Sunni-Shia Sectarianism and Competition for the Leadership of Global Islam

by David Pinault

A traditional strength of Islam as it expanded beyond the Arab Middle East in the premodern era was its syncretistic adaptation to local religious traditions, whether in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or the islands of Indonesia. For centuries, Islamic practice was regionally based, a landscape-oriented faith linked to saints’ caves, Sufi tombs, and sacred trees (notwithstanding protests by pious-minded mullahs).

But worldwide socioeconomic changes after World War II profoundly affected Muslim communities. In a rapidly globalizing economy, farmers and other rural workers abandoned the countryside to find work in capitals such as Teheran, Cairo, and Jakarta. The suddenly wealthy Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia drew labor migrants from throughout South Asia. Thus-to take one example-hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis migrated to the Arabian peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s in search of jobs. They returned with their earnings not to their villages of origin but to urban centers such as Karachi and Lahore. These migrants no longer found so appealing the old regionally based Islam they had once known. Deracinated Muslims, facing the challenges of modernity in unfamiliar city settings, were susceptible to evangelizing by the missionaries of a revivalist and universalist Islam, an Islam based on Qur’anic scriptural authority rather than the charisma associated with local saints’ tombs or Sufi shrines. The preachers of this revivalist Islam were quick to condemn the traditional folk rituals of the countryside as-depending on the locale-Hindu-tainted, Christian-derived, or simply pagan.

Much of the funding for such preaching came from oil revenues at the disposal of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Salafists. These are followers of a dichotomizing mentality that divides the world into mu’minin (believers) and kafirs (infidels, who are to be either converted or combated as enemies). Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities have long regarded themselves as the natural leaders of global Islam, citing their role as guardians of the haramayn (the “sacred cities” of Mecca and Medina). The Saudi government, as host of the hajj-pilgrimage to Mecca that draws millions every year, has used this opportunity to proselytize fellow Muslims, seeking to shape a unified and standardized Islam that will place all believers under Wahhabi leadership.

But since the late 1970s and the Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia has faced ever-increasing competition from a religious ideology long loathed by the Wahhabis and many other Sunnis. I can best illustrate the depth of this loathing via an anecdote from Pakistan.

Several years ago, while visiting the University of Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, I was asked by a group of professors about my religious identity. Given that I was scheduled to give a guest lecture to their students on Sunni-Shia relations, they thought it appropriate to find out if I was Muslim. “No,” I replied. “I’m a Christian.”

Silence for a moment. I sensed disappointment. “Well,” said one of my hosts, breaking the tension, “at least you’re not Shia.”

I recall this incident because it reflects a prejudice I’ve encountered surprisingly often in Pakistan and elsewhere among Islamic communities-the notion that Shias (who make up some 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims) are kafirs who really aren’t Muslims at all. This religious bigotry isn’t new, but in recent years anti-Shia propaganda has circulated among Sunnis with renewed virulence. The reason for this phenomenon has to do, I believe, with a struggle for dominance of the ummah (the global community of Islam).

Thirst, Suffering, Martyrdom: Sacred History and Shia Identity

To gain perspective on this struggle, it’s helpful to know the historical origins of Islamic sectarianism. Shiism arose in the seventh century because of a political dispute over leadership of the ummah after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Most Muslims (those who ultimately became known as Sunnis) supported the principle of election in selecting the caliph (the political title of the prophet’s successor). But a minority insisted that the caliphate should be reserved for Ali ibn Abi Talib (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) and for the offspring of Ali and his wife Fatima. Such individuals were known as Shi’at Ali, “the adherents of Ali.” These Shias resented bitterly those Muslim leaders who tried to block Ali’s bid for the caliphate. In particular Shias condemned Abu Bakr and Umar, the first and second caliphs, who are revered by Sunnis as al-shaykhayn (the two elders). Shia partisans claimed that Abu Bakr and Umar conspired to rob Ali of his rightful throne.

