Middle East Resources

The Muslims’ Captivity to their Tragic History

By Bassam M. Madany

Everyone who is following international events can see that dreadful things are taking place in the countries impacted by the Islamic faith.  When I began writing this article on June 16, 2014 news reports out of Iraq were dire.  The terror forces making up the ultra-radical Islamist group known as ISIS are seeking to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant.  Baghdad is now in ISIS’ sights after they successfully seized Mosul and a growing number of other Iraqi cities. The army of the Kurdish Province in Northern Iraq has occupied Kirkuk. The U. S. Government has been caught off guard. In its online edition of June 15, The Wall Street Journal reported:

“The radical Sunni militia that has plunged Iraq into chaos bragged on Sunday that it had executed hundreds of Shiite Iraqi soldiers, even as the Obama administration said it is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on how the two longtime foes can counter the insurgents.”

Scenes of flight, mayhem, random killings and beheadings are all over the media.  These scenes are bewildering to the Western World. It’s hard to understand why Muslims are killing each other, not only in Iraq, but also in neighboring Syria. In this article, I assert that one of the reasons why Muslims, both Sunnis and Shi’ites,” are so often at each other’s throats with such unimaginable ferocity is because they suffer from the remembrance of their tragic past.

Civil wars have marked Islam from the dawn of its history. In June, 632 A.D., after Muhammad’s death the Islamic Umma in Medina faced a serious problem. Their prophet had made no arrangements for his succession. His followers believed he was the last Messenger sent by Allah to guide all of mankind. Muhammad had migrated to Medina in 622, where he became a political leader as well as the so-called last “prophet”. He governed the local community of believers, and led them in campaigns against his Meccan enemies. By 630, he had vanquished all opposition, and entered Mecca triumphantly. The Muslim Umma urgently needed another head of state to fill the vacuum after Muhammad’s death.

Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, came up with a solution; he proposed that a Khalifa (Caliph) be chosen by the leadership of the Umma. That was accepted, and he was chosen as the first Khalifa. When he died two years later, another Caliph was chosen: Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Futuhat (Conquests) continued vigorously under his leadership with the occupation of Syria, Egypt, and Persia.

Umar was assassinated in 644, and was succeeded by Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who presided over the further expansion of Islam to the East. In 656, some disgruntled Muslim soldiers who had participated in the campaign for the occupation of Egypt, returned to Medina and assassinated UthmanAli, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad succeeded him. Unfortunately for Ali, there was no consensus about his choice. Mu’awiya, a cousin of Uthman and governor of Syria, charged that Ali was involved in the plot that resulted in the death of Uthman; war broke out between the two. Ali’s side was winning, when he was prevailed upon to accept arbitration and seek a peaceful solution of the conflict. Some within Ali’s army were outraged by this decision, since victory was at hand; they left his side, and assassinated him in 661. They are known as the “Khawarej” (Dissenters.) Ali’s death marked the end of the unity of Islam, and the period of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.”

Mu’awiya assumed the position of Caliph, moved the capital of the Islamic Umma to Damascus. He sought appeasement with Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of Ali. Hassan accepted a settlement with the new Caliph, and retired to Arabia; however his young brother Hussein refused any compromise. He became the leader of Ali’s Party. In Arabic, the term “Shi’a” signifies “party”; his group was first called “Shi’ite Ali” and eventually was abbreviated into “Shi’a.”

Muhammad, Ali, and his two sons, were members of the Hisham clan of the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca; while Mu’awiya was member of the “Umayyah” clan that had vehemently opposed Muhammad. This fact gave a solid reason for Hussein and his followers not to accept the legitimacy of an Umayyad to become a Caliph. Muslims who acquiesced to the rise of the Umayyad Dynasty were called “Sunnis,” but Muslims who sided with Hussein were known as “Shi’ites.” They remained an active underground opposition movement for years to come.

In 680, Hussein arrived with a small group of his followers at Kufa, in Iraq, hoping to make it a center for an active opposition to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. He was met by a superior force, was defeated, and killed at Karbala. The martyrdom of Hussein is now celebrated annually at Karbala, and at other centers of Shi’ism such as at Nabatiyya, in south Lebanon. 

For some time, the Umayyads felt that they had secured the leadership of Islam. In 710, they invaded Spain, and by 732 they reached southern France where they were stopped by Charles Martel, at the Battle of Tours, near Poitiers.

However, several factors conspired to bring to an end the hegemony of the Umayyads. The Shi’ite Underground, the disgruntled Mawalis (non-Arab converts to Islam) and followers of Muhammad’s uncle, Ibn ‘Abbas, were united in their opposition to the Umayyads.  The revolt began at Khorasan, in eastern Persia, led by Abu Muslim al-Khorasani, who defeated the governor of the province and marched westward. The end of the Umayyads came in 750 when all the members of the caliph’s house were killed, leaving a young son who managed to flee the carnage, and made his way to Andalusia (Arabic name of Spain) where he established a rival Umayyad caliphate at Cordoba.

All hope for the descendants of Hussein to inherit the Caliphate were dashed. The Abbasids succeeded the Umayyads by establishing their own dynasty. The Shi’ites remained on the sidelines, regarded as a despised minority. During the 800s, Baghdad the new capital of the Abbasids became the cultural center of the Muslim world. Several important accomplishments took place: the compilation of the Hadith, the establishment of the Four Sunni Schools for the interpretation of Shariah, and the rise of the Mu’tazilites, an intellectual elite that dealt with theological themes such as the nature of the Qur’an. Eventually, this movement lost its appeal, and a noted philosopher, al-Ghazzali, put an end to “Ijtihad” (theologizing.) The “door of Ijtihad” in Sunni Islam has remained closed ever since!

