After the death of Muhammad in 632, his companion Abu Bakr was made the caliph. Ali, who was both cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad did not accept this. On his deathbed, Abu Bakr nominated his son Umar as his successor. Umar became caliph in 634 but was killed ten years later in 644. Uthman, Umar’s son was elected as the next caliph but Uthman was killed in 656. Ali then took control of the caliphate in 656. He was not accepted by all and saw few rebellions. In 657, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiyah declared himself caliph and went on a war against the ruling caliph Ali. Though the war turned out to be a stalemate, the caliphate went to the Umayyad dynasty after Ali was assassinated in 661. His rule lasted for five years and this period is known as ‘Fitna’ (The first Islamic Civil War).
The reign of four successive caliphs- Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, is known as Rashidun Caliphate. The followers of Ali came to be known as Shi’a (‘Shiaat Ali’, partisans of Ali) which is the minority sect of Islam and makes 15% of the Muslim population today. The followers of all four Rashidun Caliphs came to be known as the Sunni sect, the majority Muslim sect today.
After Ali’s death, his son Hasan was elected as the next Caliph but he abdicated a few months later to avoid any conflict within the Muslims. Muawiyah became the next Caliph. Under the Umayyads, the Caliphate grew in size extensively. The Caliphate’s extents were from modern-day Morocco in West Africa to Sidh in Pakistan including the Iberian Peninsula. It was the sixth largest-ever empire in history.
For various reasons, the Umayyads were not universally supported by the Muslims. This was because Umayyads had many non-Muslim administrators in their government and because the Umayyads were not elected by ‘Shura’ (Consultation). The Shi’a sect wanted the Caliph from Muhammad’s bloodline. The Umayyad dynasty saw many rebellions and to make things worse, the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein and his family in the Battle of Karbala. Eventually, the supporters of the lineage of Ali brought down the Umayyad dynasty in 750. But to the disappointment of the Shi’a sect, the Abbasid dynasty took the Caliphate. The Abbasid dynasty was based in Baghdad and they were the descendants of Muhammad’s uncle and not Ali’s. All this solidified the Shi’a-Sunni divide.
The Islamic Sects
Apart from both Shi’a and Sunni sects supporting different successors of Muhammad, they also differ on many beliefs. The Shi’a sect believes that God always provides a guide. Unlike the Sunni lexicon, Imam for the Shi’a sect is the bloodline descendant of Muhammad. For a Sunni, Imam is someone who leads prayer in Mosques. So Shi’as believe that God first provided Imam as a guide and then Ayatollah, a high-ranked Muslim Cleric. For Sunnis, the authority is based on the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad. Sunni religious scholars are far less powerful than their Shi’a counterparts.
Shi’a sect believes in Twelve Imams. At the 5th Imam, the Zaydi Shi’a broke off who mainly belong to Yemen. Ismaili Shi’as who are mainly from South Asia broke off at the 7th Imam. After the 12th Imam, Ayatollahs got religious authority. Sunnis dominated the first nine centuries of Islamic rule (excluding the Shi’a Fatimid Dynasty) until Safavid Dynasty which was established in Persia in 1501.
Islam is divided mainly into three sects: Sunni, Shi’a, and Khawarij. The Sunni sect has four schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali (Wahabi and Salafi). The Shi’a sect is divided into Twelver, Sevener, Zaydi (Yemen minority), and Alawi (Minority in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey). The major sub-sect of Khawarij is Ibadi (Oman). The Ibadi gives absolute authority to the Quran and Hadith (Record of words, actions, and silent approvals of Prophet Mohammad).
Politics and Rivalry
After Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, a position made in the constitution of the Islamic Republic to be the highest-ranking political and religious authority. He ended the 2500 years old Persian Empire. After he assumed the title, he started experiments and tried to further inspire Islamic revival. He preached Muslim unity although he supported groups with Shi’a agendas. The Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Hamas of Palestine admired Khomeini’s success but rejected his authority.
As Iran was transforming into Shi’a power, Saudi Arabia accelerated the propagation of Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an Islamic revivalist movement of the Sunnis. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the communist government, Saudi Arabia sponsored militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet forces. These militants were also suppressing Iran-backed Shi’a movements. Saudi Arabia also backed Iraq in its war against Iran in 1980-88. In 2003, the US removed Sunni minority dictator Saddam Hussein in the Shi’a majority Iraq.
It is a fact that Shi’as and Sunnis are not unified in themselves and have acted against people of their own sect. This has been clearly seen in the past when the Iraqi Army (majority Shi’a) fought against Iran. Houthis of Yemen, a Zaydi Shi’a militancy group fought against Yemen government headed by a Zaydi. Shi’a militant groups Amal and Hezbollah battled several times in the Lebanese Civil War. In the case of Sunnis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and Saudi Arabia fighting against Al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups.
In recent times, Shi’a groups won important political victories like Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad who is in office since 2000 (his father was President during 1971-2000), relies on Alawis (Shi’a sect). 13% of the upper ranks in the Syrian Army and Security Services are filled with Alawis. The Iraqi Parliament is dominated by Shi’as since 2003. In Lebanon, Hezbollah (Lebanese Shi’a militia) is the strongest party. In Yemen, the Shi’a militia Houthis toppled the government in 2015. Just to mention, in both Syria and Bahrain, the power is held by the minority- Alawis in Syria and Sunni ruling family in Bahrain.
Amidst the turmoil, a new entity surfaced in Iraq which later came to be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, Al-Qaeda was decimated by Sunni Iraqis who were fighting against the extremists. Al-Qaeda established its own movement called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and captured Mosul (the second largest city of Iraq) in 2014. It defied orders of Al-Qaeda’s top commanders to stop killing innocent civilians. As a result, they were expelled from Al-Qaeda. It rebranded itself in 2014 as the Islamic State and declared Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi its caliph. The US got triggered when the IS publicly killed western hostages and retaliated with airstrikes. Although the group was defeated in 2017, it still holds a small number of territories.
Recently, the Israel-Gaza conflict saw the deaths of scores of civilians. In Gaza, a Sunni Islamic militant group Hamas is fighting against Israel. During this conflict, Israel’s Iron Dome yet again proved itself when the system destroyed over 90% of rockets fired towards Israel. The conflict was triggered by the occupation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces. While Israel had given up its control over the Gaza Strip but it continues to occupy West Bank and Golan Heights. Israel is accused of moving a large number of Israelis in the West Bank in a bid to change its demographics. The ceasefire came into effect after the mediation by other countries.
In August 2020, an agreement was signed between the US, Israel and the UAE called the Abraham Accords. With this, the UAE became the third Arab country to normalize its relations with Israel after Egypt and Jordan. Additionally, Israeli relations with Saudi Arabia are also changing as they both plans to work together against their common enemy Iran.
In the case of Iran, the situation is not in its favor. With the US unilaterally leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, the sanctions on Iran came into effect. Consequently, Iran started refining its Uranium fuel, hinting at its intentions. Iran would see a change in its leadership this year as elections for Presidentship are to be held. The common opinion is that the new President would be Ebrahim Raisi who is a Muslim hardliner. Only time will tell what is in the store for Iran.
The Middle East is facing many challenges and its nations must strive to bring peace to the region as few countries like Syria and Yemen are in a disturbed state for a long time. The region’s peace will give economic dividends to the Asian countries. With the change in the leadership of both the USA and Iran, one can expect them to discuss the issues afresh and bring resolution for the betterment of the people.