Shia rising

aliNational Public Radio’s Morning Edition is in the midst of a five-part series on Shiism this week. It’s called “The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics” and is well worth listening to or reading online.

The first installment explains the source of the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The majority, who thought the community should pick its leader, became the Sunni. A smaller group, Shiites, wanted Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to succeed the Prophet. Their disagreements were violent from the beginning. The first installment also showed where Shiism took hold. The story is vividly told, as this transcript excerpt shows:

The war continued with Ali’s son, Hussein, leading the Shia. “Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time,” says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. “He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.”

Hussein was decapitated and his head was carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.

It is the symbolism of Hussein’s death that holds so much spiritual power for Shia.

“An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force,” Nasr says. “He becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration.”

The story explains that imams, Shiite clerics, have a spiritual significance that no Sunni clerics enjoy. Some Sunnis believe that Shiites venerate clerics too much, almost making them divine.

The second installment explains the political changes in Iran over the 20th century. It included this claim:

Iran (formerly Persia) was at its center, becoming the world’s first Islamic state, a Shiite state, in 1979, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Didn’t Muhammad establish the first Islamic state after he fled Mecca for Yathrib in the 7th century when he was the religious leader of Muslims and the political head of Medina?

The third installment traces the reaction in the Sunni world to Khomeini’s revolution, the fourth shows how the Sunni-Shia divide is exploding right now in Iraq and the final installment looks at how that conflict is playing out worldwide.

In a series so heavy on politics, NPR has done a fantastic job of including religious angles and giving them the right prominence. Be sure to check back throughout the week for other installments. Also check out the sugested reading list, Sunni timeline and key Sunni players.

Another great example of reporting on Shias can be found in The Washington Post this week. Anthony Shadid, reporting from Egypt, shows that Shia and Sunni populations get along well in certain regions.

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  • Larry Rasczak

    “Didn’t Muhammad establish the first Islamic state after he fled Mecca for Yathrib in the seventh century when he was the religious leader of Muslims and the political head of Medina.”

    Well, maybe technically, but as far as the majority of the press corps is concerned no history existed before the birth of the baby boomers.

    (As a History major I’ve grown used to this.)

    Besides, mention of the First Islamic State might require that mention be made of the fact that prior to the Islamic Conquest Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Israel, etc. were all Christian. Either part of the Byzantine Empire or “Barbarian” Kingdoms…(like the Vandals in North Africa). The fact that Islam was imposed on these areas by the sword…well that is WAY to un-P.C. for NPR to deal with, and could lead to disturbing discussions about how Christian minorities in those countries are dealt with even today.

    One thing for NPR though… they are one of the few News organizations that use big words. They are very often biased, but they don’t assume their audience are morons.

  • Str1977

    It might be easier to show who created the first non-Islamic state in the Middle East …

    One small correction to the above (though I don’t know whether the error lies with GR or NPR):

    “The story explains that imams, Shiite clerics, have a spiritual significance that no Sunni clerics enjoy. Some Sunnis believe that Shiites venerate clerics too much, almost making them divine.”

    The word Imam denotes different things to Sunnites and Shiites.

    Originally, the Imam is only the one leading others in prayer. To Sunnis it still means this and might refer to any group leader from a local preacher to nation’s president or the Caliph (now defunct).

    Shiites see the Imam as the God-appointed leader of the Islamic Umma, who must be a descendant of Ali, cousin of Muhammad. This corresponds to the position of the Caliph in Sunni Islam, though the Sunnis can do without a Caliph (and have done so since 1924), while Shiites hold that the world could not exist without an Imam. Shiites also consider the Imams to be infallible. They disagree about the actual lineage and its extent (i.e. where does the lines of Imams stop – the last one usually considered to be in occultation) and in the extent of their veneration (the most extreme form developed into the Druze that consider the Imams as divine).

    Shiites may also venerate their clerics but the two types of Imam shouldn’t be confused.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    STR1977 — my error for not being more clear. Thanks!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Not the Shia use of images and the veneration of these saints and martyrs of their faith. The Sunnis see this as an attack on absolute monotheism, as iff the descendents of Muhammad are almost like members of a Divine pantheon. It’s the essential divide, here.

    I wonder: Were the Shia or the Sunnis influenced more by the early contacts with Arab Christians?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “the last one usually considered to be in occultation”

    That’s the 12th one, if I remember right.

