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A Historical Background to the Sunni-Shi'i Islamic Divide

By Minhaj Qidwai 

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, March 3, 20


Pakistan and Israel are the two countries on the globe, owing their presence due to religion. Pakistan for Islamism and Israel for Judaism. While Israel has God fathers like Britain, USA and others, Pakistan had not. Pakistan has been at fore front in holding the Muslim fort, when it comes to any act committed against Islam or Muslims on a global basis. Pakistan has been a supporter of the cause of Palestine. Its army’s motto is “Jihad for Allah” and it has supported its Muslim countries in terms of training and advising. With the presence of the two holy cities in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Pakistanis have always been associated with the sacred land, its rulers and inhabitants. With the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and events thereafter, more affinity grew between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi doctrine already present, has cemented its roots. Today, we can say that Pakistan also has a God father in the shape of Saudi Arabia, an ardent promoter of Wahabism in the veil of Sunni Islam.

On the other hand, Syria dominated by the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. Alawites revere Hazrat Ali (RA) and the name "Alawi" means followers of Hazrat Ali (RA). The Alawites are descendants of the followers of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (d. 873) and his pupil, Ibn Nusayr therefore also called as "Nusayris". Alawites consider themselves to be Muslims. Their theology is based on a divine triad, or trinity, which is the core of Alawite belief. The triad comprises three emanations of the one God: the supreme aspect or entity called the "Essence"]or the "Meaning", together with two lesser emanations known as his "Name" or "Veil" and his "Gate". These emanations have manifested themselves in different human forms over several cycles in history, the last cycle of which was as Hazrat Ali (RA) (the Essence/Meaning), Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), (the Name) and Salman The Persian (the Gate). Alawite belief is summarized in the formula: "I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning". 

 In the Islamic history, Syria is one of those countries which had been at the helm of affairs of Muslims rulers. Mostly dominated by the Sunnis. However, the tide changed after the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Syria and Lebanon were placed by the League of Nations under the French Mandate. It gave French, the power to recruit Syrian civilians into their armed forces and created exclusive areas for minorities, including an Alawite State, later dismantled. There were Alawite separatist sentiment in the region, evidenced by a 1936 letter signed by 80 Alawi leaders addressed to the French Prime Minister which said that the "Alawite people rejected attachment to Syria and wished to stay under French protection". Among the signatories was Sulayman al-Assad, father of Hafez al-Assad.

In 1939, Zaki al-Arsuzi, a young Alawite leader became a co-founder of the Ba’ath party with a Christian and Sunni politicians.  Syria became independent on 17 April 1946. In 1970 General Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, took power. This was an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries" In 1971 al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time permitted only for Sunni Muslims. In 1973 a new constitution was adopted, replacing Islam as the state religion with a mandate that the president's religion be Islam.

Today, Alawites represent 12 percent of the Syrian population. They are a religious group on towns near the coast which are also inhabited by Sunnis, Christians and Isma'ilis. The majority of Sunnis did not like the changes in the constitution and being run by the minority Alawites. They were oppressed by the Alawites and struggle could not gain momentum, until recently when opposing forces were armed by Americans and Saudis. The involvement of Saudis in the conflict is the same as Pakistan was involved in Afghanistan. The recruits from all over have gathered in Syria in an armed struggle to replace Alawites. The internal insurgency thus taking shape of a  Shia-Sunni conflict in particular and global conflict in general.

These two Islamic sects are vociferously opposed to each other and have deep roots in the conflict which surfaced after the passing of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). Although, Hazrat Abu Bakar (RA) was chosen as the first Caliph, but supporters of Hazrat Ali (RA) were dissatisfied. Hazrat Ali (RA) became the fourth Caliph. At the martyrdom of Hazrat Usman, (RA) the third Caliph, he was blamed for not having been able to protect Hazrat Usman (RA). Those, who joined his side, began to be called Shi'at Ali or Ali’s followers. Since then, the Islamic divide became overt. The first Islamic Civil War (656–661), resulted due to Hazrat Ali (RA)’s inability to prosecute the murderers in the case of the martyrdom of Hazrat Usman (RA). This issue lasted for the entirety of Hazrat Ali (RA)'s reign. Following his martyrdom, negotiations underwent between Hazrat Imam Hassan (RA) and Hazrat Muwaviya (RA)-Governor of Syria, appointed by Hazrat Umar (RA). Hazrat Muwaviya became the ruler and laid the foundation of Ummayyad’s dynasty. During the Caliphate of the Righteous, one factor which became a real thorn for Islam was a group of Arabs called as Qurra or the later famed Kharijites (Khawarij, in Arabic). 