Ali did manage to take power and rule as caliph for five years, only to be murdered in the year 661. Further tragedy befell his descendants. According to Shia sources, Ali’s elder son Hasan was poisoned by order of the reigning caliph. Thereupon the title of imam passed to Hasan’s younger brother, Husain ibn Ali.

The term “imam” is important for understanding doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shias. All Muslims use the term to mean “prayer leader,” someone who leads a congregation in worship. But most Shias (especially those belonging to the Ithna-‘Ashari or “Twelver” denomination, which is by far the most common form of Shiism, as well as the state religion of the Iranian Islamic Republic) also use the term in a more restricted sense, to refer to the rightful spiritual leader of the entire ummah. Twelver Shias insist that this global imam must be from the prophet’s immediate bloodline, and that he be both ma’sum (sinless, perfect, and divinely protected from error) and mansus (chosen by Allah as leader, thereby avoiding the vagaries of any human electoral process). The first such imam, say Twelver Shias, was Ali; the third was his younger son, Husain.

In the year 680, at the urging of Shia partisans in Kufa, Husain set out from Arabia to Iraq to organize a rebellion against the reigning caliph, Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah. Husain was accompanied by the women and children of his household and only a small number of bodyguards and servants.

He never reached his destination of Kufa. Yazid’s soldiers intercepted Husain near the river Euphrates at Karbala, which today is revered as Shiism’s foremost pilgrimage site. Not wanting Husain to become a martyr and rallying point for further Shia resistance, Yazid ordered his soldiers to force Husain to surrender and offer the caliph bay’ah (an oath of allegiance). So the soldiers besieged Husain and his family, preventing them from reaching food or water. Husain and his family suffered torments of thirst under Iraq’s pitiless desert sun. Shia preachers recount these sufferings in vivid detail during annual observances of Muharram, the Islamic month during which the siege of Karbala occurred.

In the end, Husain chose death rather than surrender. On Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (the high point of the liturgical calendar of lamentation for Shias today), Husain died in combat against Yazid’s forces. This effectively put an end to Twelver Shia hopes for reclaiming the caliphate.

The Usefulness of Revulsion: Blood and Lamentation

But it was precisely this political failure that generated the rise of Shiism as a distinctive theological tradition within Islam. Shia theologians argued that Husain had foreknowledge of what would happen at Karbala but voluntarily sacrificed himself for the good of the ummah. In exchange, Allah granted Husain the power of shafa’ah (intercession on behalf of sinners). Preachers I encountered in Pakistan and India recounted legends about how Fatima continues to lament her martyred son even while she resides in paradise, and about how she is comforted whenever mourners gather here on earth to remember the Karbala Martyrs. Husain will exert his power of shafa’ah on behalf of anyone who joins his mother in mourning and sheds tears in remembrance of Karbala.

Such mourning rituals are referred to by the term matam. During Muharram, preachers recount the sufferings of the martyrs, with the express purpose of moving their congregations to tears and loud wailing. Each year, in the days leading up to Ashura, Twelver Shias hold processions in which they chant nauhajat (lamentation poems in honor of Husain and the other Karbala Martyrs) and mark time by rhythmically slapping their chests. In countries such as Pakistan and India, many matami guruhan (Shia lamentation associations) go further, arranging public processions in which hundreds of men perform zanjiri-matam (self-flagellation involving knives, flails, or chains).

This ritual bloodshed is both controversial and popular. Theologically, matam earns practitioners intercession; but from a sociological perspective, it’s worth noting that, wherever possible, Shias tend to perform such rituals publicly. One gains access to Husain’s favor by having the courage to stand up and be identified as a Shia via conspicuously distinctive rituals. (Under Saddam Hussein’s secularist-Baathist regime, public Muharram processions were prohibited, but since his fall from power, Iraqi Shias have fervently embraced the public performance of self-scourging.)

