Shia Doctrine and Sectarian Rivalry in the Muslim World Today
Recent events in Syria have highlighted the increasingly sectarian nature of politics in today’s Middle East. A pair of explicitly Shia entities—Iran’s Islamic Republic and the Lebanese Hezbollah—support Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is dominated by Alawites, members of a sect that has its roots in Shia history. Many of Assad’s most ferocious opponents are militant Sunnis (some affiliated with al-Qaeda) who are backed by sources in Saudi Arabia, a country whose Wahhabi Salafist ideology is fervently anti-Shia.
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 (the community of believers) after the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. Most Muslims (those who ultimately became known as Sunnis) supported the principle of election in selecting the caliph (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 those Muslim leaders who tried to block Ali’s bid for the caliphate.
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 numerically largest form of Shiism, as well as the state religion of the Iranian Islamic Republic) also use the term Imam in a more restricted sense, to refer to the rightful spiritual leader of the entire ummah. Twelver Shias insist the Imam must be from the prophet’s immediate bloodline, and that he is 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 (together with a small group of family members and personal attendants) set out from Arabia to Iraq to organize a rebellion against the reigning caliph, Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyah. But Yazid’s soldiers intercepted Husain near the river Euphrates at a site called Karbala (which today is revered as Shiism’s foremost pilgrimage site). Not wanting Husain to become a martyr and a rallying point for further Shia resistance, Yazid ordered his soldiers to force Husain to surrender. 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 Muharram observances (Muharram is the Islamic month in which the siege of Karbala occurred).
Finally, Husain chose death rather than surrender. On Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, Husain died in combat against Yazid’s forces. This effectively put an end to Twelver Shia hopes for reclaiming the caliphate. 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 to the effect that Fatima continues to lament her martyred son even while she resides in paradise; but 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. 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.
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 as al-Mahdi (“the one who is divinely guided”) to usher in Judgment Day, fill the earth with justice, and execute intiqam (vengeance, retribution) against all those who have made Shias suffer.
The history and rituals noted above are worth knowing 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; 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 (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”). 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, renegade), a pejorative that recurs in present-day anti-Shia polemics.
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.
Sectarian battlelines are also evident in Syria, where the government (as noted above) is dominated by Alawites, who are also known by the unflattering name “Nusairis.” This name is derived from Muhammad ibn Nusair, a ninth-century preacher who (according to Muslim hagiographers) claimed divine status for the Imam Ali and the rank of prophet for himself. Thus the Nusairis constitute one of a number of ghulat (“doctrinal extremists”), Muslims whose veneration of the first Imam is so heterodox that they have been spurned as heretics. Nusairis today prefer the title “Alawite” to emphasize their devotion to Ali (a figure revered by all Muslims) rather than their historical derivation from a doctrinally suspect medieval preacher.
Nusairi-Alawite teachings reflect a mix of Muslim, pagan, and possibly Christian influences. Their belief in tanasukh (transmigration of souls) is linked to a moral system of reward and punishment: the evil are reincarnated as dogs and snakes; the souls of the righteous are lifted up to the heavens and granted a place among the stars. Syrian Alawites I met in Tartous and Hosn Suleiman years ago described Allah as “unknowable and invisible, a great secret.” They added that “Ali is the means by which God manifests Himself to us.” My informants acknowledged that their liturgies include the ritual drinking of wine (which has led orthodox Muslim critics to condemn this sect for its alleged influence by Christian practice).
Despised for centuries by Sunnis and mainstream Twelver Shias alike, the Alawites remained an impoverished minority at the margins of Syrian society, taking refuge in the rugged hill country known as the Jebel Ansariyah. This began to change during France’s dominion of the region in the twentieth century, when many Alawites enrolled in the French colonial forces. In the post-colonial period, it was precisely the Alawite-dominated military that took power and allowed the Assad family to assert its control.
It is understandable that the Assads, as members of a sect rejected by other Muslims, embraced Baathist ideology, with its emphasis on pan-Arab secularism rather than Islamic identity as a means of achieving national and regional unity. Nevertheless Alawites remain keenly aware of the stigma of ghuluww (doctrinal extremism) that still adheres to their sect. Hence in 1973 Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) cultivated a relationship with Musa al-Sadr, a prestigious Twelver Shia mullah and the head of Lebanon’s Higher Shia Council. Assad succeeded in getting from al-Sadr a fatwa (religious decree) to the effect that the Alawites do in fact constitute an orthodox community within Shia Islam. This hasn’t prevented Sunnis from continuing to loathe them as heretics; but it does testify to the Alawites’ desire to be accepted as members of the Islamic ummah.
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) a few years ago 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.
This movement alarms anti-Shia ideologues. A Sunni mosque-leader I met in Sanaa referred angrily to what he called Teheran’s use of Yemeni “pawns” as part of an Iranian “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.