This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

By the 7th century, Islam had emerged as a prominent force in the Middle East. With the former great empires of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia in disarray after a period of long and costly conflict, the Islamic prophet Muhammad was able to unite the tribes of Arabia under a Muslim banner. This was an astonishing achievement by Muhammad. His early followers in the Arabian Peninsula were made up of various tribes and a mix of diverse faiths including Christianity, Judaism and Paganism. The foundations were therefore set for Islamic conquests that would result in the emergence of one of the largest empires in history by c.850. However, this geopolitical rise did not coincide with internal stability for the young religion. This early period of Muslim history would see the rise and fall of several dynasties, countless assassinations of caliphs (Muslim ruler seen as the protectors of Mecca and Medina) and historic battles. The fallout over the choice of Muhammad’s successor would create the Sunni-Shia split that, from the Syrian Civil War to the brutal murders of Shia Muslims by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, has shaped Islamic relations since.

When Muhammad died in 632, two factions in the Muslim community emerged, with differing views over his succession. The first faction was the Sunni who felt tribal traditions should be honoured. They believed the most respected elder of the community should be chosen to lead. Conversely, the Shia argued that the leadership should remain in the family of Muhammad, namely with Ali the husband of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah. Although the Sunni initially prevailed, political tension continued and three out of the first four caliphs of the first Rashidun caliphate were murdered. Umar, who expanded the caliphate into Byzantine and Sassanid lands at a staggering rate, and Uthman, whose reign was dominated by widespread protests, were two Sunni caliphs to be assassinated. When Ali was finally chosen to be the fourth Rashidun caliph in 656, war broke out and Ali was killed fighting near Kufa, now in modern-day Iraq. War would see the Sunni and Shias permanently split with brutal consequences. 

In 661 following the death of Ali, the Umayyad dynasty came to power moving their capital city to Damascus that had been conquered from the Eastern Roman Empire. They were a powerful Sunni family whose rule was rejected by Ali’s son Hussein. According to Vali Nasar, author of The Shia Revival, Hussein ‘stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.’ Hussein’s severed head was brought back to the Umayyad caliph and this loss is still mourned in the Shia and some parts of the Sunni community. This has become known as the Islamic schism, similar in many aspects to the Christian schism that occurred later in the 11thcentury between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

The Umayyad caliphate was the main Islamic power from 661-750 incorporating many pre-existing Byzantine and Sassanid structures. Their reign was characterised by its tolerance of opposing faiths. While Islam was seen as the superior faith, Christians and Jews were able practice and had pay a small tax known as the jizya. Yet, the Umayyads were overthrown in 750 with surviving family members fleeing to Iberia. They were replaced by the Sunni Abbasid dynasty who employed the help of Shia fighters to help overthrow the Umayyad regime. However, this did not usher a period of peace between the two communities as Shia imams (religious leader/teacher) such as Ja’far al-Sadiq were murdered at the orders of the sunni caliph Al-Mansur. Moreover, Shia sources describe how their community went back into hiding and had to practice in secret. Some sources also describe the destruction of Imams’ tombs, mass beheadings of Shia Muslims, and Shias being buried alive in the walls of buildings under construction. Whether these accounts are genuine is unclear but regardless they suggest the existence of a stark divide between the two groups during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods of rule. 

To conclude, the Sunni-Shia split had bloody beginnings. The force that Muhammad united during his lifetime quickly fell apart during the first Rashidun caliphate. Divisions over whether tribal traditions should be followed by appointing an important elder or whether to keep the successor in Muhammad’s bloodline would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Rashidun caliphate and rise of the Umayyad dynasty following the death of Ali’s son Hussein. The Umayyad and Abbasid periods would only see an escalation in these tensions with Shias being targeted by various Sunni caliphs. In the present day, 85% of the world’s Muslim population identify as Sunni with the Saudi regime, the so-called protectors of Mecca and Medina, being the most powerful leaders of this group. Shia Muslim are largely populated in Iran and form an important minority in other Arab countries such as Pakistan, Lebanon and Syria. To understand contemporary tensions in the Middle East it is important to understand the origins of this divide: this centuries-old conflict still has the potential to start bitter conflicts and bring death and destruction to the Middle East. In this way, the event of choosing Muhammad’s successor was one of the most important events in world history, one that has no doubt shaped the modern world.