You will find that in Shia countries, or in Shia parts of Sunni countries, that Shia Muslims are still utterly fixated on their past. This is not just an example of everyday “historical consciousnesses”; it’s more pathological than that. For example, battles that are as much as 1, 4000 years’ old are re-staged in Shia processions and whatnot. In the perpetual Sunni-Shia war there have been numerous massacres against the Shia and many of them are still cried-over as if they happened only last week.
As I said, this isn’t simply a question of Shia Muslims knowing their own history. For a start, these historical events are mainly passed on verbally; as “epic poems” were in ancient or primitive civilisations. And because of all this, everything thing that happens today to the Shia, even if it’s not directly related to politics or religion, is set or seen within the context of the Shia history (or mythology) of past battles, massacres and misdeeds.
The Sunnis have an historical consciousness too. However, instead of mainly looking back at their “oppression”, as Shia Muslims tend to do; they look back nostalgically at their former power and at periods when they ruled supreme. That’s even the case with recent history. For example, despite all the rhetoric from Islamists (from mainly Western Islamists) about “corrupt Arab dictators” who are “in hoc to the West”, millions of Sunni Muslims, from Iraq to London, have a strong nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. Why is that? The answer is simple. Saddam provided Sunnis with a very strong counterpoise against possible Shia ascendency. And this is far wider that a reference to the 1980-88 war between Sunni Iraq and Shia Iran in which millions died. Factually, when Saddam was hanged millions of Sunni Muslims mourned his death. Because of that death, they feared, amongst other things, that Shia Muslims would get the upper hand against them – and not only in Iraq. For example, it is well known that Yasser Arafat and his PLO/Fatah were strong supporters of Saddam. In addition, when Saddam was hung, President Mubarek, the leader of Egypt at the time, classed him as a “martyr”. And Muammar Qaddaffi (Libya’s leader at the time) demanded that his Baghdad statue be put up again in Libya. There was even, ironically, praise for Saddam from a Kuwaiti sheik – but he too, like Saddam, was a Sunni and that’s often all it takes.
Sunni Muslims have one big reason to be cheerful about their present situation (at least vis-à-vis their Shia rivals): they constitute 85% of all Muslims on the planet.
In terms specifically of the Arab world. There are only 4 Arab states with Shia leaders. The rest are Sunnis.
The Sunni-Arab hegemony is far deeper than the mere fact that most Arab leaders are Sunni. Despite the Islamic rhetoric about the Prophet Mummed getting rid of the “tribal system” on the Arabian Peninsula and making Islam, rather than tribalism, supreme; all he effectively did was create one of the biggest and most powerful tribes in history: the tribe of Sunni Arab Muslims. (Indeed Sunni Muslims as a whole, including the non-Arabic ones, can be seen as a single tribe; as, indeed, can all Muslims regardless of being Arabs or Sunni. )
Because Arab Islam is utterly tribal in nature, it’s not surprising that Arab tribalism overrides the nation state. That is, it’s not specifically - or only - Islam that overrides the predominance of the national state; it’s also the Arab-Muslim tribal affiliations which criss-cross across many and various Arab states. For example, major Saudi tribal groups or confederations have extremely close historical, communal, religious and ethnic ties with their fellow tribal members in Iraq – despite the problems the two states have had with each other both recently and throughout the 20th century. One way that this tribal pact between Saudi Sunni tribes and Iraqi Sunni tribes manifested itself was during the Iran-Iraq War. The Saudis considered flooding the oil markets of the world and by doing so dramatically decreasing the cost of oil. Why? To cripple the economy of Iran; which couldn’t have competed with either the low prices of Saudi oil or its mass exportation policy.
What caused the Sunni-Shia schism? What initiated this perpetual Sunni-Shia war? The answer is part political and part theological; as everything is in both Islam and in Islamic history.
The date was 656AD. The place was around Basra (now part of modern Iraq). The main protagonist was none other than the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aisha. The former wife of Muhammad led a rebellion against her (step) son-in-law, Ali. He was Muhammad’s nearest surviving male relative and had previously been nominated Caliph of the Muslim community because of his “noble”, as it were, bloodline. That was important to what later were to become Shia Muslims. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believed in election and they had elected someone else. Thus there were clashes. Muhammad’s former wife took the Sunni side in the war. That is, she believed in the election of the Caliph rather than in his bloodline. Or this was the ostensible “theological” rationale; politics and power obviously played a part too.
Ali, in the bloodline of Muhammad, was eventually assassinated in Kufa in 661. His followers and fighters, the Shia Muslims, turned the Euphrates valley (also now in Iraq) into their central point from which they were to bring about Shia, or Ali’s, Islamic hegemony by fighting the Sunni Muslims (although that word, “Sunni”, wasn’t used at this time).
