On Saturday, January 2, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who it accused of “terrorist crimes” and “spreading disorder.” Saudi Arabia defines terrorism much more broadly than western countries do, and Nimr’s defenders say he was really a peaceful activist who stood up for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. Nimr’s execution took place against the backdrop of region-wide sectarian conflict ranging from Iraq to Syria to Yemen.

The US State Department, though wary of directly criticizing America’s Saudi ally, warned that the move “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran’s Shiite theocracy, said Nimr’s executioners would face “divine retribution.” And while Iran and Saudi Arabia are foremost geopolitical rivals, the split between Islam’s two main factions, the Sunni and the Shia, always colors discussion of Saudi-Iranian quarrels.


Why is Islam divided into two main branches?

Muhammad, the founder and the first leader of the Islamic faith, who is revered by Muslims as a prophet who communicated with God through the archangel Gabriel, died in 632. A debate immediately ensued as to whether he had appointed a successor. “After the prophet's demise there emerged what we would now call a leadership issue,” says Carool Kersten, lecturer in the study of Islam and the Muslim world at King’s College London. 

“In that small early community, there was one group that was of the opinion that the successor of Muhammad as a community leader should be a senior well-respected figure, and that would be in line with pre-Islamic Arab tribal practices," says Kersten. "Another group, however, insisted that the prophet had anointed a family member as his successor, namely his cousin and his son in law Ali.” 

Initially, the first group won out. Abu Bakr, a close friend and advisor of Muhammad, and father of Muhammad’s child bride Aisha, became the first caliph. He reigned for 27 months before dying of an illness in 634. 

Abu Bakr was then succeeded by Umar, another friend of Muhammad, and father of his wife Hafsa. Umar expanded the caliphate and defeated the Byzantine and Persian empires. He reigned from 634 to 644, before being assassinated by Abu Lulu, a Persian slave. 

Umar was succeeded by Uthman, an early convert to Islam who is credited with compiling the first definitive edition of the Koran. Uthman ruled for 12 years, before a group of rebels stabbed him to death.

After Uthman’s death, Ali became the 4th caliph in 656. But Ali was killed at prayer in 661 by assassins who stabbed him with a poisoned sword.

After Ali’s death, his two sons Hassan and Hussein claimed the title of Caliph. 

But Ali’s rivals, Mu’awiyah, had the largest and the most organized army, and took over the Caliphate. Ali’s son, Hussein, was killed by Mu’awiyah’s son, Yazid, in the battle of Karbala in 680. 

“The split became really irreparable in 680 when the Imam Hussein, the son of Ali, was martyred,” Kersten says. The Islamic faith then divided into two main branches, the Shia, or “Party of Ali,” who emphasised the example of Muhammad, but also of Ali’s descendants, and the Sunni, or “People of the Tradition,” who emphasized the primacy of Muhammad’s example in words and deeds.

 “Ever since, the Sunni and the Shia have developed along their own respective religious and historical tracks,” Kersten says. 


How do Sunnis and Shiites practice Islam differently?

One major difference arising from the early disagreement over leadership is that the status of the community leader between Sunnis and the Shia is very different. “The historical caliphs, on the Sunni side of the equation, were worldly leaders who had to look after law and order within the Islamic lands so that the religion could thrive.” Kersten says.

Shia Islam, meanwhile, contains a doctrine known as “Imamah,” which accords spiritual and political leadership to rightful successors of Muhammad. “Shia imams,” Kersten says, “are actively involved in the interpretation and the development of Islam as a religious tradition. The historical imams were considered infallible in terms of their religious interpretation.” 

History has made martyrdom a more central theme in Shiism. “The story of the imams is not a happy one, and many of them were murdered or died under suspicious circumstances. And because of their numerical minority, the Shia often have been at the receiving end of political repression. That colors their religious outlook as well.”


What does this have to do with Iran-Saudi rivalry?

The very suggestion is controversial. “These are two traditions which developed alongside each other, which have seen many centuries of cross pollination, of interdependence, of engagement, of interactions,” says Ahab Bdaiwi, lecturer in Islamic and Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews. “To insist the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia could be best explained by going back 1400 years is not only misinformed, it is quite offensive to many Muslims. It is as bizarre as someone talking about the great schism in Christendom to make sense of recent tensions between two European nations. It reduces the agency of Iran and Saudi into little more than tribal savages who, it is assumed, fight over ancient religious and tribal rifts; the truth of the matter is the struggle between these two nations is more geopolitical than religious.”