Before Islam, the Roman-Persian Wars and the Byzantine–Sasanian wars had occurred every few years for hundreds of years between 69 BC and 629 AD. The Arab tribes in Iraq were paid by the Persian Sassanids to act as mercenaries. While the Arab tribes in Syria were paid by the Byzantine to act as their mercenaries. The Persians maintained an Arab satellite state of Lakhm and the Byzantine Empire maintained the Arab satellite state of Ghassan which they used to fight each other. Lakhm Arabs, many of whom became the Qurra or the Kharijities.

The earliest reference to these people are as Ajl al-Qura, the people of the village, those who fought with Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) against the desert tribes of Yamama during the Ridda when some of the tribes refused to pay taxes. They then became known as the Qurra and received the highest stipend of the Muslim army. The Qurra received stipends varying between 2,000 and 3,000 dirhams, while the majority of the rest of the troops received only 250 to 300 dirhams. The other Ridda tribesmen in Kufa, in Iraq, resented the special position given to the Qurra. The tension between the Ridda tribesmen and the Qurra threatened the Qurra's newly acquired prestige. The Qurra therefore felt obliged to defend their position in the new but rapidly changing society. Hazrat Usman (RA)'s policies of reducing their status threatened their interests.

The Qurra had previously been desert nomads and some were also bandits and had joined to Muslims so that they could gain lands and status and become the new aristocrats in Iraq. But later when Hazrat Usman (RA) imposed restrictions and prevented them from becoming landlords, they rebelled and planned to kill Hazrat Usman (RA).

Finding the gate of Hazrat Usman (RA)'s house strongly guarded by his supporters, the Qurra climbed the back wall and sneaked inside, leaving the guards on the gate unaware of what was going on inside. Hazrat Imam Hassan and Hussein (RA) were also guarding Hazrat Usman (RA) at the time. The rebels entered his room and martyred him.

With the martyrdom of Hazrat Usman (RA), another factor surfaced. These were the Sabaites named after Abdullah ibn Saba. Much of the Jewish literature on Adbullah ibn Saba from that time regards Adbullah ibn Saba as an apostate from Judaism and asks Jews to keep away from him. They supported Hazrat Ali (RA) and called the people around Hazrat Ali (RA) as Shi’an Ali or Hazrat Ali (RA)’s group.

Hazrat Ali (RA) was then asked by the people in Madina to become the Caliph. However, revenge for the death of Hazrat Usman (RA) was not forgotten. Hazrat Talhah (RA), Hazrat Al-Zubayr (RA), and Hazrat Aisha (RA) gathered in Mecca and then went to Basra. Hazrat Ali (RA), in an attempt to quash the differences made efforts and was successful. Everyone was happy, but not the people who had killed Hazrat Usman (RA), the supporters of Ibn Saba and the Qurra. They thought that if a settlement was reached, they would not be safe. The Qurra and the Sabaites launched a night attack and started burning the tents. Hazrat Ali (RA) was restraining his men but nobody was listening, everyone thought that the other party had committed break of trust. Confusion prevailed throughout the night. The Qurra and the Sabaites attacked the Umayyads and the fighting started. Qazi K'ab of Basra advised Hazrat Aysha (RA) to mount her camel tell people to stop fighting. Hazrat Ali (RA)'s cousin Hazrat Zubair (RA), was by then making his way to Medina and he was killed in an adjoining valley by a Sabait called Amr ibn Jarmouz. Hazrat Talhah (RA) also left. On seeing this, Marwan who was also manipulating everyone shot Hazrat Talhah (RA) with a poisoned arrow saying that he had disgraced his tribe, by leaving the field. With the two generals Hazrat Zubair (RA) and Hazrat Talhah (RA) gone confusion prevailing and the Qurra, the Sabaites and the Umayyads fought.  Hazrat Aisha's brother Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, who was Hazrat Ali (RA)'s commander, then approached Hazrat Aisha (RA). Hazrat Ali (RA) pardoned Hazrat Aisha (RA) and her brother Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr escorted her back to Medina. Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was the son of Hazrat Abu Bakr, the adopted son of Hazrat Ali (RA). He was raised by Hazrat  Ali (RA) alongside Hazrat Imam Hasan (RA) and Hazrat Imam Husein (RA). Hazrat Imam Hassan (RA) also accompanied Hazrat Aisha (RA) on her way back to Madina. ‘Hazrat Ali (RA) and Hazrat Aisha (RA) were said to have become friends after the battle. Hazrat Aisha (RA) then started teaching in Medina. Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr was later killed by the Umayyads in Egypt. His son Qasim ibn Abu Bakr was then raised and taught by Hazrat Aisha (RA). His daughter Farwah bint al-Qasim was the mother of Hazrat Ja’far al-Sadiq (RA).

