Peace, one and all…
Here’s the next lecture, on the origins of the Sunni and Shia divide in Islam (which is, given the unfortunate situation in Iraq, very topical). In many ways, this divide gives further emphasis to the place of the Prophet ( ).
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim…
In yesterday’s lecture we looked closely at the Prophet Muhammad and the significance he holds within the Islamic tradition. In today’s session, we will look at closely at the origins, development and meaning of the Sunni-Shia divide, which is in many ways a further amplification of Muhammad’s authority and importance.
The Sunni-Shia schism is the most important division within the entire Islamic tradition. Understanding something of the origins and nature of this divide is thus important in understanding Islam more generally.
As you can see from the map, the Sunni community is the largest in terms of geographic distribution. This is also the case in terms of population; Sunni Muslims account for some 85% of the world Muslim population. The Shia (which in full is Shiat Ali or the ‘Party of Ali’), by contrast, make up the remaining 15% and are concentrated in certain areas. The spread of Shia communities in today’s world is largely a result of a number of historical factors. A brief glance at the map reveals particular concentrations of Shii Muslims in Iran and Iraq, with significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Yemen. There are also substantial Shii minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; the Shii community of India, though small, has also been important historically.
In the contemporary Muslim world, the largest and most influential Shii country is Iran. The revolution of 1979 brought a Shii theocracy to power. The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently the world’s only Shia majority state; Iraq, though it has a Shii majority, also has a large and important Sunni community.
It is in Iraq that the Sunni-Shia split is mostly obviously, and painfully, making itself felt in today’s world. The recent bombing of the important shrine in Samarra has provoked outrage amongst the worldwide Shia community and seems deliberately calculated to inflame sectarian tensions in the region.
By any measure, therefore, understanding the Sunni-Shia divide, and the issues it centres around, is not only central to any study of Islam as a religious tradition, it is only important in terms of current affairs. The purpose of this lecture is thus to explore this dispute. To do this properly, we need to consider a number of different areas. In this lecture, therefore, we will explore the following issues:
- The Nature of the Sources
- The Succession to Muhammad
- The First Fitna (or ‘Civil War’) & the Martyrdom of Husain
- The Question of Authority in Early Islam: Caliph or Imam
- The Companions of Muhammad and the Concept of `Adala: Sunni & Shii Perspectives
Different Schools of Thought
Should it not prove possible to cover all of these topics completely, I will post the remaining lecture text on Blackboard.
This lecture will again refer to the major themes of the course. That is, we will explore identity, authority and law within the context of early Islamic history. Thus, as we proceed through the lecture, try and relate your notes to these themes.
The Nature of the Sources
As we are studying early Islam from a broadly historical perspective, it is important that we consider our sources before we embark on our exploration. Although I do not intend to spend much time on this subject, I would like to make one or two essential points.
When discussing this topic it is crucial to bear in mind the range of perspectives offered by our sources. That is, in order to understand the nature of a particular source, it is first necessary to understand who wrote it, when and why. Within the context before us today, such questions are doubly important. As I pointed out previously, the Sunni-Shia schism is the most important division within the Islamic tradition. Moreover, such debates within the early Muslim community provoked strong feelings on both sides. In other words, we need to consider and account for the bias of our sources. That is, as the question of the succession to Muhammad was arguably the central question asked during the entire early Islamic period, virtually every author has a point to make. It is thus necessary to understand this diversity of opinion; some authors are strongly ‘Shii’ in their outlooks, whilst others are just as equally ‘Sunni’; the range of other voices fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
For those interested in exploring these questions more fully, Wilferd Madelung’s book The Succession to Muhammad: a Study of the Early Caliphate is an invaluable starting point.
The Succession to Muhammad: Conceptual Frameworks & Key Events
Having considered the issue of sectarian bias in our source material, we can now turn to exploring the beginnings of the Sunni-Shia schism. In looking at this period, it is important to understand that we will not attempt an exhaustive study; rather, as was the case in yesterday’s lecture, we will examine some of the key events.
Muhammad died in 632CE (11AH), a mere eleven years after his emigration to Medina. By the time of his death, the nascent Islamic state he had created controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula. The tribes of Arabia had either converted to Islam, or otherwise entered into a treaty relationship with him. However, his death brought a serious challenge to this newly emerged order. The great majority of the tribes, viewing Muhammad’s authority in strictly personal terms, believed that with his death their ties to Medina had been severed. They thus refused to acknowledge the authority of Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, who was thus faced with a large and threatening coalition of tribes. The two years of his caliphate were almost entirely taken up with these wars (known as the Apostasy, or Ridda, Wars).
