It may have taken 1,327 years, but the Sunni "caliphs" are once again fighting Shiites in Karbala, as Shiites (Arabs and Persians) are once again agitating for influence from Kufa. Thus Islamic history must once again be examined through the narrative of two competing Muslim sects.
After the death of Mohammed in AD 632, Muslims were divided over the issue of a successor. Some Muslims believed they should follow the tribal tradition whereby a council of elders would chose a leader. These became the Sunnis: those who follow the traditions (sunna). Arab tribal tradition essentially meant that a strongman would be installed as dictator to guarantee order. These Muslims believed that Mohammed was a prophet and Allah's message could be understood by anyone and taken as literal. Therefore they saw a difference between the preacher (teacher) and the strongman (dictator).
Other Muslims believed that Allah's divine appointment of Mohammed was significant. They believed spiritual knowledge was esoteric and leadership was by divine appointment, so only the blood relatives of Mohammed could be leaders of the Muslims. While they believed that Mohammed's successor should be Ali, Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, they respected that majority decision and accepted the Sunni caliphs. That is until Ali, who had been appointed as the fourth Caliph, was assassinated and his murderer, Muawiya (the governor of Syria) assumed the Caliphate, becoming the first Umayyad Caliph. The Sunnis, who were only interested in Muawiya's power, not how he got it, accepted Muawiya's rule. But the partisans of Ali could not.
This was the point at which the partisans of Ali - the Shiites - began to separate themselves from the Sunnis. The Shiites believed the violence and chaos proved the Sunnis had erred in trusting tribal tradition over divine appointment. As Shiite veneration of Ali grew, so did their anger and resistance. Husayn, Ali's son and Mohammed's grandson, defiantly refused to acknowledge the Umayyad Caliphate.
The second Umayyad Caliph, Yazd I, who was based in Damascus was troubled by rebellions in Kufa, Ali's capital. Not only were the Shiites rebelling but so too were the Persians of Kufa rebelling against the Arab nature of Umayyad rule. So in AD 680 Caliph Yazd I sent an army to Karbala to lay siege to Husayn's caravan to put an end to Husayn and his Shiite followers, as well as the Persians of Kufa.
The Shiites were ambushed and routed. Husayn fought but was killed, martyred for his belief. The surviving Shiites and Persians fled east into Persia. The martyr Husayn was survived by his young son Ali who became the first of 12 Shia imams to have descended directly from Mohammed. (The 12th Imam disappeared in AD 939 before he could produce an heir. According to Shiism he was taken into occultation and will return in the last days as the Shia Messiah.)
The Shiite claim that only a blood descendent of Mohammed should lead the Muslims is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Sunni caliphs. Sunni demonisation and persecution of Shiites has virtually always been politically motivated and to counter this challenge.
After the 12th Imam disappeared without leaving an heir the Shiites settled down to await his return, fostering a culture of quietism and future hope. They revered and venerated the martyr Husayn and bore Sunni persecution whilst focusing on cultural, theological and intellectual pursuits as they awaited the return of their Shia Messiah who would right all wrongs.
Sunnis meanwhile interpreted their dominance and power as proof of Allah's blessing, when really it was due to merciless, imperialistic aggression. However Islamic (Sunni) military and imperialist power eventually faded beneath the expanse of the empire, the corruption of the caliphate and the rising industrial, scientific, technological and military ascendancy of post-Reformation Europe.
In the 19th Century, Sunni fundamentalism emerged decreeing that (Sunni) Islam's decline was the result of Allah's displeasure at Muslim waywardness. Al-Wahhab's Islamic reformation and revival of puritanical Quranic fundamentalism - which is pro-Sharia and pro-jihad, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Christian - was intended to restore Allah's favour and Sunni power. During the 20th Century each Islamic (Sunni) loss (e.g. Balkan Wars, WW1, WW2, the Middle East Wars) triggered a renewed call for Islamic reform, a return to puritanical Quranic fundamentalism.
Then came the 1979 Islamic (Shiite) Revolution in Iran, which was the result of Shiism plus Revolutionary Marxism. Shiites are divided over this. Many Shiites believe they should still be quietly awaiting the return of their messiah, the 12th Imam Al-Mahdi, while other Shiites believe they should advance with revolutionary zeal to hasten his return.
Whilst Shiites comprise a minority of only 10 to 15 percent of all Muslims, in the Middle East the Sunni-Shia ratio is around 50-50.
Shiite ascendancy is a direct and serious threat to Sunni legitimacy and dominance that is interpreted as proof of Allah's blessing. As such, the Shiite threat had to be combated; the Shiites had to be contained. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) bogged the Shiites down for a decade and every nation that was keen to contain Iran's Shiite Islamic revolutionary zeal supported Saddam Hussein. Secular, Arab Iraq provided the western bulwark to Shiite ascendancy and expansion.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia set about building an ideological bulwark to hold back Shiism on Iran's eastern border. During the 1960s and 1970s the Saudis had been forging an alliance with Pakistan and exporting Wahhabist ideology to counter secular Arab nationalism. But after Iran's Islamic (Shiite) Revolution the Saudis ratcheted up the anti-Shiite rhetoric. The Wahhabism being pumped around the world post-1979, especially into Pakistan and Afghanistan (via the Taliban), was not only pro-Sharia, pro-jihad, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian but virulently anti-Shiite as well.
