This week, on the tenth of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Hijri calendar, is Ashura, which at first was akin to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, occurring on a similar date. However, over the years, this day has become a memorial day for Hussein bin Ali, leader of the Shi’ite sect, who was executed by the army of the Sunni regime in southern Iraq in the year 680 CE, 1333 years ago. He was decapitated and his head was ceremoniously brought to Damascus as proof that the deed had been carried out. Caliph Yazid bin Muawiyah placed Hussein’s head on his table and left it there for a month, so that all could see the fate that befalls a rebel and would be deterred from behaving as he did. The fact that Hussein was the grandson of Mohammad the prophet of Islam did not prevent the caliph from treating Hussein’s head in this manner.
What is the cause of the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict? Why the terrible cruelty that has been characteristic of this conflict even until today?
The story begins in the year 632, the moment that Muhammad died. Immediately upon his death the struggle began over who would succeed to the most powerful position in Islam – the office of Caliph, Muhammad’s replacement and the leader of Islam. Ali bin Abi Talib was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, since he was married to Fatima, daughter of Allah’s messenger and his first wife, Hadija. Fatima bore to Ali two sons, Hasan and Hussein, and two daughters – Zainab and Umm Kulthum.
While Muhammad was still alive, his daughter Fatima quarreled with Aisha, Muhammad’s last wife, who was younger than Fatima by several years. After Muhammad’s death, Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, was appointed as the leader of Islam, which was against Fatima’s wishes, who saw her husband Ali as the natural successor to Muhammad, since he was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as well as the father of Muhammad’s grandchildren.
There were severe struggles among the group of people that surrounded the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman because of the family feud over who would inherit the leadership. Ali was eventually appointed as the fourth caliph in the year 656 after his predecessor, Uthman, was murdered. Those who opposed Ali, principally members of the Umayyah family, accused him of being involved in the murder of Uthman and during all five years that he ruled, he had to fight his adversaries continually. The governor of Syria, Muawiya, rose up and pronounced himself caliph. His son, Yazid, was the caliph who gave the instructions to murder Hussein bin Ali.
The murder of Hussein occurred in Southern Iraq, near the city of Karbala. He was murdered together with several dozens of his friends and family members, with only one baby surviving to continue the dynasty. The murder, which occurred in 680 – remains the defining event for “Shi’at Ali”, the “sect of Ali”, which is the source of the name “Shi’ite”, the name of the stream of Islam that supports the leadership of Ali’s descendants.
This family conflict has been ongoing for almost 1400 years. Until the year 1258, with the fall of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, all of the caliphs of Islam for over six hundred years were from Muhammad’s tribe, the tribe of Quraysh, but they were never the descendants of Ali. This situation placed Shi’a in continual opposition to the ruling regime and they became a harshly persecuted group throughout the history of Islam.
The struggle between the two groups has led to the development of great differences between the two in every area of religious life: religious laws are different, the theology is different, and even the basic scriptures are different: The Shi’ites claim that the Sunnis omitted two chapters from the Qur’an where the leadership was promised to Ali and his descendants, while the Sunnis claim that these two chapters were fabricated by the Shi’ites. The oral law is also different, because each side invented stories about Muhammad to support their political position.
In their prayers, the Shi’ites curse the first three caliphs for stealing the rule from Ali, and they add passages that praise and exalt Ali. Therefore there are many among the Sunnis, especially the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who consider Shi’a as a kind of fundamental heresy. The Saudi regime forbids the Shi’ite minority to recite the call to prayer aloud, because even in the muezzin’s call to prayer there is an extra part praising Ali.