 Hazrat Ali (RA)'s inability to punish the murderers of Hazrat Usman (RA) and Hazrat Muawiya (RA) ‘s refusal to pledge allegiance eventually led to Hazrat Ali (RA) move his army north to confront Hazrat Muawiya (RA). The two armies encamped themselves at Siffin for more than one hundred days, most of the time being spent in negotiations. Neither side wanted to fight. Then on 11th Safar 37 AH, the Iraqis under Ashtar's command, the Qurra, in Hazrat Ali (RA)'s army, who had their own camp started the fighting in earnest which lasted three days. The loss of life was terrible. Suddenly one of the Syrians, Ibn Lahiya, out of dread of the fitna and unable to bear the spectacle rode forward with a copy of the Quran on the ears of his horse to call for judgement by the book of Allah, and the other Syrians followed suit

It was decided that the Syrians and the residents of Kufa, in Iraq, should nominate an arbitrator, each to decide between Hazrat Ali (RA) and Hazrat Muawiya (RA). The Syrians choice fell on Amr bin al-A'as who was the rational soul and spokesman of Hazrat Muawiya (RA).  Hazrat Ali (RA), un-wantedly nominated Abu Musa al-Ashari a choice from Qurra, as the arbitrator. Hazrat Ali (RA) found it expedient to agree to this choice in order to ward off bloody dissensions in his army.

The Iraqis under Hazrat Ali (RA) and the Syrians under Hazrat Muawiya (RA) were not split over their faith but over when to bring the people who killed Hazrat Usman (RA) to justice. Hazrat Ali (RA) also wanted to bring them to justice but the dispute was over the timing.

Amr bin al-A'as convinced Abu Musa al-Ashari into entertaining the opinion that they should deprive both Hazrat Ali (RA) and Hazrat Muawiya (RA) of the caliphate and give to the Muslims the right to elect the caliph. Hazrat Ali (RA) refused to accept the verdict. Qurra felt that Hazrat Ali (RA) could no longer look after their interests. Also fearing that if there was peace, they could be arrested for the murder of Hazrat Usman (RA), broke away from Hazrat Ali (RA)'s force, rallying under the slogan, "arbitration belongs to God alone." The Qurra then became known as the Kharijites ("those who leave"). Arabic plural khawārij, singular Khārijī, derived from the verb kharaja "to come out, to exit."

The Kharijites started killing Hazrat Ali (RA)'s supporters. They considered anyone who was not part of their group as an unbeliever.

In 659 Hazrat Ali (RA)'s forces finally moved against the Kharijites and they finally met in the Battle of Nahrawan and won the battle. Among the surviving Kharjites, three of them gathered in Makkah to plot a tripartite assassination attempt on Hazrat Mu’awiah (RA)'Hazrat Amr ibn al-'As (RA) and Hazrat Ali (RA). The assassination attempts were to occur simultaneously as the three leaders came to lead the Morning Prayer in their respective cities of DamascusFustat and Kufa. The method was to come out of the prayer ranks and strike the targets with a sword dipped in poison.

Hazrat Muawiya (RA) escaped the assassination attempt with only minor injuries. While Hazrat Amr was sick and the deputy leading the prayers in his stead was martyred. However, the strike on Hazrat Ali (RA) by the assassin, Abdur-Rahmaan ibn-Muljim, proved to be a fatal one. All the assassins were captured and sentence to death.

