By Kenneth Karlsson
The death of Hussain in the AD 680 Battle of Karbala, was, quite understandably, a great loss to the Shiites, who from then on suffered ”a feeling of terrible, permanent repression,” according to the English journalist Lesley Hazleton. For Hussain was the grandchild of Mohammed and the son of Ali, who many Muslims believe should have succeeded the prophet as ruler.
Lesley Hazleton further believes that the Middle East is still strongly influenced by what happened centuries ago, which even today is still perceived as fresh and alive, and that the story of Hussain’s death in this way is transformed, to live on as a form of Shiite liberation theology.
The clans who were to become Sunnis took a more pragmatic approach to who should take over after Mohammed – the most able was to carry on the tradition, not necessarily the closest relative. The Sunnis were dominated by persons well established in the growing Meccan guilds of trade aristocrats and religious authorities, who frequently also assumed the best places in society. Shia came to be an “ideology of the common man”, a social divide which is visible even today. This is how Hazem Saghieh describes the situation:
”In most cities of the Islamic world the majority of the inhabitants are Sunni, and have been since at least the days of the Ottoman empire. They in turn, alongside the Christian and Jewish minorities, produced a layer of merchants, bureaucrats and writers. Sunni have also always made up the majority of poor urban artisans, with their guilds, arts, music and other customs. By contrast, the Shi’a have traditionally lived mainly in rural areas, far from the scrutiny of the Sunni central authorities, and as a result their lives have been bound up with agricultural labour. Their culture, too, has been characterised by the oral, almost mechanical, transmission of customs and beliefs.”
This social divide is also important to take into consideration when studying the significant differences, and contradictions, between Shiites and Sunnis.
Theologically, Sunnis and Shiites share a foundation – meaning the Quran, the stories about the life of Muhammad (Sirat), and the canonical traditions (Hadith). Small differences can be found, for example the way in which some of the hadith are interpreted, and how to conduct the prayer, but differences that in context must be considered minor.
It is more important first to note how the Shias embrace ‘martyrdom’, based on the emotional story of the death of Hussein at Karbala, AD 680. Second is their waiting for the return of the so-called “Twelfth Imam”, who heralds the day of doom and the establishment of the rightful Islamic society. The twelfth imam of the Shiites, a direct descendant of the prophet, al-Mahdi, a boy only 5 years old who suddenly vanished in AD 874; an event that made it impossible to uphold the line of succession after Mohammed. This dilemma was resolved by deciding that al-Mahdi was ”living in the unseen”, in the so-called ”al-Ghayba”, and a state of perpetual waiting was initiated, a state that even today is quite palpable in the Shiite branch of Islam.
Martyrdom for the Shiites has been a role of the victimized, either forced upon them through repression by the Sunnis or adopted voluntarily, and can manifest itself in extreme outbreaks of fanatical religious violence, not infrequently targeting competing Muslims. Two examples:
The infamous Assassins were a Shiite group that ravaged Persia during the 12th and 13th centuries, executing paid-for murders with their own martyrdom as signature. This group later attained mythical status, not least through the meaning of their name, paid killer = assassin, which spilled over into English.
On November 20th 1979, in the middle of the Hajj celebration and in the presence of 50,000 pilgrims, the great mosque in Mecca was suddenly occupied by a small group of Shiite Muslims led by a Juhaiman Saif al Otaibi, who thought that his brother was the long-expected hidden imam al-Mahdi, who had returned. Now the Sunni-dominated shrine in Mecca was to be the scene of the resurrection of “True Islam”. The siege lasted for 7 days, until eventually the Saudi army managed to overpower the occupiers. 255 persons were killed in the fighting, and more than 500 wounded. All surviving members of the Juhaiman Saif al Otaibi group were later executed by decapitation.
The essay by Kenneth Karlsson about the Islamic contradiction continues in the next issue..