HATRED! from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Pakistan, the Ancient Loathing between Sunnis and Shi'ites Is Threatening to Tear Apart the Muslim World

Daily Mail (London), March 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

HATRED! from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Pakistan, the Ancient Loathing between Sunnis and Shi'ites Is Threatening to Tear Apart the Muslim World


Byline: by John R. Bradley

THE BITTER, bloody feud between the two branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, has gone on for centuries and now this vicious sectarian strife is exploding again in Bahrain, threatening to cause an even greater conflict in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The implications of the worsening hostility for the world are nightmarish, for the entire region could soon be gripped by turmoil, bloodshed and economic meltdown. What was naively seen a few weeks ago as a fight between freedom and autocracy could descend into an epic clash between two Muslim ideologies, the savagery made all the worse by their long history of enmity.

The roots of the hostility between Sunni and Shia lie not in profound theological differences, but in the political intrigues that took place in the Muslim world in the 7th Century. When the Prophet Mohamed died in AD632, the question of the succession to his leadership was dominated by family rivalries and disputes.

Essentially, there were four candidates to succeed as 'caliph', or leader, and one group in particular, which went on to form the Shi'ites, strongly favoured the claims of Ali, the grandson of Mohamed. Even the name, Shi'ite, derives from 'party of Ali'. But three times in succession, Ali was passed over as each of the other candidates was chosen before him.

The opposition to Ali deepened the sense of anger among his supporters. Eventually, in this climate of tribal factionalism, Ali became the fourth caliph, though the indignation of his followers was provoked when he was then brutally assassinated.

The tribal feuding in the post-Mohamed era reached its climax at the Battle of Karbala in AD680. This is really the key moment in the creation of the Shi'ite movement, the point at which the fissure was permanently established.

At the battle, Ali's grandson, Hussein, was killed and, in the aftermath of his death, he came to be regarded by the Shi'ites as a martyr. The split between the Shi'ites and the opposing faction which took on the name Sunni, or 'tradition', has existed ever since that battle, causing endless sectarian trouble across the Middle East and the Arab world.

The division soon acquired the trappings of theology. In turn, this has worsened the bigotry and hatred.For example, fundamentalist Sunnis regard the Shi'ites as heretical because they say the worship of Ali and Hussein contradicts the Muslim belief that Mohamed was the last Prophet. However, most Shi'ites would dispute this, arguing that they revere Ali and Hussein, but do not worship them like they do Mohamed.

The Sunni belief in the heresy of the Shi'ites leads to repellent prejudice in Saudi Arabia, which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population and where the Shi'ites are widely loathed. Sunnis, for example, often say that you should never accept any food from a Shi'ite because he will spit in it before he hands it over.

Although the two sects live alongside one another, it isn't an easy coexistence. Shi'ites face outright discrimination.

Partly this hostility stems from the fact that Saudi Sunnis are mainly Wahabbis, a cult which adopts the most literal and narrow brand of Islamic theology. Indeed, according to the most extreme Wahabbi mentality, the act of killing a Shi'ite infidel will improve a Sunni zealot's chance of entering heaven.

In reverse, the Shi'ites do not regard Sunnis as infidels or heretics and do not feel they have anything spiritually to gain by killing them.

This explains why nearly all suicidebomb attacks against Muslims have been perpetrated by Sunnis (Al Qaeda is a Sunni group).

The consequences of this split have been devastating. For although only 10 to 15 per cent of the Muslim world are Shi'ites, they are concentrated in strategically vital areas.

AROUND 85 per cent of the Iranian population is Shi'ite. …

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