Bu we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The key point to note is that the Muslim community was in a state of agitated turmoil in the aftermath of Muhammad’s death. Indeed, the newly established community had not faced such a situation before and seems to have reacted with uncertainty. Some refused to even acknowledge Muhammad’s death. Upon hearing the news, Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is reported to have gone to the Mosque and threatened those who said Muhammad had died with his sword. Abu Bakr responded with what was to become a very famous remark:
‘Whoever worships Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead. Whoever worships God, let him know that God lives and can never die’
In other words, even in his death Muhammad was of fundamental importance to the Muslim community.
Muhammad’s death also caused a political crisis in Medina itself. The Medinan tribe of Khazraj, understanding Muhammad’s death in traditional Arab terms, attempted to elect Sa’d ibn Ubadah, one of their chiefs, to lead it independently. Realising the danger of fragmentation in such a move, Abu Bakr, Umar and other senior Companions visited the home of Sa’d. After some dispute, Abu Bakr was ultimately elected the leader of the community (or, to give him his full title, Khalifat Rasul Allah, ‘the Successor of the Messenger of God’).
However, it is worth noting that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, was not present at this meeting. He is said to have reacted to this fait accompli with reluctant acceptance, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr some 6 months later.
The First Fitna (‘Civil War’)
As we saw in Lecture Two, things reached a head during the caliphate of Uthman. Uthman, who placed members of his clan (the Banu Umayya) in positions of authority, was eventually faced with a widespread revolt, which ultimately led to his murder. This unprecedented event sent a shockwave through the entire community and amidst the ensuing uncertainty, Ali was elected Caliph. However, Ali’s caliphate saw the rebellion of Muawiya, Uthman’s relative and the powerful governor of Syria. After protracted attempts at negotiation, the two sides met in battle at Siffin. The tradition holds that Muawiya was on the verge of defeat when he ordered his men to hoist copies of the Quran on their lances, which was interpreted as an attempt at arbitration. In the subsequent negotiations, Ali was outmanoeuvred. Ali’s negotiations created discontent within his own followers and a major group of them withdrew and one of their number later assassinated Ali.
After Ali’s death, his son Hasan was elected Imam by his supporters, only to be outmanoeuvred by Muawiya. In an increasingly hostile environment, Hasan abdicated his position. Thereafter Muawiya ruled the burgeoning Muslim empire for some 20 years. During this time, he attempted to secure his family’s position and eventually his son Yazid succeeded him.
Karbala & the Martyrdom of Hussein
Yazid’s succession to the Caliphate is seen by the Muslim tradition generally as the birth of hereditary monarchy and as such, is viewed negatively. Moreover, Yazid is said to have been a dissolute character, given to wine and other such pleasures. From the outset, his rule was challenged by Ali’s second son Hussein (Hasan having died a few years previously). After receiving messages of support from his supporters in Iraq, Hussein raised the standard of revolt and left Medina. However, Yazid’s governor blocked the routes into Iraq and Hussein’s small force was halted at Karbala. Hussein and most of his family were subsequently butchered at Karbala and commemorating this event quickly became an important Shii ritual. The murder of the Prophet’s lst surviving grandson sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world and led to a number of revolts.
This brief overview has attempted to set our discussion in its proper context. However, it is important to note that this picture is necessarily simplified. Those interested in exploring the topic further should consult the bibliography given in the Module Handbook.
Succession to Muhammad: the Sunni View
As we have seen, the succession to Muhammad was (and still is) the subject of debate. The Sunni view is based largely on the belief that Muhammad did not leave a clear testimony of his intentions regarding the succession. In a sense, this is generally believed to have been intentional; that is, by this view, Muhammad intended that questions of political leadership and authority should be determined by the fledgling community itself. Sunni historians and theologians thus understand the pattern of historical development of the Caliphate to have been divinely instituted. That is, the first four Caliphs (and we encountered them in last Tuesday’s lecture), who are known as the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’, were appointed following God’s plan. Moreover, the historical order of these ‘Successors’ reflects their order of rank. Thus, for Sunni Muslims, Abu Bakr is ranked first after Muhammad, followed by Umar, Uthman and Ali. The most important Hadith collections all contain traditions which, in some form or other, all attempt to validate this order.
However, the Sunni position is not a monolithic one. There is a wide diversity of opinion on the matter. Moreover, it is important to understand that in the 1,400 years since these events took place, there has been considerable development in the meaning of terms such as ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’. Indeed, in their developed, sectarian forms, these terms do not clearly emerge until the early Abbasid period, some 150 years later.
The Succession to Muhammad: the Shia Viewpoint
If the emerging Sunni ‘orthodoxy’ (to borrow a term from the Christian milieu) understood the historical development of these key events as marks of Divine approval, the Shia by contrast saw them in very different terms. That is, the Shia believe that Muhammad did clearly nominate a successor. Moreover, the Shia conceive the authority of this apparent successor in terms fundamentally different to that of the Sunnis. Accordingly, the Shia believe that Muhammad clearly intended his son-in-law and cousin, Ali b. Abi Talib, to be his successor.