Nevertheless the bloody forms of matam generate widespread revulsion, both among Sunnis and even among some Shias (as will be discussed below). Spurting blood is normally classed in Islamic law as najis (ritually polluting), and the extravagant weeping and displays of grief associated with matam offend Islamic notions of decorum and self-restraint. Of course it is precisely this offensive quality of matam that makes such rituals socially useful, as a means of defining and demarcating a minority community and safeguarding it from being absorbed by a dominant majority.

The “Hidden Imam” and the Purging of the World

One other distinctive Ithna-‘Ashari practice should be noted in this context: veneration for the twelfth Imam. Ithna-‘Ashari Shias believe that in the ninth century, Muhammad al-Muntazar, the twelfth Imam, was on the point of being murdered by the reigning Sunni caliph. Allah intervened, however, and protected the Imam by causing him to enter al-ghaybah (occultation): he became invisible and hidden from his persecutors. The twelfth Imam is still alive but will return to usher in Judgment Day, fill the earth with justice, and execute intiqam (vengeance or retribution) against all those who have made Shias suffer.

While looking forward to this retribution, Shias are permitted to practice taqiyah (protective dissimulation) by pretending to be Sunnis and disguising their religious identity for survival’s sake while residing among a potentially hostile non-Shia population. To this day, Shia congregational prayers include invocations to Sahib al-zaman (one of the Twelfth Imam’s titles: “the lord of time” or “lord of the age”). When this Hidden Imam returns to earth, he will bear the title al-Mahdi (“the one who is divinely guided”).

Khomeinist Politics and Iran‘s Bid for Leadership of Global Islam

The history and rituals noted above are worth knowing about because they figure in the increasingly fierce sectarian polemics linked to the Iranian Islamic Republic’s bid for leadership of global Islam. The regime in Teheran, fully aware of the widespread hostility to Shiism among Sunni populations, has pursued a policy-dating back to the reign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-of downplaying its Shia identity in international pronouncements directed to the general Muslim public. Hence Iran’s support for the militant group Hamas; hence Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequent televised appearances featuring maps of Palestine and photos of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Support for Palestinian militancy constitutes an attempt to gain popularity among Sunni Arabs by focusing on shared objects of revulsion: Israel, Zionism, and America.

Saudi-based Wahhabi Salafists, eager to derail Iran’s drive for leadership, have been reminding Sunnis of precisely those sectarian differences that are most likely to keep anti-Shia sentiment alive. The first of these differences (and one that Sunni informants referred to angrily, in interviews I conducted in Yemen and Pakistan) involves the centuries-old Shia practice called sabb al-sahabah (reviling the companions). As noted above, Shias to this day fault those companions of Muhammad who blocked Ali ibn Abi Talib from the caliphate; particular blame is focused on the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar. Since Sunnis revere these two figures as “rightly guided” Muslim leaders, this is a particularly sore point. Partly because of this issue, Shias are sometimes derided with the term Rafidi (rejectionist or renegade), a pejorative that recurs in present-day anti-Shia polemics.

The Dangling Corpse: Sectarian Politics in the Thousand and One Nights

“Reviling the companions” has a long pedigree that can be discerned even in the celebrated medieval collection of stories known as the Kitab alf laylah wa-laylah (the Book of the Thousand and One Nights). The story I have in mind features the famous Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and comes from a nineteenth-century Arabic edition of the Nights published in Egypt (a country with an overwhelmingly Sunni population).

Harun wrongly suspects the story’s hero-a young man named ‘Ala al-Din-of a crime, has him arrested, and orders him killed. Unknown to Harun, the hero escapes and another prisoner is hanged instead. Thereafter the caliph announces a desire to see ‘Ala al-Din’s corpse hanging from the gallows. Accompanied by his vizier Ja’far, Harun goes to the execution ground but becomes suspicious when he sees the dangling corpse.

