Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunni and Shia

When I was teaching an International Relations elective I always included a unit about the Middle East. A succinct and clear description is invaluable to any teacher introducing students to new subject material. Excerpts from this review of After the Prophet, describing the origins of the Sunni/Shia division within Islam would certainly have become part of that unit's packet of readings.
When the Prophet ­Muhammad died ­unexpectedly after a brief illness in ­Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, on June 8, 632, his followers were stunned. A contemporary called it "the greatest of calamities." Their grief was not only for the loss of an irreplaceable leader. ­Muhammad was "the seal of the prophets," the last in a line that stretched back to Adam. He had ­received revelations as "God's emissary" for some 20 years—revelations that he had communicated to the ­embattled community of his followers, first in Mecca and then, after the hijra, or emigration, in 622, in Medina—but now they came to an end. It was as though God, who revealed Himself through the Prophet, had suddenly fallen silent.

In fact, the calamity was greater than Muhammad's mourners could have foreseen. Muhammad had not unambiguously named his successor. ....

Those who supported Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali found themselves pitted against those who favored Abu Bakr, the Prophet's closest friend. Muhammad was also his son-in-law: Abu Bakr's daughter Aisha was Muhammad's third, and favorite, wife, and a force to reckon with in her own right. Ali's supporters formed the "shi'at Ali," the "party of Ali," from which the term Shia derives. The partisans of Abu Bakr would come to be known as "Sunni" Muslims—those who follow the "sunna," the code of pious practice based on the Prophet's example.

That Abu Bakr was almost immediately named caliph—the title then meant no more than "successor"—embittered Ali's supporters; when their man was passed over for the caliphate two more times they felt that a monstrous injustice had been perpetrated. Ali did finally accede to the caliphate in 656, but his claim was contested. When he was assassinated in the mosque of Kufa, in 661, by an extremist wielding a sword laced with poison, his murder struck a tragic note that would reverberate ever after. The Sunni-Shia schism pitted Muslim against Muslim and led to civil wars, massacres and assassinations, and even the collapse of dynasties. .... [more]
Book Review: ‘After the Prophet’ -

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