To understand these ideas more clearly, it is important to understand something of the early Muslim worldview. This worldview was directly informed by the attitudes and outlooks of the Quran and hence an attempt to explore early Muslim political thought should be based on what the Quran reveals of their likely attitudes.
Amidst its wider narratives of earlier prophets and their respective nations, the Quran makes explicit reference to a number of prophetic families. That is, the families of former prophets are portrayed as being integral to the success of earlier missionary activity. In verse 33 of the third Surah we thus find the following remark:
‘Indeed, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of Imran over all of the worlds.
In other words, the families of Abraham (the Israelites) and the family of Imran (the family of Mary, mother of Jesus) were of vital importance in sacred history. Of particular importance, however, were narratives regarding Abraham. Abraham as well as being the ancestor of Israel, was also held to be the ancestor of the Arabs via his son Ishmael. In one passage, the Quran records God giving Abraham the following promise: ‘Indeed, I will make you a leader [Imam] for the people’. Abraham’s apparent response is illustrative: ‘”And what of my descendents?: [Allah] said, ‘My covenant does not include the wrongdoers’.
The exalted status of Muhammad’s own family are also alluded to in the following Quranic statement:
‘Allah intends only to remove from you the impurities [of sin], O people of the [Prophet’s] household and to purify you with [extensive] purification’.
‘And say [O Muhammad] I do not ask for it [i.e. this message] any payment [but] only love of kin’
Shia theologians understood this last passage to refer to Muhammad’s kin themselves. Two statements of Muhammad himself are also seen as direct references to Ali’s eventual succession by the Shia. During Muhammad’s first public proclamation of his message, he asked for supporters. Ali is said to have been the only one to offer unequivocal support, despite his tender age (he was a young boy of about 13 at the time). More important, however, is the episode known as Ghadir Khumm (which refers to a well near the outskirts of Medina). Muhammad is said to have stopped his fellow travellers and, in front of the assembled Muslim community, have made the following statement, with his hand Ali’s shoulder: ‘He whose mawla [leader and guardian] I am, Ali is also his mawla’. Interestingly, this event is also related in Sunni traditions, although mawla is understood to mean religious guide, rather than strictly political leadership.
For the Shia, such Quranic passages and Prophetic traditions underline the exalted status of Ali. Accordingly, therefore, the fact that Ali was not given leadership of the Muslim community after immediately Muhammad’s death is significant. According to this view, the Muslim ummah has committed an act of disobedience, as Brown makes abundantly clear:
‘The failure of the early leaders of the community to recognize the claims of `Ali or to accord special status to the family of the Prophet after Muhammad’s death was at best a grievous error, at worst apostasy’.
The Question of Authority in early Islam: Caliph or Imam
As we can see from this summary, the views of Sunnis and Shiis regarding early Islamic history are radically different. We will explore some of the implications of this divergence of opinion shortly, but at this point in the lecture I would like to look more closely at how these views generated different conceptions of leadership. Although these differences are complex, they are illustrated by two key terms: Khalifa (or Caliph) and Imam.
We have already encountered the term Khalifa. The root of this word means literally ‘behind’ and has several possible meanings, such as ‘deputy’ and ‘successor’, and is used in these senses in various passages of the Quran. In one such example, Adam (the first man and first prophet) is specifically referred to by this term:
‘And mention [O Muhammad] when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will place upon the earth a vice-regent’.
The term thus has a sound Quranic pedigree and was used by Abu Bakr as his official title. He referred to himself as ‘Khalifat Rasul Allah’, or ‘Successor of the Messenger of God’ (that is, Muhammad). Although his use of this term combined religious and political functions, as time passed the term Khalifa (or Caliph) was increasingly associated with the rule of the oppressive Umayyad dynasty and thus the Shia, had somewhat negative connotations. However, this is the term most commonly used within the Sunni tradition to refer to the titular head of Islam (along with Amir al-Mumineen, or ‘Commander of the Faithful’).
The term Imam, by contrast, derives from a word meaning ‘in front’ and means literally, ‘leader’. The term is used in the Sunni tradition in a variety of ways; prayer leaders at local mosques are thus ‘Imams’ as are the main religious scholars of Islam. For the Shia, the Imam is more than a prayer leader or a mere legal authority. The Imam is believed to be a divinely inspired guide, who alone possesses knowledge of the inner mysteries of religion. Within this context, the Imams are elevated almost to the status of Prophets, in that they are divinely protected from sin (ma’sum). Later Shii theology develops the idea that the Imams are God’s ‘Proof’ on earth; they are even called the ‘Shadow of God on Earth’.
