Islam: Why Muslims Are Fighting Muslims in Iraq

The complete story of the Shi'a-Sunni split, the mosque bombings, and what's behind Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

Mark LeVine, an expert in Middle Eastern history and policy and a frequent contributor to Beliefnet, explains the historical schism in Islam and its repercussions today.

Why is the Golden Mosque of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, which was bombed yesterday by Sunni insurgents, so holy among Shi'a?
 
The mosque itself was built in many stages. It was first constructed in 944 CE and was reconstructed numerous times over the centuries. But the "golden dome" that has made it famous was built in 1905. The fact that this shrine is located in the predominantly Shiite city of Samarra reminds us of how intertwined Sunni and Shi'a landscapes are in Iraq. Indeed, when I was in Iraq in 2004 one of the most common refrains I heard in meetings with numerous religious leaders on both sides was the strong desire to avert exactly the kind of sectarian war that seems to be in the making today.
 
The Askariya Shrine is important because it is the burial place of two of the 12 imams considered to be the rightful successors by Shiites to the fourth Caliph, Ali; specifically the tenth and eleventh imams, Ali al-Hadi and his son, Hassan al-Askari. Increasing the importance of this location is the belief among Shiites that the twelfth, or final imam, was last seen at the shrine before he disappeared.
 
So attacking this shrine is like attacking the very heart of Shi'a history and theology and reminds Shiites of the intense persecution they've suffered at the hands of Sunnis across Islamic history. Moreover, because of the deeply spiritual and even mystical attributes these imams have for Shiites, it's hard to imagine a more provocative act than this bombing, short of attacking the shrines of Ali or of Hussein and Hassan. The shrine is a major pilgrimage site for Shiites as well, and aside from the religious complications, its loss for the time being will further hurt the economy of the Samarra region.
 
What are the main differences between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims?
 
In order to answer this question we need to understand the history that produced the conflict today. The current sectarian violence in Iraq has both a long history and a very short one. From the perspective of Islamic history, its roots lie in the debates over who had the right to succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the legitimate leader, or "caliph," of the burgeoning Muslim community. Shiism as a distinct sect within Islam began when followers, or "partisans" (Shi'at in Arabic) of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, believed that he was wrongfully passed over as Caliph in favor of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, the first three leaders after Muhammad. Abu Bakr and Umar favored the early companions of the Prophet, and the "ansar," or helpers of the Muslim community during its hijrah (flight) or period of flight to Medina. Uthman, however, was from the powerful Umaya clan of Muhammad's Quraysh tribe, and when he assumed power he changed this policy toward one favoring the pre-Islamic aristocracy of Mecca.
 
This policy eventually led to Uthman's assassination and the appointment of Ali as Caliph. While well known for his closeness to the Prophet and personal piety (he was among the first converts to Islam) his coming to power seemingly with the help of Uthman's assassins compromised his position. The civil war that gradually engulfed the Islamic community was among the most important events in Muslim history since what started as a political battle ultimately split Islam into two theological camps, Sunnis and Shi'a.
 
Ali was eventually killed by a member of the Khariji faction (the most extreme faction of Ali's supporters, who turned against him when he agreed to arbitration over the conflict) and the majority of the Muslim community backed one of his opponents, Mu'awiya, who was from the same Umaya clan as Uthman, as Caliph. A smaller faction, called the "shi'at ali," or partisans of Ali, backed the assumption of Ali's sons to the Caliphate on the belief that the office of Caliph should remain only within the family of the Prophet and their direct descendants, which Mu'awiya was not.
 
Mu'awiya ruled from 661 till 680; after his death civil war broke out again under the reign of his son Yazid (680-83). The battle that would determine the fate of Islam took place in Karbala, in what today is Iraq, in 680. In this battle Ali's son Hussein and dozens of his followers were ambushed and killed by Yazid and his forces. The massacre became the seminal event in Shi'a belief, as members of the sect bestowed a mythical importance to his martyrdom, which came to mirror their own suffering across Muslim history under Sunni rule. Because of the belief among Shiis that only Ali's heirs should be Caliph, a succession of twelve "imams" (leaders, or guides) were recognized as the rightful successors to Hussein as the legitimate leaders of the Muslim community.
 
Not surprisingly, the entrenched Umayad Caliphate that was founded by Mu'awiya had by this time moved its base to Damascus and refused to recognize the Shiite imams as caliph. Each was forced to live more or less in hiding or under government supervision, until the final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared in the mid-tenth century. Shiites believe that the final imam will one day return from hiding (or in Shi'a terminology, the "Greater Occultation") as the Mahdi, or savior, and punish the sinful, reward the good, and separate truth from falsehood.
 
While both Sunnis and Shiites uphold the five pillars of Islamic faith, Shiites have put much greater focus on the imams as personal exemplars of Islamic piety and belief, and have attributed to them the kinds of mystical powers that orthodox Sunni Islam has refused to grant to its leaders (although the Sufi tradition of "sainthood" serves a similar function). As we can see, then, the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, in which politics, economic, and theological differences have always meshed together, started in Iraq, so it is no surprise that there is continued conflict to this day.
 
However, particularly in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites have not always been at war with each other. While Shiites have periodically been persecuted in the modern period, particularly under the rule of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid (1876-1909), on a personal and communal level Sunnis and Shiites have long intermarried. Indeed, it is quite common to hear Iraqis proudly describe their families as having members of both sects, or being "all mixed up," as one friend described his family to me. And during the Iran-Iraq war most Iraqi Shi'a fought for Saddam Hussein, choosing their national identity over their sectarian one.
 
