage of any weak empire. The chasm that was opened and allowed to widen to the extent that those in and of the same religion became divided, perhaps it cannot be closed but it is vital for at least us to know that this chasm is only as wide as we perceive it to be through limited knowledge and if we choose to do so and look at what this split is then we can seek to at least come to terms with instead of blindly acting out and destroying that which we do not understand, however this is the real world. So that is the legacy that will be left of the Islamic empire from beyond the 19th century, of how you help only those from your sect because all others are unbelievers who are equal to scum, and of how it matters not what kind of a person you are but rather the long dead politician you chose to all yourself with and God help you if you chose the ‘wrong’ one. Yet, despite travesties like these I have been driven to the conclusion (as naïve as it may sound) that this world is not unfixable except maybe in ecological damage. Because here is what I draw from examining a singularity that is part of a myriad of problems that besieges this world, people are not born to hate or to kill it is we who teach them how to hate and classify others as not humans but as suits of flesh marked with an invisible stamp that negates the fact that they are humans. I recognize the fact that I, alone cannot achieve this nor can I expect this to happen just because I decided to take a hand, but what I do know is that even though a butterfly flapping its wings does not cause hurricanes, it is a part of the conditions that lead up to the storm. This by no means is me giving a declaration of being a philanthropist, I am flawed so I will look to protect my interests (as is drilled into our heads from the very get go, which is no surprise given the fact that we still somehow have neoliberal globalization on the rise) however I will not be a bystander to these problems, that much is a promise.