    In fact, if I recall the class I took on Islam back in the 80s, the Shia are awaiting his Messianic (dare I use that word?) return. There were some who thought that Ayatollah Khomeini might actually be this Iman, until his death kind of disproved that theory.

    IIRC his return will begin an Armageddon like war, which of course the Shia will win since they are the only true followers of Allah, leaving them in a postion not dissimilar to that of “Ubermunchen”, rulling over the planet and all the surviving inhabitants thereof.

    This is one of the reasons the prospect of an Iranian Atomic Bomb is so scary. MAD worked against the Soviets because they were afraid of a general thermonuclear war. There is some considerable doubt about whether everyone in the Iranian Government necessairly shares that fear.

  • evagrius

    This is an interesting lecture about early Chritian influence on Islam;

    http://www.answering-islam.de/Main/////Books/Bell/christian_influences.htm

  • evagrius

    “This is one of the reasons the prospect of an Iranian Atomic Bomb is so scary. MAD worked against the Soviets because they were afraid of a general thermonuclear war. There is some considerable doubt about whether everyone in the Iranian Government necessairly shares that fear.”

    You’ll have to parallel that with some Christians awaiting Armageddon, wouldn’t you?

  • Mark V.

    The Washington Post daily e-mail update had an interesting editorial today that cast the Sunni/Shia divide as a clash of civilizations:

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/02/sunni_vs_shia_its_not_all_isla.html

  • evagrius

    Ralph Peters is a tad simplistic. Besides, he rips off Ibn-Khaldun’s argument about desert vs. city.

    This gives a bit more nuance to the problem;

    http://www.godspy.com/issues/The-Dialogue-with-Islam-by-Stratford-Caldecott.cfm

  • Str1977

    Evagrius, what have we gained from your observation that apparently “all sheep are black”? Should we now sigh, well they are no different and do nothing? Did these Christians awaiting Armageddon ever tried to get the nuclear bomb? Did they, sitting in government positions, threaten to annihalate other nations?

    Ralph Peters not only seems simplistic but very very wrongheaded. Criticize Islam all you like, but someone who talks about “a fascist obsession with behaviour”, must eye the world as full of fascists with only one opponent left.

  • Str1977

    And he gets even worse, claiming that the idea of a Messiah-figure is Perian/Zoroatrian (But where have I heard that idea of a Messiah before).

    He talks about “Persians made the new faith their own, incorporating cherished traditions” and talks like Shiites were particular to Persia/Iran. Well, he might not be aware that Persia has been Shiite only 500 years after a successfuly dynasty violently introduced it? That the centres of Shiism lie in Arab-speaking Iraq. That Shiism is strong in some parts of Syria/Lebanon. That Egypt was once ruled by Shiites.

    And he also seems to be unaware of a third division of Islam, the Kharijites (), which are the progenitors of the Wahhabites, which include people like UBL.

  • evagrius

    “Did these Christians awaiting Armageddon ever tried to get the nuclear bomb? Did they, sitting in government positions, threaten to annihalate other nations?”

    Uh, they didn’t have to try to get the nuclear bomb. It’s already there.
    ( One of the first models was used on a city with a large Christian population and another used on a Christian Feast Day, BTW).

    As for threatening to annihalate other nations,
    I believe that, during the 50′s, France was offered a bomb to settle the Vietnam situation. They politely refused.

    My only point is that painting an opponent as pure evil is not conducive to settling problems.

  • Str1977

    So, Evagrius, what you are telling me is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by some right-wing nut fundamentalist Christians wanting to bring about Armageddon? That FDR, Harry Truman, Mr Oppenheimer etc. were all evangelicals?

    My point is that your standard reply to pointing out evil in some places (stick your straw man about anyone being all evil) seems to be to say “all black sheep, others are bad too”, which in the end only serves as a justification for doing nothing at all, or for belittling the evil that actually happens. So in the end it’s a denial of evil as such.

  • MJBubba

    Regarding Mollie’s comment about Islamic states. In one sense, Iran is no longer an “Islamic State,” since President Ahmadinejad is not an Imam. In that sense, the only “Islamic States” that have existed since the 1920s were Iran under Ayatolla Khomeni, and Afganistan under the Taliban. There are currently many Islamic states that invoke Sharia law, but all are either ruled by dictators, kings, or presidents, and none by a caliph or an ayatolla.


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