At that time, Hazrat Muawiya (RA) had the largest and the most organized and disciplined force in the Muslim Empire. Six months of Hazrat Ali’s martyrdom in 661, in the interest of peace, Hazrat Hasan ibn Hazrat Ali (RA), highly regarded for his wisdom and as a peacemaker, the fifth Rightly Guided Caliph for the Sunnis and the Second Imam for the Shias, made a peace treaty with Hazrat Muawiya (RA). By now Hazrat Hassan (RA) only ruled the area around Kufa. In the Hazrat Hasan (RA)-Hazrat Muawiya (RA) treaty, Hazrat Hasan ibn Hazrat Ali (RA) handed over power to Hazrat Muawiya (RA) on the condition that he be just to the people and keep them safe and secure and after his death he does not establish a dynasty.

In the year 661, Hazrat Muawiya (RA) was crowned as caliph at a ceremony in Jerusalem. Hazrat Muawiya (RA) ruled for nearly 20 years most of which were spent expanding the state.

Hazrat Hussein (RA) would travel to see Hazrat Muawiya (RA) every year and in return Hazrat Muawiya (RA) would show great hospitality. Hazrat Muawiya even sent Yazeed bin Hazrat Muawiya (RA), Hazrat Hussein (RA), Hazrat Abu Ayyoob al-Ansari (RA) and others to lay the siege to al-Qustanteeniyyah (Constantinople).

One of Hazrat Muawiya (RA)'s most controversial and enduring legacies was his decision to designate his son Yazid as his successor. Yazid was experienced militarily, but politically inexperienced. Marwan also wanted Yazid to be the Caliph so that he could run things behind the scenes, as he would become the senior member of the Umayyad clan after Hazrat Muawiya (RA)'s death. As per Ibn Katheer in his book the Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah that "in the year 56 AH Hazrat Muawiya (RA) called on the people including those within the outlying territories to pledge allegiance to his son, Yazeed, to be his heir to the Caliph after him. Almost all the subjects offered their allegiance, with the exception of Abdur Rahman bin Abu Bakr, Abdullah ibn Umar, Hazrat Husain bin Hazrat Ali (RA), Abdullah bin Az-Zubair and Abdullah ibn Abbas. They tolerated Hazrat Muawiya (RA) but did not like Yazeed.

According to some sources Hazrat Muawiya (RA) warned his son Yazid against mistreating Hazrat Imam Hussein (RA). His final warning to Yazid was: "As for Hazrat Imam Husayn (RA) what can I tell you concerning him? Be careful not to confront him except in a good way. Extend to him a free hand (literally, a long rope) and let him roam the earth as he pleases. Do not harm him, can show verbal anger but never confront him with the weapons of war but rather bestow on him generous gifts. Give him a place of honor near you and treat him with due reverence. Be careful O my son, that you do not meet God with his blood, lest you be amongst those that will perish"

The battle at Karbala with the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussein (RA) was a turning point in Islamic history cementing the Shia-Sunni divide. Yazid died a few months later in young age and  Marwan came to power in Syria and the Qurra (the Kharijites) established a state in Southern Iraq. The very thing Hazrat Imam Hassan (RA) signed a treaty with Hazrat Muawiya (RA) to avoid.

From their essentially political position, the Kharijites developed extreme doctrines that further set them apart from both mainstream Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims. The differences between the Sunnis, Shi’is and the Kharijites are the following:

·       Sunnis accept Hazrat Ali (RA) as the fourth Caliph and also accept the three Caliphs before him.

·       Shi'is believe that the imamate (leadership or successorship) was the right of Hazrat Ali (RA), and the rule of the first three Rashidoun (guided) caliphs was unlawful.

·       Kharijites insist that any Muslim could be a leader of the Muslim community and had the right to revolt against any ruler who deviated from their interpretation of Islam. 

The Kharijites were particularly noted for adopting a radical approach to Takfir, whereby they declared other Muslims to be unbelievers and therefore deemed them worthy of death.