The leader of the Shi’ites is called an Imam. Ali is considered as the First Imam, Hussein is the Second Imam. The Twelfth Imam disappeared mysteriously; most likely he was murdered by the authorities. However, in Shi’ism, he is considered to still be alive but hidden, and will return at the end of time. In the meantime, his representatives, the Ayatollahs assume the role of guides to the Shi’ite community. In Sunni Islam, an Imam is any leader in charge of the Salaat i.e. Prayer (worship) at the mosque.


Sunni - Shi’ite Rivalry in Islam 

While Iran is today a stronghold of Shi’ite Islam, it did not achieve this position until the 16th century during the Safavid dynasty. Other concentrations of Shi’ite communities live in Iraq and southern Lebanon. The Ottoman Turks were champions of Sunni orthodoxy, and sought to limit, and often to interdict, any Persian influence among the Shi’ites of Iraq and Lebanon. That policy intensified the animosity between Sunnis and Shi’ites, keeping past disputes between the two groups very much alive.

The situation did not improve after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Britain governed Iraq for several decades, and enthroned Prince Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Hejaz, as king. Sunnis continued to dominate the Shi’ite majority. The same happened in Lebanon, where the French gave primacy to Christians and Sunni Muslims, with the third place given to the Shi’ites.

After WWII, the region underwent radical changes. Iraq witnessed a bloody coup in 1958, when the army murdered King Faisal II and his family, installing a succession of republican regimes, culminating with the rise of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Iraqi. Soon after the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam launched an attack on his neighbor, in a war that lasted for several years, occasioning the death and maiming of over a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran began to influence their coreligionists in Iraq and Lebanon. They sponsored the formation of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Militia in Lebanon, a move that alarmed the Sunni powers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The civil war in Syria began in mid-March, 2011, when the Syrians rose up against the forty-year Assad dynasty’s regime. As the war dragged on, Iran gave orders to Hezbollah to join the side of Bashar Assad, seeking to bolster a dictator whose connection to Shi’ism is dubious. The Assad family comes from an obscure Syrian sect of Islam that is neither Sunni, nor Shi’ite. During the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon (1918-1946), they honored the Assad family with the title of “Alaouites” conferring legitimacy upon them as if they were a true branch of Shi’ite Islam! The leaders of Iran believed it advantageous to help the Assad regime in this current civil war, and sent units of their Revolutionary Guards to help Assad fight his own people, most of whom are Sunnis!

As we contemplate the state of the various world civilizations, we notice that the Islamic world faces several economic and demographic challenges. Unemployment is very high, natural resources, other than oil, are few, desertification is rising, and water supplies are not keeping up with agricultural needs. Rather than concentrate on finding solutions for these growing problems, the Islamic world’s leaders are preoccupied with ancient hatreds amongst themselves, unsolved religious and political issues at home and too often support violent aggressions of various sorts toward the Western World.

Among Sunni Muslims, a number of intellectuals seek to reform Islam, and liberate it from its captivity to the past. Unfortunately, their efforts are countered by radicals such as the Muslim Brotherhood that call for a return to the beliefs and actions of the “Salaf” (an Arabic term for “Ancestors) in order to face the challenges of the present.

On the other hand, Shi’ite Muslims, live primarily in Iran and Iraq. A minority of them are found in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  They follow charismatic leaders who claim to be the true interpreters of the faith. Iran has established a powerful Shi’a political regime which aspires to become a nuclear power and expand its hegemony throughout the Middle East. Its major source of income is exporting oil. The vast majority of its people were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979; they resent the authoritarianism of the ruling class and yearn for freedom and for opportunity to advance themselves.

For those of us who live outside the Islamic world, much as we had hoped that some rational Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, would hasten to settle their old controversies, and bury their past conflicts forever, it’s becoming clear that this is not forthcoming. Attempts to bring democracy to these countries seem to have failed despite the vast expense in lives and dollars by Americans and others who tried. One fears that Islam will continue to experience civil wars, and clashes with its neighbors. The late Samuel Huntington commented on this tendency with these words:

“Wherever one looks at the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. The question naturally rises as to whether this pattern of late-twentieth-century conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim groups is equally true of relations between groups from other civilizations. In fact, it is not. Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming.” P. 256

“The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel P. Huntington, Published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 10020

A similar view was expressed by the late Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami, who passed away on 22 June, at the age of 68. In an article published in The Wall Street Journal, on 16 October, 2011, "Arabs Have Nobody to Blame but Themselves", he wrote:

“A darkness, a long winter, has descended on the Arabs. Nothing grows in the middle between an authoritarian political order and populations given to perennial flings with dictators, abandoned to their most malignant hatreds. Something is amiss in an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America's calamities. Something has gone terribly wrong in a world where young men strap themselves with explosives, only to be hailed as ‘martyrs’ and avengers.”

Updated on Monday, 30 June, 2014

According to the Arabic online daily, Elaph, an Islamist Mujahid, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, assumed the role of Caliph on Sunday, the 29th of June, 2014. He decreed that the old designation (ISIS) was no longer valid, the new name is: The Universal Islamic Caliphate. He chose the name of the first Islamic Caliph, Abu Bakr (632-634) to indicate that he would act with utter severity in dealing with opposition to his Caliphate. It should be noted that it was Abu Bakr (632-634) who waged “Huroob al-Radda” (Wars against Apostates) in 632, to force those Arab tribes that had left Islam to return to the fold. He is credited with establishing “The Law of Apostasy” which stipulates that a “Murtad” (apostate) faces capital punishment, unless he or she repents!