In his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) Samuel Huntington used the politically incorrect phrase “the bloody frontiers of Islam” (it is politically correct to not mention the fact that the largest portion of religiously inspired violence today is by Muslims, even though few Muslims actually engage in it). If anything, the frontiers have become bloodier than ever, for example in Africa. It is debatable whether Islam, with its many divisions, is accurately describable as one civilization. If it is, much of the violence occurs within it rather than on its frontiers. Horrendous atrocities are committed by Muslims against Muslims in Syria and Iraq, where armed conflicts are escalating toward a war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims that spills across national frontiers, threatening the stability of the entire region. It is not just outside observers but the combatants themselves who characterize these conflicts in religious terms. Sunni insurgents invoke their faith in the battle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad (who is an adherent of the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shi’i Islam), as do their Iraqi coreligionists in the fight against the Shi’a-dominated government of Nouri al-Malaki.
Two questions obtrude here: Are there real differences between these two branches of Islam? Do the differences sufficiently explain the conflict between them, or are there important non-religious causes to be taken into account? I think that the answer to both questions is yes, though I have neither the space nor the competence to provide a detailed elaboration of this answer here. Modern historians and social scientists have the inclination to propose that allegedly religious conflicts are “really” about something else–such as class, ethnicity, or national interest. This inclination derives from the fact that modern scholarly disciplines operate within a secular discourse that has difficulty dealing with religious motives. The term “religionization” has been used to apply to conflicts which originally had little to do with religion, but which subsequently came to be articulated in religious terms. For instance, the term was used to describe the conflict between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs in Bosnia. P.J. O’Rourke has the satirist’s gift of making pithy observations about complicated situations. Thus he described the war in Bosnia as occurring between three groups of people of the same race, who look alike, who speak the same language, and are only divided by religions in which none of them believe. Could this be said of the Sunni/Shi’a conflict raging in the Middle East today? I think not. Passionate religious beliefs are clearly in play, and at least partly explain the ferocity of the conflict. But this doesn’t mean that more mundane interests are not also involved, such as for example the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for hegemony in the oil-rich region. Motives are rarely pure, and history is not a seminar in either theology or economics.
The original schism originated in a dispute over who was to be the successor of the Prophet Muhammad after his death in 632 CE. He had been both the religious leader of the nascent Muslim community, the umma, and the head of the Muslim state that was then limited to the area around Medina in Arabia, but which soon after expanded to a vast territory stretching from India to the Pyrenees. Thus the dispute concerned an institution that was both religious and political. Modern historians have had a hard time trying to establish just what happened after Muhammad’s death. Written histories were not produced until well more than a century after the event, based on contradictory oral traditions. Shi’a sources claim that Muhammad named as successor (khalifa/caliph) his son-in-law Ali, husband of his daughter Fatima. Sunni sources counter-claim that Muhammad did not name a successor, but left it to the umma to decide.
Some facts are fairly clear: A gathering of the Prophet’s “companions” (leading followers) elected one of their own, Abu Bakr, to be caliph. Fatima opposed the election, but Ali finally accepted it, as he did the two caliphs that followed Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman (either because he wanted to avoid a civil war, or because the other side was stronger in numbers). Ali did become the fourth in the line of so-called “righteous caliphs” (those recognized as legitimate by Sunnis); Shi’a regard him as the first imam (leaders directly inspired by God). There was from the beginning the “party of Ali” (shi’a is the Arabic word for a party or faction); the Shi’a branch of Islam began there. Ali died in 661 CE.
At that point the dispute became very violent. The partisans of Ali believed that his sons Hassan and Hussein should have been caliphs/imams after him. Hassan died (possibly poisoned). Hussein was attacked by forces under the command of Yazid I, a caliph from the new dynasty of the Omayyads, established in Damascus in Syria, on territory recently conquered from the Byzantine empire. In 680 CE the armies of Hussein and Yazid clashed at the Battle of Kerbala (in what is now Iraq). Hussein was decisively defeated and was killed on the battlefield. It was on the tenth day of Muharram (a month in the Islamic calendar). It is still observed by Shi’a as a day of commemoration and mourning, when processions of men scourge themselves bloody on their bare backs as they march. It is an impressive sight (I saw it once, celebrated of all places on Park Avenue in New York, I believe by Iranian expatriates). Emotions run high. In Shi’a regions the battle is sometimes re-enacted ceremonially; on some occasions the actor playing Yazid was lynched by the spectators. Shi’a is a minority faith in most of the Muslim world, Iran and Iraq being important exceptions. Iran was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 651 CE; Shi’a gradually spread in the country but only became the state religion in the 16th century, under the Safavid dynasty.
