Dr. Carool Kersten – Shia-Sunni Schisms – World View

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Dr. Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam & the Muslim World, KING’S College LONDON, speaks to Mark Ulyseas on Shia-Sunni Schisms

What is the historical background of the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam?

Ultimately, the split of the Muslim community into Sunnis and Shi’is can be attributed to a leadership issue that began dividing the early Muslim community immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632CE. So the origins of this schism can be traced back to the very beginning when Islam was just a nascent religion in Arabia. Because this split occurred so early on, what started out as a political dispute set the opposing camps on their respective separate ways when Islam had only just entered its formative period.

Although the basic beliefs of both Sunnis and Shi’is have remained very much the same, over time this split has also resulted in the development of two distinct Islamic traditions, affecting not only the political, but also certain doctrinal, intellectual and spiritual aspects of the religion. But it is important to remind oneself that these religious overtones come on the back of what originally were different views on who should be in charge of the Muslim community when the Prophet himself was no longer there. By implication this also means two versions of Islamic soteriology or ‘salvation history’ (which is very different from conventional history in terms of recording ‘what really happened’ in the past).

After the Prophet’s death, the still embryonic Muslim community was left with the matter to decide who should become its leader. While there was consensus over the fact that with the passing of Muhammad, prophecy — and with that the revelations which became embodied in the Qur’an — had come to an end, in his capacity as community leader or statesman there was a very pertinent succession question. Sunnis and Shi’is have different interpretations of what transpired around the time of Muhammad’s death. It is important to realize that these readings were only formulated and documented much later on, after which they have been projected back onto the period during which these events are supposed to have occurred.

A crucial episode in the Shi’i narrative is said to have taken place not long before the Prophet’s death, during his so-called ‘Farewell Pilgrimage’ to Mecca. To back up their version, the Shi’is invoke a particular hadith or report from a vast body of stories about the sayings and actions of Muhammad transmitted over time and forming the so-called ‘Traditions of the Prophet’ – which constitutes the most authoritative source for Islam’s teachings and doctrines after the Qur’an.

According to the Shi’i reading of this hadith, while halting at the oasis of Ghadir Khumm during the return journey from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet is supposed to have anointed as his successor one of his closest surviving relatives and earliest converts to Islam; his cousin and son-in-law Ali. This reading is disputed by what are now referred to as the Sunni Muslims, either by calling into the question the veracity of this report altogether, or by challenging the meaning of Muhammad’s words, arguing that he had not implied to designate Ali as his successor, but merely singled him out as one of his closest and most loyal followers.

The Sunnis insist that Muhammad did not leave any clear instructions as to what should happen in the event of his demise. For that reason, following the Prophet’s death, the most senior companions came together in order to find a solution and agree on a suitable successor for Muhammad in his capacity as a statesman. They resolved to follow a practice from Arab tribal custom (sunna in Arabic, from which also the designation ‘Sunni’ is taken) and elect one of the most senior members of the Muslim community — and also a close confidante of the Prophet. The selected individual was Abu Bakr, an elderly man who was also Muhammad’s father-in-law. Taking over Muhammad’s worldly responsibilities he was referred to as the first Caliph, from the Arabic word khalifa, meaning successor.

The supporters of Ali, who eventually banded together as the Shi’a Ali, or Party of Ali (hence the term Shi’i), rejected this procedure. According to the historical chronicles, they not only objected on grounds of what had supposedly occured at Ghadir Khumm, but also because these deliberations had taken place in the absence of Ali, who had been occupied with preparing the Prophet’s body for burial. On account of his prominence among Muhammad’s closest companions, he should have been present at such a crucial occasion as the selection of the new community leader.

Other factors came into play as well, which give us a very good sense of the realities in the early Muslim community and the humanity of the main players. Probably, this is one of the main lessons to be learned from the history of religions, because it can also help us understand how religious differences and sectarianism continue to be manipulated for the purpose of agendas that are not at all religious in nature.

