A few years back, very few Westerners would have been aware of the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq changed all that.
In a timely book, entitled “A Concise History of the Sunnis and Shi’is”, John McHugo, who has also recently written a history of Syria, goes back to the beginning of the Muslim religion to outline its history, and explain the origin of the divisions between Shia and Sunni.
His book is well timed because the West now appears to be allowing itself to be drawn, on the side of the Sunnis, into what appears to be a religious war with the Shia in the Middle East. Does Western public opinion understand what it is getting itself into?
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are competing with one another in conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world. Israel has identified Iran as its number one enemy. President Trump appears follow the Israeli line. This is notwithstanding the fact that the 9/11 attackers came from Sunni Saudi Arabia and not from Shia Iran.
As a result, in order to curb Iran, western companies are being permitted by their governments to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used against Zaydi Muslims in Yemen, who are being supported by Iran, against a Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia.
Some say the Zaydis are not Shia, they are in fact a sub division within Sunni Islam, others that they are a subset of Shia Islam. In fact there are many schools of thought within Islam, and lines between them are not all that rigid. Sectarian distinctions can be exaggerated for political purposes, as we know all too well in Europe.
The conflicts in Yemen and Syria can be looked at differently. They can be presented as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is between an ethnically Arab country on the one hand, and an ethnically Persian one on the other. That too would be an oversimplification. While most ethnically Arab nations line up with Saudi Arabia, some, like Iraq and Syria, lean towards Iran.
In Syria’s case the regime is Alawite, a sect which is neither Sunni nor Shia, but is closer to the Shia. In Iraq, the population, though ethnically Arab, is majority Shia. Shia Arabs in Lebanon have lined up on the Iran side in the Syrian Civil War and so on.
There are only four countries in which the Shia are a majority…. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
But there are also significant Shia populations in the oil producing region of Saudi Arabia, and in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.
There is another strand of Islam, the Kharijis, who are a majority in Oman.
Within Sunni Islam itself, there are four different schools of thought, going back to very early times. These are the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafiis and Hanbalis.
The Maliki school are predominant in most of North Africa.
The Hanafi school predominate in Egypt, Turkey and Central Asia.
The Shafiis are strong in West Africa and Indonesia.
The Hanbali school is strongest in the Arabian peninsula
Wahhabism, a strict literalist trend within the Hanbali school, dates only from the eighteenth century, and is thus quite recent. From its origins, it has been closely associated with the Saudi royal family. It is promoted and subsidised throughout the world by Saudi Arabia.
The division between the two strands is not so much about theology as it is about the legitimacy of those who may govern the faithful, teach the faith, and interpret the Koran, and the legitimacy of the sources they may draw upon to do so. The question is both political and religious, with little distinction between the two. Both Shia and Sunni have the Koran in common, and believe its content is the word of God, coming through the Angel Gabriel and dictated to Mohammed.
But what authority may be used to interpret the Koran for life today?
Broadly speaking, Sunnis accept the authority of the teachings and writings of the companions of Mohammed, who were his immediate successors as leaders, and who knew his mind.
The Shia, on the other hand, look to Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, Ali, and to Mohammed’s blood line more generally, as the legitimate interpreters of the Koran and supreme guides of the people.
Ali died in 661 after a power struggle, so these differences of opinion go back a long way.
In Sunni Islam, Shia veneration of the tombs of early imams is seen as idolatrous, and this explains the blowing up of some of these Shia holy places in recent wars.
Islamic scholars have always had greater political authority in the Shia tradition, which explains the particular political system of Iran, where the Supreme religious leader has a veto on much of what the elected government may do.
In the Sunni tradition, the Caliph was both a religious and a political leader. For many years the title of Caliph was held by the Ottoman Emperor.
After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire disappeared and was replaced by the secular Republic of Turkey. Turkey formally abolished the Caliphate in 1922. This caused deep disappointment among many devout Sunni Muslims at the time and this disappointment explains why Isis sought to restore the Caliphate.
For most of the last 1300 years, Sunni and Shia have lived together in relative peace. The Wars of Religion within Christianity in Europe, in the 150 years after the Reformation, were much more severe than anything that has, as yet, happened between Shia and Sunni in the Muslim world.
It is to be hoped that a reading of John McHugo’s densely informative narrative will encourage Western leaders to hesitate, before taking sides in a struggle that is not their own.
His book is quite compressed, and focuses heavily on the political history. It would have been interesting to know more about how the lifestyles and thinking of Shia and Sunni faithful compare with one another.