Are there significant differences between the two major branches of Islam?. Definitely yes. The Shi’a imamate is a very important difference. In Sunni Islam an imam is simply any man who leads the prayers in a mosque, without any special clerical status (like an ordinary Jewish man leading a minyan, a group of minimally ten adult males gathered for prayer). In Shi’i Islam the imams were the successors of the Prophet, endowed with divine knowledge. In mainline Shi’i 12 imams are recognized (hence the name Twelvers, distinct from the Ismailis who have a different count). But then there is a very peculiar twist: The twelfth imam is believed to have never died, but gone into hiding (the so-called “occultation”). He is still on earth, in a secret location. He communicates through mysterious messengers with some inititiates. At the end of time he will emerge from hiding and reappear as the Mahdi (incidentally, in the company of Jesus!); he will then establish the universal rule of Islam. These ideas give Shi’i an air of mystery and eschatological expectation, which periodically erupts in messianic movements waving the black banner of the Mahdi. Sunni Islam has no clergy, in that respect again very similar to Judaism. Sunni ulemas, like rabbis, are legal scholars who issue juridical judgments (rabbinical responsa/Islamic fatwas).
There are distinctive Sunni and Shi’i systems of jurisprudence. Both communities are led by individuals who have gone through long periods of education in Islamic law. But Shi’i has developed a sort of clerisy, since it recognizes some individuals as being endowed with inspired insights; they constitute a hierarchy, topped by highly respected ayatollahs. Shi’i Islam is more open to ecstasy and the supernatural; Sunnis are a much more sober lot (which, alas, does not necessarily exclude fanaticism). All analogies limp. But I will risk the contempt of any scholar of Islam who may read this by suggesting that this distinction resembles that between Catholicism and Protestantism. Important point: Trying to understand different versions of Islam or Christianity or any other faith, one must look beyond official doctrines to the lived piety of ordinary believers. A pilgrimage to Mecca mediates a very different experience from a pilgrimage to, say, Santiago de Compostela.
I doubt whether there were clear religious differences between the “party of Ali” and the supporters of Abu Bakr at the beginning of this dispute. Over time this changed, especially as Islam surged out of Arabia and was established in countries with cultures and religious histories very different from those of the Arab contemporaries of the Prophet. Shi’a and Sunnis then created two very distinctive versions of Islam, both in doctrine and in lived religious experience. If one can distinguish between “real” religious conflicts and those where religion masks other motives and interests, then the present Shi’a/Sunni wars are “really” about religion. This does not mean that there are no non-religious factors involved. The old hostility between Iran and its Arabic-speaking neighbors is surely such a factor, and must be involved in the interaction between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Gulf States, as well as religiously divided Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. There are class factors, for example in the tensions between the Sunni elite and the Shi’a populace in Bahrain. There are ethnic factors, for example in Afghanistan as between Sunni Pashtuns and Shi’a Tajiks.
Of course disentangling the religious and non-religious factors in any empirical situation is a challenging analytic task. Social “reality” is a messy business, motives are typically mixed, most human actions straddle different relevancies (say, between career calculations and hopes for the afterlife). To use one of Max Weber’s categories, there are “clear cases.” One may assume that a jihadi suicide bomber is motivated religiously. One may also assume that a thoroughly secular politician pretending to be an Evangelical Christian when running for office in Alabama is not motivated by hope of salvation. If one got to know these two individuals in situations where they speak freely, it is not impossible to figure out what is “really” going on.
The preceding text is pretty heavy stuff. I end with two jokes, for comic relief but also because they distinguish between a situation where religion is just a veneer, and a situation where an action is “really” religious. Both jokes come from Northern Ireland when the Catholic/Protestant conflict was in its most violent phase. (They are also an interesting case for my favorite science of comparative jokology: Two jokes that start in exactly the same way, but are a finally very different.) Not “really” about religion: A man walks down a dark street in Belfast. A gunman jumps out of a doorway, holds a gun to the pedestrian’s head. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”—“Well, actually I’m an atheist”.—“But are you a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?”—A genuine jihadi will use every opportunity to express his faith: A man walks down a dark street in Belfast. A gunman jumps out of a doorway and holds a gun to the pedestrian’s head. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”—“Well, actually I’m Jewish”—“And I’m the luckiest Jihadi in Belfast!”