The Islamic Oral Law (the Hadith) quotes the prophet Muhammad who stated: “My nation will be split into seventy two factions, and only one of them will escape Hell.” Since Muhammad closed his eyes for eternity in the year 632 CE, the Muslims – regarding this tradition – have been absorbed by two questions, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical one is: which is the correct and righteous faction which is destined to inherit Paradise, and which are all of the other factions to whom the gates of Hell are open wide to receive them. The practical question, which stems from the theoretical, is how each faction verifies that it – the correct and the righteous – is the one that will live in an earthly paradise, and how can it make concrete life hell for the other factions.
These questions were first dealt with immediately after Muhammad’s funeral, when the Muslim elders met to decide who will be the Caliph, Muhammad’s successor. Ali bin Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin, who was also his son-in-law, claimed that the caliphate belonged to him, but his claim was not accepted and three others were named as caliphs before him. He waited twenty-four long years until he was named as the fourth Caliph. During this time he consolidated around him a support group, who were even willing to engage in violent battle in order to take over the status of sovereignty. They were the first Shi’ites. The meaning of the word Shi’a in Arabic is “faction”, meaning the faction of Ali.
After Ali was murdered in 661, his son, Hussein, continued to claim that the leadership belongs to him, because he was of the clan of Hashem, the family of the Prophet, and not the Caliphs of the Umayyad clan, a branch of the Quraysh tribe, which seized control. Because of this claim he was seen as a rebel and in the year 680 he was caught by the army of the regime near the city of Karbala in Southern Iraq, and slaughtered together with most of his family and supporters. This event was the seminal event of the Shi’ites until today, and the Shi’ites mark the “Ashura” – the “yahrzeit” – of Hussein with memorial rites, some of them beating and wounding themselves until they bleed.
Over the years, Shi’a developed its own theology and religious laws so different from that of Sunni, which is mainstream Islam, that there are those who claim that the Sunna and the Shi’a are two different religions. Many Sunnis see Shi’ites as heretics of a sort, and more than a few Shi’ites see Sunnis in the same way. Many Shi’ites see Sunni as najas, or unclean. The Shi’ites say that their claim to leadership is based on two chapters in the Qur’an, while the Sunnis claim that these two chapters are a Shi’ite forgery. For all of history the Shi’ites have been considered as a group which is rebelling against the regime and therefore the judgement for a Shi’ite is death. In areas where the Shi’ites have ruled, this was the fate of the Sunnis.
The struggle between the Sunna and the Shi’a continues in full strength until today, with Iran leading the Shi’a side while Saudi Arabia is in the forefront of Sunni Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, the Hanbali school leads, with its extreme Wahhabi version of Islam, according to which the Shi’ites are heretics. Therefore the Shi’ites who live in Eastern Saudi Arabia are ground into dust: they are forbidden to sound the call to prayer on loudspeakers because their call includes a Shi’ite addendum. They are forbidden to mark the Ashura publicly and they are forbidden to demonstrate. The Saudi regime relates to them with fierce determination and zero sensitivity.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which cost one million people their lives on both sides, was part of the struggle between the Shi’a and and the Sunna, because Saddam Hussein was Sunni. In Lebanon, the Shi’ite Hizb’Allah fights the Sunnis and their friends over hegemony in the Land of the Cedars, and in Bahrain the Farsi-speaking Shi’ite majority has been trying for years to free itself from the Sunni minority which rules over it with an iron fist and an outstretched arm. This past year, when the spirit of the “Arab Spring” brought the Shi’ite majority into the streets, Saudi Arabia occupied Bahrain and forced the sectarian genie back into its bottle.