For instance, there were personal tensions between Ali and Aisha — Abu Bakr’s daughter and youngest wife of the Prophet. These dated back to an earlier incident when Aisha had been separated from Muhammad’s caravan or travelling party, only to be brought back by a strapping young Bedouin. Suspicious of what may or may not have happened during that absence, Ali advised the Prophet to divorce Aisha, so as to protect his own honour. It is alleged that Aisha and Abu Bakr never forgave Ali for his sanctimony and that this formed an additional motivation for blocking Ali’s ascension to political power.

Ali’s own disposition has been characterized as ‘quietist’ – as he was primarily concerned with piety and spiritual matters and not all that interested in politics and power. This would explain why, ultimately, he did not contest Abu Bakr’s succession. Eventually, Ali would be passed over two more times. When Abu Bakr died after a Caliphate of only two years, another older figure, but relatively late convert, Umar ibn Khattab was elected Caliph. After him power passed on to the controversial Uthman ibn Affan – a member of one of Mecca’s most notable families which had initially vehemently opposed Muhammad in the past, denying his Prophethood and even chasing him out of Mecca into exile in Medina. For the supporters of Ali this was extremely frustrating as they regarded this sequence of events as a deviation from the way things were supposed to be according to the Prophet’s own words.

Only after the assassination of Uthman in 656 was Ali acknowledged as the fourth and last of the so-called ‘Righteous Caliphs’. However, even then his succession was not unopposed. Uthman’s relatives, who held very powerful positions in the now rapidly expanding Muslim realm thanks to the late Caliph’s nepotism, insinuated that Ali was implicated in the murder. Led by Mu’awiyya, the influential governor of Damascus, they refused to acknowledge the new caliph. In the ensuing years it came to armed altercations and tense standoffs which tore at the seams of the still very young community. Although Ali was in name the last generally recognized and unifying leader of the Muslims, in effect the community had already begun to fragment.

Things came to a full-blown crisis after Ali was murdered too in 661. This set the Shi’a Ali, now rallying around Ali’s sons Hasan and Husayn, on a collision course with the supporters of the governor of Damascus who had claimed the Caliphate for himself. The outcome of this clash was a virtual civil war ripping the already divided community apart.

The final showdown came at Karbala in Southern Iraq, in 680, when Husayn — heavily outnumbered by the Caliph’s army under the command of his son Yazid – was killed near Karbala in southern Iraq. This led to the irrevocable split between the Sunnis, loyal to the new caliphate now with its capital in Damascus, and the Shi’is who insisted that Mu’awiyya was an usurper and that as a descendant of the Ahl al-Bayt or ‘Household of the Prophet’, Husayn – a son of Ali and through his mother Fatima a grandson of Muhammad – should have been the rightful heir. Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala is the defining moment in Shi’i history. It continues to be commemorated by Shi’is across the world in the ritual called Ashura, featuring parades, passion plays, and in certain instances also practices of self-conflagration.

As a numerical minority within the Muslim world (around 20% of the total), the underdog position is still acutely felt by many Shi’is. An elaborate understanding of martyrdom combined with a sense of political disfranchisement helps sustain that experience.

From then on, the Sunni part of the Muslim community was first led by the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus and then the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad, until the sacking of the city by the Mongols in 1256. Shi’is went their own way, rejecting the Sunni Caliphs and recognizing the descendants of Husayn as their leaders, who were not called Caliphs, but Imams. Because of their descent from the Prophet, the position of Shi’i Imams differs from that of the Caliphs in the sense that they do not only hold worldly authority but also fulfil a religious function.