For more than two decades Shiite Iran was hemmed in and ground down.
Operation Iraqi Freedom removed the western bulwark and liberated and empowered Iraq's Arab Shiites, thereby completely overturning the balance of Muslim power in the Middle East.
As the Shiites become more powerful, influential and confident the threatened Sunnis respond with increasingly virulent anti-Shiite Sunni extremism, which is equally anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and imperialistic. This could lead to a full-blown Shiite vs Sunni war, which would spread through the region and devastate the head and heart of both sects.
The Shiites, in an effort to prevent a Sunni vs Shiite war (a desire with roots a millennium of defensiveness), then increase their anti-Israel, anti-Christian, Islamic imperialistic rhetoric in the hope of deflecting Sunni hate and uniting the sects to fight common Islamic causes and hatreds - Jews, Israel, Christians, the West, secularists and apostates - rather than each other.
This is why Lebanon's (Shiite) Hezballah has taken up the (Sunni) Palestinian cause. This is why (Shiite) Iran is overtly supporting (Sunni) Hamas and expending vast energies to run provocative anti-Semitic events. Iran's policy makers, leaders and preachers are desperate to prevent devastating sectarian war. Their anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Western rhetoric is a strategy to unite Muslims.
However two-and-a-half decades of prolific, virulently anti-Shia, Wahhabist propaganda has guaranteed that this Shiite strategy will fail, as particularly the most indoctrinated Sunnis will be unable to accept any degree of Shiite ascendancy or Muslim unity with those they have been taught to regard as infidels, polytheists and kafir.
So while the Sunni vs Shiite struggle is primarily a struggle between two Muslim sects competing for legitimacy and supremacy, it is inevitable that the Jews and Christians of the Middle East will be seriously impacted. We are already seeing this dynamic in action in Iraq where the targeted, violent persecution of the Christian and the Mandaean communities is escalating.
During 2007 the Sunni vs Shiite struggle will escalate in Lebanon, doubtless with horrendous consequences for the Church. Shiite-majority Lebanon is located at the end of a broad Shiite crescent that takes Iranian power right to Israel's northern border. Therefore Lebanon is hugely strategic. As a Shiite majority state in which the Shiites have the backing of Iran, Lebanon - which like Iraq has a large Christian minority - may well be an Iraq-in-waiting.
Saudi Arabia is also at risk of Sunni vs Shiite unrest. While Saudi Arabia is only 15 percent Shiite, virtually all those vilified, persecuted, marginalised Shiites live in Eastern Province where they form a clear majority. Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province is at the end of a tight Shiite crescent that runs from Iran through oil-rich southern Iraq down into Saudi Arabia along the coast of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia's Shiites are linked to Iraq's Shiites and revere Ayatollah Sistani. Saudi Sunnis are flocking to Iraq for jihad, excited by the prospect of killing infidel, kafir Shiites and Americans. What's more, they are returning to Saudi Arabia doubly zealous and anxious to kill Saudi Shiites. Eastern Province is ripe for unrest especially if Iran decides to support a Shiite insurgency. It must be noted that Shiite-dominated Eastern Province also happens to have around 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's oil assets, making it hugely strategic territory. Furthermore, Shiites believe their messiah, the Mahdi, and his deputy (Jesus) will make their reappearance at the Ka'bah in Mecca. They will fight the "Sofyani" (the tribe that was the keeper of the Ka'bah during the time of Mohammed) before they march with the believers to Kufa, the historic capital of Ali, southern Iraq. Here the Mahdi will establish his global government.
According to Iran's President Ahmadinejad, the return of the Mahdi is imminent. However Ahmadinejad's urgency is probably generated more by political than theological considerations - Iran has only a small window of opportunity through which it can hope to ascend to that place of regional hegemony and Islamic leadership. Iran's oil reserves are being depleted and Iran's population growth is negative. Iran needs to extend its tentacles into more profitable (oil-rich) regions and unite the Muslim world behind its leadership now, because Iran's power has a definite use-by-date. Also Ahmadinejad is hugely unpopular. Iranians are risking life and liberty to protest his belligerence and repression. To hold on to power and advance his urgent, apocalyptic strategy, he will have to be even more ruthless and repressive in 2007 than he was in 2006.
The Shiite ascendancy and the resulting Sunni backlash spells major troubles for Jews, Mandaeans and Christians across the Middle East, just as it has in Iraq. What's more, this dynamic will play out to varying degrees everywhere there are Shiites and Sunnis, especially in mixed regions where they are vying for legitimacy and dominance - in Europe, Pakistan, Canada, Australia, Azerbaijan and more, as well as in countries such as Bosnia that are patrons of an ascendant Iran.
As implied in the introduction, this Sunni vs Shiite conflict could well be the beginning of the end of Islam. Iran may rise and even lead the Shiites to victory over the Sunnis and leadership of the Islamic world after a hugely destructive Islamic implosion. But the Muslim remnant will then have to face the failure of Shia messianic prophecy. For while many false "Jesus" and "Mahdis" will probably appear in the near future none will be able to fulfil Shia prophesy.
"I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God's power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God's right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else - not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself." Ephesians 1:19-23 (NLT)
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