“Then,” we are told, “Harun ordered the corpse to be brought down from the gallows. When they brought it down, he found inscribed on the bottoms of its feet the names of the “two sheikhs” [that is, Abu Bakr and Umar]. Then Harun said, ‘O vizier, ‘Ala al-Din was a Sunni, and this fellow is a Rafidi!'”

Inscribing these names on the bottoms of one’s feet is a way of reviling Abu Bakr and Umar with every step one takes. The assumption underlying this episode, of course, is that only a Shia “rejectionist” would dishonor the first two caliphs like this. The fact that the storyteller doesn’t bother to explain this suggests how widespread among the Sunni audience of the Nights this perception of Twelver Shia attitudes and behavior was. The story may also dramatize Sunni impressions of the doctrine of taqiyah: as a crypto-Shia, this Rafidi outwardly appeared to be an orthodox Sunni, but concealed beneath his feet was his contempt for the “two sheikhs.”

“Standardized Islam” and Exporting the Iranian Revolution

The second sectarian issue that appears frequently today involves matam lamentation rituals during the annual Muharram season. Since 1994, Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader of Iran, has issued fatwas forbidding the public performance of self-flagellation. Khamenei’s stated justification? “It is not a question of individual or physical harm,” he has argued, “but of great injuries linked to the reputation of Islam.” In forbidding the public performance of bloody matam, he’s claimed that outsiders might point to this ritual in order to “present both Islam and Shiism as an institution of superstition.”

Khamenei’s fatwas represent a trend currently discernible among competing Shia and Sunni missionaries: the attempt to eradicate traditional, regionally based forms of Muslim worship and replace them with a standardized and homogenized version of Islam-a global Islam that would be easier to supervise from one centralized source.

These fatwas have encountered considerable resistance. Shias I have visited since the 1990s in Muslim locales in Pakistan and India continue to stage spectacularly bloody public performances of matam. They express resentment at what they see as attempts by Iranian outsiders to meddle in local affairs. Sunni polemicists, for their part, regard Khamenei’s decrees as a ruse to disguise Shiism’s inherently unorthodox and un-Islamic character and as a tactic to further the Khomeinist policy of tasdir al-thawrah al-iraniyah (exporting the Iranian revolution).

Rushing to the Apocalypse? Ahmadinejad and the theology of the “Hasteners”

The third sectarian difference that has drawn attention in recent years involves devotion to the twelfth Imam. Insurrectionist and militant movements have often invoked this figure. An example is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iraqi Shia militia known as Jaysh al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army).

Among the more notorious devotees of the Mahdi in recent years is Iran’s Ahmadinejad. For centuries many Shias have favored a theological stance known as intizar (awaiting, expectation): rather than wage war against tyrants and other earthly incarnations of injustice, faithful Shias avoid political confrontations and adopt a quietist position, piously awaiting the Mahdi’s appearance among us. But Ahmadinejad belongs to a sect known as the Ta’jiliyan (those who bring [something] about quickly, or the “Hasteners”).

This sect claims that believers can, through their actions, “hasten” the twelfth Imam’s apocalyptic return. An October 2009 BBC broadcast noted that Ahmadinejad ended a speech he gave at the United Nations with a prayer for the Mahdi’s appearance: “O mighty Lord, I pray to you: hasten the emergence of the promised one, that perfect and pure human being.” The BBC noted that Ahmadinejad has supervised the rebuilding of the Jamkaran Shrine in southern Teheran (from which the Mahdi will one day arise, according to Twelver belief) and that Iran’s president claims to be in personal contact with the Hidden Imam.

Ahmadinejad’s version of “Hastener” theology was explored at the 2009 Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering on Israeli security issues, in a presentation by the researcher Shmuel Bar. Bar remarked that “Ahmadinejad’s declared objective … is to hasten the appearance of the Hidden Imam. This is to be accomplished through the precipitation of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West.”