For the Sunnis, however, the Caliphs were primarily responsible for expanding and defending the Muslim realm, and maintaining internal law and order, whereas safeguarding the doctrinal aspects of the faith, over time, fell to a class of religious scholars called ulama, whose authority was grounded in their erudition and piety. The Shi’i Imams, by contrast, who were generally without any real tangible political power, often living in hiding and in fear of their lives, were also invested with special religious authority. As blood relations of the Prophet they were deemed to be sinless and thought to continue to receive divine guidance. This privileged position renders their interpretations of Islam’s teachings infallible, which is definitely not the case with the Sunni religious scholars.

Because of this particular status of the Imams, the Shi’i outlook on religious authority is very different from that of the Sunnis, and this in turn has shaped their spiritual and intellectual traditions as well. Over time, the Shi’i camp was broken up in sub-sects, depending on how many Imams were recognized as legitimate and authoritative. The largest group recognizes twelve Imams and is therefore referred to as the ‘twelvers’, they are found in present-day Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Bahrain, with further pockets in Eastern Arabia and elsewhere.

Another group recognizes only seven Imams and are therefore called ‘Seveners’ and, alternatively, Ismailis. They are or have been present in the Persian-speaking parts of the Muslim world, as well as Syria, Southern Arabia, North Africa, South Asia, and East Africa. Finally, there are the Zaidis, who only recognize five Imams and whose current presence is largely confined to Yemen. What these different Shi’i subgroups continue to share is this belief in infallible Imams who continued to receive divine guidance, as well as the conviction that the last Imam did not die but went into ‘occultation’ only to reappear at the End of Times.

This gives the Shi’i notion of communal leadership and religious authority a messianic dimension which is very different from that of the Sunnis. In the absence of the Imams, religious authority fell to a Shi’i clergy which is organized along more stringent hierarchical lines than the Sunni Ulama. Its senior leaders tend to exercise far-reaching influence over the Shi’i community. Throughout history, such differences have not only led to recurring religious disputes, but have also been conveniently exploited for political reasons.

Why is there continued conflict between these two the Shia and Sunni bloc within the Muslim world? Can this violence be primarily attributed to political scheming/power mongering by local religious leaders and not so much as religious differences, or is it a portent mix of both? Or is it, as some proclaim, indeed the continuation of the 1400 year war between Shia and Sunni?

As I noted earlier, differences between Sunnis and Shi’is have been part and parcel of the history of the Muslim world almost from the inception of its religion. It has led to conflict before, but at the same time it is important to recognize that there are also many instances of a modus vivendi or even symbiosis of the two traditions. In the tenth century a Shi’i dynasty called the Fatimids (named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima) came to power in North Africa, ruling a majority Sunni population.

After taking control of Cairo, the Fatimids founded al-Azhar mosque which eventually became the most important centre of Sunni Islamic learning after Mecca and Medina. During the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, there have been episodes when the Sunni Caliphs were assisted by Shi’i viziers or ministers, such as the Buwayhid family, who were important patrons and sponsors of learning and culture at the court, including a tradition of literary and philosophic activity which one historian of Islam has referred to as a form of ‘Islamic humanism’.

Also South Asia has witnessed the simultaneous presence of Sunni Mughal Sultans in Delhi and their semi-autonomous Shi’i vassals in nearby Lucknow. In fact, the second largest Shi’i population in the world is still found in what is now Pakistan. Until modern times and the recent flaring up of sectarian tensions, Sunnis and Shi’is, there and elsewhere, were able to peacefully coexist for lengthy periods of time. So there are evidently instances of Shi’i and Sunni interaction that provided a fertile soil for Muslim culture to flourish.

It is claimed that the rise in Shia-Sunni conflict can be traced to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the perceived global influence of Wahhabis using their petro dollars to ferment discord. Have religious differences been turned into rigid ideological positions promoted by Muslim states?

In the contemporary Muslim world, differences between Shi’is and Sunnis have received new political impetus, which to my mind can indeed be qualified as the ideological manipulation of these differences, turning power rivalries into sectarian strife. First, this became visible in the Persian Gulf region in the direct aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, this must be seen in the context of an older power struggle, one that can historically even been traced back to Arab-Persian rivalry that predates not just the Sunni-Shia schism but even the arrival of Islam. So once the Islam factor comes in, there is actually a conflation of ethnic-linguistic and religious differences.

