In an antique land

Tariq Bashir reconstructs the story of the historical split between Sunni and Shia Islam

In an antique land
It was a familiar scene: a kingdom riven by internal strife and turmoil. Spurred on by growing discontent among the subjects, armed rebels were camped at the gates of a Middle Eastern capital, demanding the ouster of a corrupt governor who happened to be the half-brother of the sitting ruler. Credible stories of rampant corruption in the ruling clan had been swirling around for months and were now on the lips of every subject; the ensuing resentment was palpable. The besieged ruler was Hazrat Usman ibn Affan, the third caliph of Islam, who would eventually wilt and issue orders to remove the governors of Egypt and Kufa.

In an interesting twist to this gripping tale of seventh-century treachery, intrigue and subterfuge, the returning rebels seized a letter under the seal of the caliph, ordering their arrest on arrival in Egypt, to be followed by torture, incarceration and even death. Incensed by the duplicitous role played by the caliph, the rebels returned to assassinate his favourite Syrian wife, Naila, whose wails failed to soften their hearts.
Following in the Prophet's footsteps, Hazrat Ali believed in making up and moving on

The Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin, the philosopher-warrior Hazrat Ali, had tried his best to mollify both sides in his role as an honest peace-broker. He had even stationed his sons, Hassan and Hussain, to stand guard at the caliph’s palace as an expression of neutrality. But the caliph’s blood-spattered shirt and his wife’s mutilated fingers and palm were promptly transported to Damascus, where they remained on display on the pulpit for a year as a brazen and provocative expression of grief, designed to incense the Damascene public.

Away from Muawiya’s court in Damascus and oblivious to the brewing storm, the fourth caliph assumed power amid a unanimous show of public approval in Medina. Hazrat Ali – who is widely believed to have been deprived of his right to the caliphate according to Shia Islam – abhorred grandeur and promptly changed his title to “Imam”. Lesley Hazelton, in her riveting and rich history, After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, gives a superb account of the background to the most visible schism in Islam, which has shaped the belief system of Shi’ism as the world knows it today.

Persian miniatures of the Battle of Karbala (Qajar period c. 1850)2
Persian miniatures of the Battle of Karbala (Qajar period c. 1850)2

Although the power of grievance and perceived injustice is what drives the Shia philosophy, paradoxically, according to Hazelton, it was the Imam’s act of resisting the urge to assert his rule that exalts his stature and adds to his nobility, grace and integrity. Seventh-century Arabia owed its existential equilibrium to a complex matrix of overlapping tribal rivalries, inter-marriages, clan loyalties, and a strong adherence to Islam. Hazrat Ayesha, the Prophet’s (pbuh) youngest, albeit headstrong wife (his marriage to her is another example of how Arabian society worked in those days) was slandered: tongues in Medina had started to wag, casting a slur on her character.

Fresh from a prophetic trance with sweat dripping down his face, the Prophet (pbuh) had received a Divine revelation exonerating Ayesha in words that are part of Surah 24 of the Quran: “This is a manifest lie! If the slanderers had even produced four witnesses! But they produced no witnesses, so they are liars in the eyes of God…”

In an atmosphere of competing claims to the caliphate, with Hazrat Ali’s supporters aggrieved at the injustice they saw meted out to them on no less than three occasions, Arabia teetered on the brink of dark times ahead. Add to this the historical baggage of Ali’s advice to the Prophet (pbuh) to divorce his young wife. A towering figure, the Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin and son-in-law had endured all the perceived injustices done to him and his family in silent and dignified grace. He believed firmly in making up and moving on, following in the footsteps of his cousin and father-in-law. He had married Hazrat Abu Bakr’s widow and adopted his son, Muhammad Abu Bakr, thus sending a strong message of reconciliation. (It is interesting to remember that Muhammad Abu Bakr is supposed to have struck the 82-year-old Usman first, followed by a free-for-all melee that resulted in the caliph’s death). In a similar gesture of goodwill, the Prophet had married Umm Habiba, Muawiya’s sister after the fatah (opening) of Mecca. In another pragmatic move, Ali had given the hand of his daughter, Umm Kulsum, in marriage to Umar Ibn Khattab, the second caliph, after the death of his wife, Hazrat Fatima.
Dynastic rule based on primogeniture displaced Islam's egalitarian principles

Ali preferred indigence to opulence and spiritual wealth to shallowness. Never a believer in dynastic rule after the Prophet’s death (pbuh), he played a colossal and crucial role in the expansion of Islam, which could only come if he had sworn allegiance to the first three caliphs – something that Hazleton believes he genuinely did. What started off as a hairline crack deepened into a major fault-line within Islam. It is interesting to note that Ali, who eventually became the source of spiritual guidance for Sufis and mystics, never overtly or violently asserted his claim to the caliphate.

In Shia Islam, Eid-e-Ghadeer commemorates the day the Prophet (pbuh) famously declared at Ghadeer Khom, a desert watering-hole, that “whoever follows me as a leader (maula), Ali is also his leader.” The Sunnis point out that, although all such pronouncements made by the Prophet (pbuh) place Ali in an exalted position, they do not clearly prove his intention regarding a successor. As events panned out later, the egalitarian message of Islam was forgotten and the time-tested form of government became the guiding principle: dynastic rule based on primogeniture (which, interestingly, also remains the rule in the institution of the Shia Imamate). The last feeble but allegorically powerful resistance to dynastic rule was brutally snuffed out by Yazid’s forces at Karbala, treating Imam Hussain and his paltry number of adherents as a sign of recalcitrance in the caliphate.

The opulent and aristocratic Umayyads, who considered leadership their birthright by dint of being the most influential clan in the Quresh tribe (and who had felt threatened by a Hashmi prophet) leapt back in the saddle in the form of an Umayyad dynasty. A cacophony surrounds the legitimacy of respective claims to the caliphate and throne of Islam on both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide. Add to this combustible mix, the two-century-old, inflexible strain of Islam that considers followers of all other sects heretics (except those of Wahhabism), and one can begin to see through the mist surrounding the embattled faith today.

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore-based lawyer. Follow him @Tariq_Bashir

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir