The split between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims is one of the most misunderstood sagas in the modern world. The centuries-old strife sporadically erupts into new bloodshed throughout the Middle East — today, particularly, in war-torn Iraq and Syria, where the power vacuum created by ISIS, has reopened old wounds. As British-born journalist Lesley Hazleton argues, these wounds have been left to fester by a lack of adequate planning or understanding of the issue’s complexities on the part of American policymakers. Her new book, After the Prophet, recounts the epic story of the split between Islam’s two main factions and its present role in the Middle East.
It came just 48 years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, when Ali’s son Hussein — Muhammad’s grandson — challenged what he saw as the tyrannical Sunni leadership, and was killed at Karbala. The massacre of Muhammad’s grandson and most of his family sent shock waves throughout the Muslim empire. At that point, what is history for Sunnis became sacred for Shi’ites?
Iraq- the “cradle of Shi’ism”
The key events of Shi’ite identity all took place in Iraq. Ali was assassinated near Najaf, where the city rose around his shrine. Hussein died at Karbala, which then became the twin holy city to Najaf. So if there is one place the rift between Shi’ites and Sunnis has always been most volatile, it is Iraq. We tend to say impatiently, “Why can’t they all just get along?” But in Iraq — throughout the Middle East, in fact, what happened centuries ago is as alive and fresh as though it had happened just yesterday. The story of Hussein has been transformed into Shi’ite liberation theology. What was a story of tragic loss and dispossession is now one of liberation from oppression? That makes it all the more important for us to grasp today when the U.S. is cast in the role of the occupier — and thus the oppressor.