The Companions of Muhammad: Sunni & Shii Perspectives
- An area of crucial importance
- Related not only to authority but also to religious teaching more generally
- That is, the trustworthiness of the Companions directly affects possibility of relating Prophetic Traditions from them
- Sunni: Companions, as a body, are all ‘Trustworthy’ and thus are a source of Hadith; the more Companions, the more Traditions can be related; the Companions are highly regarded within the Sunni tradition
- Because they opposed Ali, the Shia view the Companions very differently
- As a group not ‘Trustworthy’ and thus not a source of religious teaching or traditions
- Variety of views: some Shia see Companions as major sinners, others as apostates
- Such attitudes are deeply antagonistic to the Sunni tradition
- We will look more closely at these questions in this week’s seminars
Schools of Thought
There are a number of important schools of thought within both the Sunni and Shia traditions. Within Sunni Islam there are four schools of classical Islamic law: Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali, all of which are named after an important early legal scholar. Although these schools have had a long history, their actual differences are relatively minor and relate more to methodological issues than to doctrinal disagreements. The classical understanding within Sunni Islam is that each of these Schools is equally correct and hence equally ‘orthodox’.
Shii Schools of Thought
Although, as we have seen, the acceptance of Ali as the first Imam after Muhammad is the key feature of Shiism in general, there are a number of Shia groups in existence. Indeed, there has probably been a wider divergence of opinions within Shia Islam. This is most plausibly due to their emphasis on knowing and acknowledging the Imam. Arguments have thus tended to focus on the actual identities of particular Imams. In the final part of the lecture we will look briefly at two of the main groups, with particular emphasis on comparing their respective doctrines of Imamate.
The Twelver Shia Community (Ithna `Ashari Shia)
The Ithna `Ashari Shia are by far the largest group within Shia Islam. As we saw at the beginning of the lecture, Iran is a Shiite state and it belongs to the Twelver School. As you might expect, given the name, the Twelvers hold to their belief in a series of 12 Imams, all direct descendents of Ali (through Husayn after the death of Hasan). The names of their Imams are as follows:
- Ali ibn Abi Talib
- Hasan ibn Ali
- Husayn ibn Ali (and brother of Hasan)
- Ali ibn Husayn (known as Zayn al-Abideen, or ‘Ornament of the Worshippers’)
- Muhammad ibn Ali (known as al-Baqir, or ‘He who splits open [religious] knowledge’)
- Ja’far ibn Muhammad (known as al-Sadiq, ‘the Truthful’)
- Musa ibn Ja’far (al-Kazim)
- Ali ibn Musa (al-Rida, or the ‘Chosen’)
- Muhammad ibn Ali (al-Taqi, ‘the Godfearing’)
- Ali ibn Muhammad (al-Naqi)
- Hasan ibn Ali (al-`Askari)
- Muhammad ibn Ali (al-Mahdi, the ‘Rightly Guided One’ or the Messiah)
Although it is not essential to remember the names of the 12 Ithna Ashari Imams, the key point to observe is that they are all direct descendents of Ali ibn Abi Talib (the first Shiite Imam). That is, blood relationship to the Prophet is an essential pre-requisite for holding this office. For the Twelvers the other necessary condition is an explicit appointment by the current Imam (or Nass). In other words, the current Imam must clearly designate his successor. The Twelver theory of Imamate does not depend on the Imam holding actual temporal power; theologically speaking, at least, there is thus no incentive towards rebellion in the name of the Imam.
The Zaydi Community
The Zaydi School’s understanding of the concept of Imama differs from the Twelvers in a number of important respects. The School is named after Zayd ibn Ali (a brother of the fifth Twelver Imam) who rose in unsuccessful revolt during the second century hijri. For the Zaydis, the Imam can be any descendent of Ali and Fatimah, through Hasan or Husayn. Any Alid can thus be a potential Imam, providing the following two conditions are met:
- The candidate for the Imamate must have a high level of religious knowledge
- A candidate for the Imamate (with such requisite knowledge) must also make a public claim; in the classical understanding, he must be ready to fight for the Imamate, ‘sword in hand’
Interestingly, nass (explicit designation) is not a pre-requisite. These beliefs have tended to make Zaydis a politically activist branch of Shiism. In this week’s seminars we will look more closely at this school of thought as it manifested itself in 19th Yemen.
In today’s lecture we have looked closely at the nature, origins and significance of the Sunni-Shia schism within Islam. We have seen that, in many respects, this divide centres around questions of legitimate political leadership and authority. Furthermore, we have seen that these issues also have a fundamental impact on Muhammad’s Companions and their role in the transmission of religious knowledge. In next week’s lectures we will explore the sacred texts of Islam – namely, the Quran and the Prophetic Traditions.