And even if religion and geopolitics have always overlapped, Iran is a relatively young Shia power. “One major reason for the political split [in the Muslim Middle East] is Iran’s Safavid Empire,” says Yaser Mirdamadi, postgraduate researcher in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh. “The empire was established in the 1500s. The Safavids were originally Sunni, and Iran was mainly a Sunni land, but they took the Shia ideology to show their difference from the Ottoman Empire, which was a Sunni empire. Because of force and politics, Iran became a Shia population, and it has remained so until now.”

And Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia—whose kingdom was only established in 1932—is wholly modern. "The quarrel is not religious in its foundations,” says Kersten. “Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah were already in competition with each other as to who would be recognized as the most important and strongest regional power in the Persian Gulf, and who would be the policeman of this strategically important, oil-rich region.” But Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought new religious overtones to its relations with its neighbours. “We saw that first during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, where the rhetoric was very much in terms of Iran as a Shia underdog being invaded by a Sunni regime.”


Do Saudi and Iranian leaders exploit sectarianism?

Saudi Arabia and Iran are rival regional powers with conceptions of state based on religious identity. They compete for influence in religiously diverse countries including Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. “Sectarian rhetoric has currency in the region,” Bdaiwi says. “In public discourse, sectarian sentiment carries a lot of weight. It’s a tool.” But while regional leaders are happy to talk religion, he says, most western media coverage ignores theological subtleties.

Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is fighting a rebel group called the Houthis, is a good example. “The branch of Shiism that many Yemenis subscribe to, the Houthi fighters included, is much closer theologically to the religion of the majority of Sunnis than it is to the religion of Shia Iranians. To insist that the war in Yemen is between Shia rebels and a Sunni government is problematic. It's more correct, if one is going to insist on the religious dimension, to say this is between a Sunni-leaning, broadly-speaking Shia group, and a Sunni government.”

Whether the West understands the nature of the Iran-Saudi rivalry or not, it will be those countries' leaders who set the rhetorical tone for their troubled region. “I am not at all optimistic that it will be possible to persuade key actors like Saudi Arabia and Iran from playing the sectarian card,” Kersten says, “because there is a perception in both Riyadh and Tehran that this suits their political ambitions very well. I see a contagion of this Sunni-Shia standoff spreading through the region, not only in Iraq and in Syria and Yemen. It even has had a ripple effect into Pakistan and India.”


How do Saudi Arabia and Iran treat their respective Shia and Sunni minorities?

In both countries, Muslim minorities, along with other religious minorities, are second-class citizens. “They both have egg on their face there,” Kersten says. Saudi Arabia worries about the substantial Shia communities in the country’s east, which may make up around ten percent of the total population. Saudi Arabia, he says, also worries that Shia majority Bahrain, which is ruled by a Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy, could become a “beachhead” for Iran. And then there is the question of state religion. “The Wahabbi interpretation of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia has been particularly anti-Shia since its very inception,” he says.

Iran, meanwhile, is home to more than five million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are also Arabs. Iran’s Sunnis, Mirdamadi says, have trouble gaining state employment in Iran, and have sought greater religious neutrality in Iranian state media. They have also sought the right to worship more freely. “They have some kind of prayer houses in Iran, but they are not proper mosques. They are not allowed to build any proper mosques in Tehran.” While Iranian leaders have sometimes paid lip service to Sunni Islam by referring to Sunnis as brothers and sisters, Mirdamadi says, “This lip service has never led to theological or judicial changes. It is a kind of political tactic.”

Nimr's execution has brought attention to both nations’ lamentable records on religious freedom. His case shows that the aspirations of minorities rarely conform to the prejudices of states. “The biggest irony of all this,” Bdaiwi says, “is that Sheikh al-Nimr, as far as we know, was not a Khomeinist. He did not believe in the theocratic model that has been implemented in Iran. A number of Saudi Shias are saying, ‘Treat us as a political minority, discuss with us the question of our rights, instead of assuming that we harbor some revolutionary ideas inspired by the Iranians.’”

The differences and similarities between Sunni and Shia Isalm

What’s the difference between #Sunni and #Shia #Islam? With tensions mounting in the Middle East following the most recent rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia, this long-standing question has emerged again. In this short video, IranWire does its best to explain.We look at the fascinating history of the leaders, or caliphs, the empires they built and the disputes that unfolded, leading to further splits. We look at the battle of Karbala, the 12 Imams, how the world breaks down into Sunni and Shia believers today — and how governments exploit this.

Posted by Iranwire English on Thursday, January 7, 2016


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