But this also shows that it is not just a matter of different religious views, but also of historically much deeper cultural differences and political rivalry between Arabs and Persians that are coming into play time and again in the region’s history.

Actually, the Shi’a-Sunni divide in that particular part of the Muslim world, with the current Islamic Republic of Iran and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia acting as the main actors in what is in fact more a power play than anything else, can only be traced back to the 16th and 18th centuries respectively, that is, a millennium after the original split between Sunnis and Shi’is. In 1500, a new dynasty known as the Safavids took power in the Persian world, encompassing what is now Iran, part of Iraq, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It was only then that the new ruler or Shah declared Shi’a Islam the state religion of the empire.

A few centuries later, a particular austere and reactionary interpretation of Islam emerged in Central Arabia, when a religious scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab presented himself as a religious reformer intent on rooting out the, in his eyes, decadent and heretical practices associated with Shi’ism ‘visit’ and Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, which he had encountered on his travels in southern Iraq and to Medina. After teaming with the regional chieftain Muhammad ibn Saud, in the course of the eighteenth century this duo and their respective successors were highly successful in using what came to be known as Wahhabism for the expansion of the House of Saud’s political power.

Outright political rivalry between Shi’i Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia only became more pronounced in the later part of the twentieth century. Initially this manifested itself in the competition between the last Shah of Iran and the Saudi monarchs as they vied for American support in acting as the US’s ‘policeman’ in the Persian Gulf – responsible for securing the steady flow of oil to the industrialized countries in Europe, the Americas and the Far East.

The sectarian dimension did not really emerge until 1979, when the ousting of the Shah in the Iranian Revolution and the rise to political power of the country’s Shi’i religious establishment led by the Ayatollah Khomeini rang the alarm bells in Riyadh. The Sunni-Shi’i divide became even more manifest when Iraq, then controlled by Saddam Hussein and his Arab nationalist Baath party, invaded Iran over a border dispute just a year later. The Gulf States (and many Western countries) quickly sided with Saddam Hussein (in name a Sunni Muslim), expecting he would quickly wipe out the infant Islamic Republic of Iran. This was not to be the case, as Iran proved a much more formidable opponent than anticipated. In a very vicious and bloody war that lasted eight years, both sides began exploiting the religious symbolism and imagery associated with the Sunni-Shi’i schism.

In the face of a well-financed Sunni enemy, Iran presented the war as a re-run of the Battle of Karbala with its warriors in the same role as the martyred Husayn. They even began calling Saddam Hussein the new ‘Yazid’ – a reference to the Caliph’s son responsible for the Imam’s death in 680. The Iraqi regime meanwhile named their crucial offensive ‘Qadisiya’ – after the battle that heralded the Muslim conquest of Persia in 636.

The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia took further shape in the 1980s and 1990s. It led to incidents during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in which Sunni and Shi’i Muslims jointly take part, when Iranians used the occasion to carry portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini with them in an evident attempt to irk their Saudi hosts. Aside from such incidents, which carry symbolic importance, there was also a more serious rivalry unfolding for real political influence. This was no longer restricted to the Persian Gulf, where both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were becoming very wary of the influence of Iran among its Shi’i communities. In Saudi Arabia they form a small minority, where they are found in communities dispersed throughout the strategically important and oil-rich Eastern Province, but in Bahrain a Sunni monarchy faces a vast Shi’i majority population who feels severely disfranchised.

In the final years of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium, this competition for political influence and power has shifted to other areas, including Iraq, Lebanon, and now also Syria. Although the rivalry is increasingly coined in sectarian terms, it is important to keep in mind that the formation of strategic and tactical alliances continues to be primarily dictated by pragmatic considerations rather than religious affiliation. Such partnerships appear to be forged on the basis of the cynical observation that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. An illustrative earlier example of this is the Saudi support for the Zaidi (Shi’i) rulers against a republican bloc supported by Egypt during the 1960s civil war in Yemen.