It should be noted that Iran’s political-clerical leadership is divided on this issue. Nevertheless, in light of Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear capability, and the very real possibility that the Islamic Republic will develop nuclear weaponry, Ahmadinejad’s Hastener devotionalism is-to put it mildly-not reassuring. This prospect, of a nuclear-armed and ever-more influential Iran, has spurred Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Salafists to do whatever they can to lessen their adversary’s prestige by portraying Iran as “Persian” and Shia, and hence as alien and heterodox in the eyes of Sunni Arabs.

Sunni-Shia Polemics, from the Palestinian Territories to Yemen

Sectarian polemics have also arisen in intra-Palestinian politics (despite the fact that almost all Palestinian Muslims are Sunni). Members of Fatah have taken to taunting their rivals in Hamas by calling them “Shia”-a derogatory reminder of the support given Hamas by Teheran.

Competition between Sunnis and Shias has also become manifest recently in the realm of religious conversion from one denomination to another within Islam. A current arena for such competition is Yemen. The target: a segment of Yemen’s population known as the Zaydis. Zaydi religious teachings, although historically derived from Shiism, occupy a doctrinal position that shares features of both Sunnism and Shiism. Zaydis I interviewed in Sanaa (Yemen’s capital) in May and June 2009 acknowledged that since the abolition of Yemen’s Zaydi Imamate in 1962 and the subsequent diminishment of Zaydi political power, many young Zaydis are ideologically adrift and uncertain of their own communal identity.

Saudi-funded missionaries have succeeded in converting some Zaydis to Wahhabi puritanism. Other Zaydis, however, are drawn to Iran’s Khomeinist propaganda. Government sources in Yemen accuse Iran of funding the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen’s Saada province, along the Saudi border (the Houthis are militant Zaydis whose leadership comes from the family of Badr al-Din al-Houthi). The Houthis deny that they are funded by Teheran, and they repudiate the claim made by many Yemeni Sunnis that Houthis have secretly converted to the Twelver Shiism that is Iran’s state religion.

But Zaydis I met in Sanaa told me that Houthis take inspiration from Iran and Hezbollah and that they like the feeling of joining a worldwide movement, a universal struggle against what are perceived as satanic forces at loose in the world. A Houthi apologist recited for me the Houthi slogan: “Allahu akbar al-mawt li-Amrika al-mawt li-Isra’il al-la’nah ‘ala al-yahud al-nasr lil-islam” (“Allah is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. May the Jews be cursed. Victory belongs to Islam.”)

Internet web postings offer further perspectives on the situation in Yemen. Twelver Shia missionaries refer to individuals who convert to their form of Islam as mustabsirun (those who have become endowed with insight). The Arabic-language website of the pro-Shia Markaz al-abhath al-‘aqa’idiyah (Office of Doctrinal Research) offers the personal testimony of former Sunnis and Zaydis who are now listed as mustabsirun.

Their backgrounds are varied. One is a journalist; another, a highly educated attorney with wide travel experience. A third is presented as a one-time Wahhabi; a fourth, as an anti-Shia zealot who originally set out to write a book refuting Twelver doctrine. But they have something in common. The website portrays them all as restless spiritual questers, who independently did research on Twelver Shiism and became so impressed with what they learned that they spontaneously became mustabsirun.

When I mentioned the mustabsirun phenomenon to a Sunni mosque-leader I met in Sanaa, he rejected any notion of the sincerity of their conversion, insisting that such individuals were no more than pawns in a Teheran-based plot to take control of Yemen secretly. “The Iranians,” he said, “will use these converts as part of their conspiracy to rule our country from afar.”

Yemen, it seems, offers a storm-warning of what is to come: increasingly polemicized competition between Sunni and Shia ideologues for the leadership of global Islam.

David Pinault is an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. His latest book is Notes From the Fortune-Telling Parrot: Islam and the Struggle for Religious Pluralism in Pakistan (Equinox Publishing).


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