But the repression of Shiites by Hussein, which had more to do with power politics (his power base was among Sunni Arabs, particularly from his home town of Tikrit) than any religious convictions on his part, created a system of relative privilege for the minority Sunni population that Shiites have naturally wanted to end now that they have assumed power as Iraq's largest community. The two groups could have worked out some kind of arrangement but for the fateful decision of conservative Sunni leaders to tolerate and even encourage the entrance of foreign Sunni fighters, or "jihadis" into Iraq as part of their insurgency against the U.S. and coalition forces.
 
While the Iraqi Sunni leadership clearly thought that it could control the foreign fighters and use them to expel the U.S., the fighters, epitomized by Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda offshoot, had a very different agenda, which was to attack the foundation of Shiite power in Iraq as part of a larger war against Shiites, which in the minds of the extremist "Salafis," or ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslims, are "worse than Jews and Crusaders" because of what in their minds is the traitorous history and heretical theology of Shiism.
 
Yet if there is anything positive that is coming out of this tragedy it is the increasing willingness of Sunnis to come out forcefully against the actions of Zarqawi and other jihadis, who have focused on attacking Shiites as a primary goal. Thus in the streets of Iraq today, and across the Muslim world, Sunnis have blamed the "excommunicators" for these crimes, thereby labeling Zarqawi and those like him as apostates for their actions.
 
Are Sunni-Shi'a conflicts specific to Islam in Iraq?
 
No. In fact, they have occurred across Muslim history and throughout the Muslim world. While Sunnis have predominated as the political leaders of the Muslim world for most of this history and in most Muslim countries, Shiites have gained political control in Egypt during the Fatimid period (10th through 12th centuries), in Iran since the 1500s with the establishment of Shiism as the state religion of the Safavid dynasty. Other countries where Shiism has strong roots include Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia. All have seen conflicts between the two communities at various points in their history
 
As in Iraq, most conflicts over time have owed their origin to a mixture of religion, politics, and economic competition, which have tended to reinforce each other in a negative manner, as political or economic privilege of one group or another has been justified religiously. Also, the history of European, particularly British, imperialism is crucial for the modern history of Sunni-Shi'a conflict because of a combination of the borders that Britain drew in creating multi-ethnic states such as Iraq and the colonial "divide and rule" policy which tended to pit the interests of various groups against each other as a means of securing British power.
 
Yet at the same time, we can see the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-89 as having a clear sectarian as well as political basis, while the attack by Shi'a militants of the Kabbah in Mecca in 1979 was as much religiously as politically motivated. The regular terrorist attacks on Shiites in Pakistan another example of the justifications of violence used by Salafists against Shiites, just for being Shi'a, while in Lebanon the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s that pitted Shiites against Maronite Christians, Druze, and Sunnis in changing alliances also saw religious, economic, and political factors mixed together in a potent brew.
 
Muslims in the West have made a big point of saying that Islam means "peace." How do Muslims justify the violent actions against other Muslims religiously?
 
This is a huge and important question. On the one hand you're right to focus on Muslim-on-Muslim violence because the rules here would be different than violence against non-Muslims, which falls generally under a different set of categories.
 
But let's start off with your first statement: "Islam means peace." Many people, including President Bush, have said this to demonstrate that not all Muslim support terrorism. While this is of course true, Islam in fact does not mean peace; it means submission to the will of God. Yet it does come from the same root word in Arabic as peace, salaam, and because of this the two ideas--submission to God and peace--have long been joined together in the theology and identity of Islam and Muslims.
 
Theologically speaking, there are several reasons why violence against other Muslims would be acceptable under Islamic law. On the one hand, Muslim governments or states have naturally assumed the right to punish individuals or groups who have broken various laws or threatened their power. This is the political rationality behind Muslim states using violence and holds true for Sunni and Shi'a governments. In both cases the laws involved are usually some combination of the Sharia, or religious law (which involve the so-called "hudud laws" whose severity--such as cutting off the hands of thieves or stoning adulterers--have caused great outcry by Muslims and non-Muslims alike), and modern secular laws.
 
There is also a strong theological component to Muslim-on-Muslim violence, and here the causes lie in the notion of takfir, or heresy or apostasy, from Islam by either theological divisions or actions. This is what is most relevant in Iraq, as Zarqawi and some other terrorist/jihadi leaders have taken to focusing on what has became known as the "near jihad," that is, war against Shiites because of their heretical beliefs, even more than the "far jihad" of attacking U.S. and other Western interests, as epitomized by bin Laden's direct attack against the U.S. This strategy, it should be pointed out, has met with strong criticism by many jihadis, especially older veterans of the Afghan resistance, who feel Zarqawi has gone too far in attacking Shiites and civilians rather than focusing on the occupier, that is, the U.S. (a similar problem is evidenced in Pakistan, where there have been regular attacks on the country's minority Shi'a population by Salafists for years).
 
Finally, revenge will likely play a large part in any Shi'a violence against Sunnis in Iraq or elsewhere. When Shiites take to the streets crying, "With our blood and souls we will fight for you, Oh Imams," they are clearly combining religious, political, and emotional justifications for seeking revenge against Sunnis for the attacks on the mosque, which themselves are experienced in the context of the often brutal repression of Shiites by Saddam Hussein, and the larger history of Shi'a oppression since the beginning of Islam.
 
With such motivations reinforcing each other, there is a strong likelihood that the conflict will only deepen in Iraq and perhaps spread to other countries. If this happens, a very different transformation of the Middle East than the one hoped for by President Bush will likely take place, with political, economic, and religious repercussions that are frightening to imagine.
  
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