Sunni Muslims, almost from the start, gained the upper hand against their Shia enemies. Ali, Muhammad’s own relative, had 11 successors, or Imams, eight of whom were killed by Sunni Muslims.
Over a hundred and fifty years after Muhammad’s death, in 873, Ali’s twelfth heir and descendent, Mohammed the Mahdi, simply - and supposedly literally - “disappeared” from the face of the earth. Thus there was now a problem for Shia Muslims in their war against Sunni Muslims. Who then would lead them? Shia Muslims have been waiting ever since 873 for the Mahdi’s return. Without him, the control of Iraq, as it was then, as well as the control of Islam, could not be guaranteed.
The Shia system is rather like kingship/royalty/nobility system in Europe until, well, today (in some parts). Shia Muslims venerate a bloodline which is supposed to go back to Muhammad himself. And again like European kingship, the descendants of Muhammad, or the Imams, were seen as divinely appointed and with the added bonus of having absolute executive, legislative and judicial power and authority (which not even European kings had in their heyday).
On the other hand, Sunnis, at first and still sometimes today, elected their leaders, or Caliphs, through what they call the shura: a consultative council which makes that decision. However, before Westerners jump to any conclusions about Islamic democracy, or even just Islamic proto-democracy, only Islamic clerics were involved in the consultative process; not “the People”.
Thus, since the Imamic successors had all been murdered by their Sunni rivals, and the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, simply disappeared, the Shia were left without any divine leader/s. This would presumably have led them to adopt the Sunni way of doing things – as just explicated. In a sense, they did adopt various consultative or quasi-democratic procedures for electing their leaders after the deaths of all Muhammad’s successors. The problem was, and still is to some extent (depending on which branch of Shia Islam we are talking about), that no leader of Shia Muslims is completely legitimate because no leader is divine – no one is the true successor to Muhammad. However, there has been a certain amount of obfuscation in Shia Islam - right up until the Ayatollah Khomeini - in which various Imams or other Islamic leaders have claimed a bloodline going back to Muhammad; including the Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
Because of these theological distinctions between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, there were, and are, also differences in how they view the nature of the state or of government.
Sunni Muslims, generally, see the state as the political embodiment of the Sharia. Or, to put that another way: Sunnis believe that the state should be the earthly manifestation of divine Sharia. It is still divine regardless of the non-divine status of the upholders of state-sharia. It is sharia itself that is divine, or Allah-given, not its upholders or instigators here on earth.
With Shia Muslims, on the other hand, not only is the Sharia divine, but so too should be the leaders who uphold or instigate the Sharia. (Or at least those upholders and instigators at the very top of the Sharia pyramid, so to speak.) That is, to Shia Muslims, Sharia, or Sharia as it is manifested here on earth, is “a prophetic phenomenon”. Or, again, it should be a prophetic phenomenon.
However, as has been said elsewhere, if the divine lineage of Muhammad was cut off care of Sunni murder (except for the Mahdi), then the upholders or instigators of Shia Sharia cannot be divine, strictly speaking. (Though, again as has already been said, Shia Muslims have worked around this and claimed divine status for several of its leaders throughout the ages and up until, and beyond, the Ayatollah Khomeini.)
The theological distinctions which can be made between Shia and Sunni Islam can be very strong and sometimes very surprising. At its worst, Wahhabi clerics, and many Sunnis generally, have seen Shia Muslims as heretics. Sometimes they are seen as heretics because they are also seen as closet polytheists. For example, take the Saudi embassy in Washington (as of 2008). The US capital is otherwise a place of virulent Interfaith; yet it cannot even secure Interfaith between Muslims and Muslims. The Saudi embassy is completely free of any Shia Muslims – they are all Sunni. And Saudi schools, again in Washington, teach that Shia Islam is, of all incredible things (in the light of the current conflict between Israel and Palestine especially), a Jewish heresy and that Shia Muslims, as a consequence, often work as a fifth column both within and outside Sunni countries.
The Political Reality Today
The Muslim Brotherhood: Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan
The Sunni-Shia war can be tied into the current violent situation in Syria. The Syrian state is largely led by Alawite Muslims, who belong to a branch of Shia Islam. No surprise, then, that not only are Syrian Sunni “rebels” or “militants” fighting the regime, but so too are Sunnis from all over the world; including many from the UK.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also been much in the news lately; especially since they took over Egypt and has been slowly advancing Islamist autocracy in that country. So it’s also not a surprise either that the Muslim Brotherhood has it in for Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest Sunni sect in Syria. They will be hoping to take advantage of the conflict and bloodshed in Syria in order to impose their own autocratic regime as a substitute for President Assad’s autocratic regime. (Just as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and many other Muslims, in Egypt weren’t fighting for democracy during the “Spring Revolution”; so too most of the Syrian “rebels”, as well as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, aren’t fighting for democracy in Syria either.)
