Following up on our tour of the various factions involved in Middle Eastern affairs, we take a look at the evolution of the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam and the growth of the state of Islam.
The fracture between the two sects dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet’s father-in-law was endorsed by the Qu’ran and chosen to be his successor through a consensus process known as shura. This caused a fatal rift in the young religion, as some Muslims believed that only one who shared Muhammad’s blood could be divinely ordained to lead them. This gave rise to the Sunni (those who conform to the way of Sunnah) and Shi’ite denominations of Islam. Although the two have far more in common than not, their disagreements arise on important points. The Sunnites place more focus on Sharia and choose their leaders by consensus of the Muslim community (the ummah). Shi’a , on the other hand, believe that their leaders (imams) are chosen by god and are impervious to sin and other weaknesses of humanity.
Sunnites have far more adherents than the Shi’ite; nearly 80% of those who follow Islam are Sunni. This has led to frequent persecution of the Shi’ites, who, up until the twentieth century, found themselves marginalized and disgraced. It was not until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that both sects united against Europe and, later, against Arab nationalism. Decades of peace between the Sunni and Shia was further cemented by the issuance of a fatwa in 1959, which recognized Shia Islamic law as the fifth Islamic law and allowed Shia law to be taught at a Cairo-based Sunni university.
However, as the Arab nationalism and European threats faded, Islamic fundamentalism took on a new form. No longer focused on a common enemy, the sects’ leaderships moved to a more radical view of their respective beliefs. One of the defining moments of the ideological struggle came with the Iranian revolution in1979, in which Iran became an Islamic republic under the Shia Ayatollah Khomeini. This served not only as a lesson to other nations struggling with their identity in the Middle East, but as an example that the westernization undergone by many Arab countries in the early twentieth century could be reversed.
In recent years, the Middle East has been rife with tension between the two sects, and many more radicalized group have taken drastic steps to eliminate each other. In 2003, as the United States began its second war with Iraq, these tensions reached the point of near civil war. Iraq is an overwhelmingly Shia nation; however many who had been in power were Sunni, leading to a violent regime topple.
The Middle Eastern world as it stands now is lodged in a power struggle between democracy seekers, antiquated regimes, and extremist sects of the different denominations. This instability has led to more than a year of war and regime changes, with no end in sight.
Tomorrow, we will look at some of these extreme branches of Islam and explore their role in shaping our changing world.