On grounds of the same adage, Iran gave sanctuary to scores of prominent Shi’i religious and political opposition leaders from Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years (1979-2003), while in the Lebanese civil war, Tehran played a key role in the formation of a new Shi’i political organization – Hezbollah, which rapidly overtook the other Shi’i party, vassals. The situation in Syria is even more complicated. For decades both Syria and Iraq have been ruled by rivalling branches of the pan-Arab nationalist

Baath party. Not surprisingly therefore that the relations between Damascus and Tehran go back to the days that Iran was fighting against Iraq between 1980 and 1988 – leaving Baghdad very uncomfortably squeezed between two hostile states: One intent on undermining the rivalling Iraqi Baath party, the other responding to an invasion of its territory. A further irony is that, while the Iraqi regime was mainly composed of Sunnis, the vast majority of the country’s population is Shi’i, which was thus also put in a very awkward position as its loyalties were called into question by the regime.

This Tehran-Damascus axis also led to an Iranian-Syrian tandem operating in Lebanon. Here, it is important to add that the Shi’is in both Iran and Lebanon belong to the ‘Twelver Sect’, but the Syrian regime is controlled by the Alawis, who are not even consider ‘proper Shi’is’ by the other branches. Neighbouring countries with Sunni majorities cannot be bothered which such details and are eager to promote the menacing spectre of a ‘Shi’i Crescent’ connecting Tehran via Baghdad and Damascus to the Mediterranean in order to serve their own political plans. This is why Syria’s neighbours, Jordan and Turkey, but especially Saudi Arabia are so intent on undermining the teetering Asad regime by supporting an array of obscure and murky Sunni militias.

Looking in from the outside, it is all in all a pretty confusing picture, but I am afraid that human history — in particular when the religion factor is brought into politics – generally offers a pretty messy spectacle, in that regard the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world are not so different from episodes in European history when different Christian churches were at each other’s throats.

Is the Shia-Sunni schism hyped up to be more than what it is… while in reality there are millions of Shias and Sunnis living peacefully side by side and even inter marrying and doing business with one another without the septicaemia of religious fundamentalism interrupting or disturbing their way of life?

I think that the narrative I have sketched demonstrates that much of the supposed tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is is fed by rivalries between political elites who cynically manipulate and amplify existing differences in outlook, practice, and belief between Sunnis and Shi’is. However, these are not necessarily of such a nature that they prevent a way of living together in what is after all an increasingly interconnected world, bringing not only Muslims from different stripes together, but putting Muslims also into close contact with non-Muslims on a unprecedented scale, both numerically and in terms of the intensity of such engagements. Differences between Sunnis and Shi’is pale in comparison to such encounters.


Also check out Dr. Carool Kersten, author of Islam in Indonesia – The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, published by Hurst Publishers, in an interview with Mark Ulyseas in Live Encounters December Volume One 2013 – LINK


Dr. Carool Kersten is a Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London and a Research Associate with the Centre for South East Asian Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His research interests include the intellectual history of the modern Muslim world, Islam in Southeast Asia, and Islam in global and inter-regional contexts. He has an MA in Arabic Language and Culture from Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands), a Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies from Payap University in Chiang Mai (Thailand), and a PhD in the Study of Religions from SOAS, University of London.

He is the author of three other books, including Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (2011), and the co-editor of Demystifying the Caliphate (2013) and Alternative Islamic Discourses and Religious Authority (2013).


One Reply to “Dr. Carool Kersten – Shia-Sunni Schisms – World View”

  1. Pingback: Iran Nuclear Ambitions and the odd couple Saudi Arabia and Israel – markulyseas - My Telegraph

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