However, well before today’s crisis in Syria, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was stoking the fires in Syria.
In 1978, Hafez as-Assad ordered the death penalty for all members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Iran in 1980, decided to arm and train that very same Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in order to overthrow the Syrian Baath Party and the Assads. The Assads survived because they utterly destroyed the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s stronghold, the city of Hama. This was one of the most violent inter-Muslim conflicts in recent history. Up to 40,000 people died. (Not many people know about this battle because Western Leftists and Left-liberals aren’t much concerned with conflicts between Muslims and Muslims. What they are interested in, instead, is when Western powers or Israelis kill Muslims – and then we never hear the end of it.)
Back home, and around 2006, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has carried on its war with Shia Muslims. For example, fairly recently the Egyptian state, largely under the requests and conspiracy theories of the Muslim Brotherhood (but also to advance its own power and control), carried out an inquisition to find and then expel all Shia Muslims “involved in missionary work”. Even the now-deposed President Mubarak warned, in 2006, that “Shias are mostly always loyal to Iran not to the country where they live”.
Jordan, another Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, once deported all the Shia Muslims who had just made a pilgrimage to a Shia shrine in that country. Unlike the British Government, the Jordan state refused demands to build Shia mosques on the grounds that such a thing would lead to “revolution” (maybe that’s right!). Indeed Jordan went even further than that. Many Jordanian Sunni Muslims demanded that Shia Muslims should be “quarantined” or that the entire Shia population of Jordan should be expelled. The Jordanian King, in 2006, even got in on all this. He portrayed Shia Muslims as a conquering arc encircling Sunni Muslims.
Other Sunni Arab states have also got on the anti-Shia train. Kuwait, after the 2003 War in Iraq, felt vulnerable to the new Shia hegemony in that country. More specifically, the Kuwaitis felt vulnerable to a Shia push south into Kuwait. They even went so far as to castigate their former Sunni enemy, or at least the country which had previously invaded them, for following “this dangerous and detestable road” of Shia Islam.
Bahrain (which is in the news today - the “opposition” is opposing the Grand Prix there)has also followed suit. Its national newspapers castigated Iraq’s Shia-led government as “American lackeys” and the Shia leader, Sistani, as “an American general”. The Bahranians even rejoiced in the Sunni suicide bombings in Iraq which they deemed to be “acts of resistance” against Shia forces and their new Shia hegemony.
And all this despite the fact that Shias make up two-thirds of the Bahrain’s electorate. However, that’s no surprise because Shia Muslims have been treated as second-class citizens, in that area, since the 18th century. That is, since the Arabian Sunni tribe, the al-Khalifa, conquered the island. Since then, most of Bahrain’s Shia Muslims have been the victims of Sunni apartheid; which means that they are forced to live in dilapidated villages far away from their Sunni rulers/superiors. They are also excluded from positions of power; including from the security forces. In addition and historically, many public gatherings of Shia, including Ashoura processions, have been violently crushed (e.g., in 2006/7). Some of the police doing that crushing have come from other Sunni states, such as Jordan as well as from the non-Arabic – but still Sunni! - state of Pakistan.
No story of the perpetual Sunni-Shia War would be complete without mentioning Lebanon.
Despite the pan-Islam rhetoric from Islamists, especially from Western Leftists, not many Sunni Arabs have been entirely happy with what’s happening in Lebanon or with the rise to power of Shia Hezbollah.
From Hezbollah’s very beginning, various Arab rulers and Sunni Islamists/militants have been attempting to dethrone this group. This Sunni hatred of Shia Hezbollah even went so far as Sunnis being favourable to the Israeli cross-border defensive raid in Lebanon in July 2006 (to attack the Shia militia who’d been bombing northern Israel). The Saudi press, for example, accused the Shia leader, Nasrallah, of “recklessness and adventurism”. At the same time, native Lebanese Sunnis, as well as Christians, attacked Hezbollah’s war and didn’t like what it had done to Lebanese tourism either. Many Sunni powers also welcomed the deployment of international forces in Lebanon – all the better to control the power and destructive influence of Hezbollah.
But what Lebanese Sunni Muslims really hated about Hezbollah was, of course, its support for Shia (or Alawite) Syria. So much so that many Lebanese Sunni took to the streets, in 2005, to castigate Hezbollah’s support for Syria. They demanded the complete disarmament of Hezbollah as well as the complete withdrawal of its ally, Syria, from Lebanese land. They were successful. Two months after these demonstrations, Syria’s 30,000 troops left Lebanon.
This conflict between Lebanese Sunni and Lebanese Shia even went theological. Various Lebanese Salafi (i.e., Sunni) websites declared fatwas against the Shia and accused them of being “heretics”. But, then again, Sunni Muslims have been claiming this for around 1, 300 years.