They became prominent at battle of Saffin, when they left the army of Hazrat Ali (RA). The mutineers saw the turn of events as a fundamental betrayal of principle. A large group of them (traditionally believed to be 12,000, mainly from Banu Hanifah and Banu Tamim tribes) repudiated Hazrat Ali (RA). It is the same Banu Tamim tribe, to which Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab belong. He was an Arab Islamic Salafi scholar born in 1703 in Uyayna, a village in Najd. He entered into a pact with Muhammad bin Saud in 1744. He said to Muhammad bin Saud "You are the settlement's chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (Struggle to spread Islam) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters.". His pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state and began a dynastic alliance and power-sharing arrangement between their families which continues to the present day. The descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, have historically led the ulama in the Saudi state, dominating the state's clerical institutions. An ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab Islamic teaching forbids grave worship and adulterers to be stoned to death.

Muhammad Bin (Ibn) ʿAbdul-Wahhab considered his movement, Wahabi, an effort to purify Islam by returning Muslims to what he believed were the original principles of that religion, as typified by the Salaf and rejecting what he regarded as corruptions introduced by Bid’ah and Shirk. Although all Muslims pray to one God Allah, the highlight of this movement was that Muhammad Bin (Ibn) ʿAbdul-Wahhab was keen on emphasizing that no intercession with God was possible without God's permission, which God only grants to whom He wills and only to benefit those whom He wills, certainly not the ones who invoke anything or anyone except Him, as these would never be forgiven.


Someone needs to come forward and prevent the bleeding Islamic nations. A uniting element for the Shias’ and Sunni. A per Allama Iqbal, One Muslims  for the safeguarding the Haram – from Nile to Kashgar. As per history:

-           Hazrat Ali (RA) accepted the other three caliphs.

-          Hazrat Ali (RA) raised Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr as an adopted son, alongside Hazrat Imam Hasan (RA) and Hazrat Imam Husein (RA). Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr, was also Hazrat Ali (RA)'s commander in the battle of Camel

-           Hazrat Ali (RA) pardoned Hazrat Aisha (RA) for the battle of Camel. Her brother Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr, escorted her back to Mecca.

-           Hazrat Imam Hussain was the guard for Hazrat Aisha (RA) on her way back to Mecca from the battlefield of Camel.

-           Hazrat Aisha (RA) were said to have become friends after the battle.

-           Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr’s son Qasim ibn Abu Bakr was raised and taught by Hazrat Aisha (RA). His daughter Farwah bint al-Qasim was the mother of Hazrat Ja’far al-Sadiq (RA).

-           Hazrat Ali was also an advisor to all the three earlier Caliphs.

-           Hazrat Ali (RA) had put on guard Hazrat Imam Hassan and Hussain for Hazrat Usman (RA).          

The above is a part of history, but all of it hardly emphasized by the religious scholars of both sides in their sermons. The above evidences also show that there were no grievances of Hazrat Ali (RA) with all the other three Caliphs or if there were any, he accepted the three caliphs as his leader. It was Qurra or the Kharjis, who were one of the main factors in creating the divide in the Islam, fueled by Sabaites. The Muslims in general followed the groups of their choice. However, Sunni sect is in majority, but sub-divided; while the Shia’s in minority and also divided. One thing in common for both sects is the acceptance of caliphate of Hazrat Ali (RA). However, the fourth ranking of Hazrat Ali (RA) among the caliphs is not acceptable by the Shiites. Hazrat Ali (RA) in his sermon # 126 in NahajulBalagha,  says “With regard to me, two categories of people will be ruined, namely he who loves me too much and the love takes him away from rightfulness, and he who hates me too much and the hatred takes him away from rightfulness. The best man with regard to me is he who is on the middle course. So be with him and be with the great majority of Muslims because Allah’s hand of protection is on keeping unity. You should beware of division because the one isolated from the group is a prey to Satan just as the one isolated from the flock of sheep is a prey to the wolf. Beware! Whoever calls to this course [of sectarianism], kill him, even though he may be under this headband of mine.”   

Hazrat Ali, therefore clearly outlined the message for his followers. The common factor among the two sects can be used as an advantage for unity of Ummah. Prophet (PBUH) predicted that Ummah will be divided and only one group will be at the right path. Which one? Time will tell.  

Muslims have been divided by their own weaknesses and the external forces have taken advantage for creating deep divisions. Are we going to witness Pakistan and Syria as the death bed for Muslims, the stage grounds for proxy wars of Saudi Arabia and Iran, fighting a in their quest for Supremacy; or will witness any Messiah averting it? 







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