Ashoura… or the Story of the Sunni-Shiite Schism


November 18, 2013 08:23 EDT

What lies at the heart of the Sunni-Shiite divide?

Author's Note

Last Thursday marked the holy day of Ashoura (“the tenth,” in Arabic). For the past 1,333 years, devout Shiite Muslims (as well as Alawites) all over the world join in deep grief on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram to mourn the brutal martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was ruthlessly decapitated at the Battle of Karbala in modern day Iraq in 680AD.

During this month, Shiites mourn the painful loss of the Prophet’s lawful sovereign legacy, that of the vindicated Imam Ali and his two sons Hassan and Hussein whom Shiites believe were the only true lawful successors to the Prophet Muhammad as leaders of the Islamic community but who were betrayed, sidelined, and murdered by the rulers of Damascus and the Umayyad dynasty — men who allegedly usurped the caliphate from the hands of the Prophet’s lineage.

This robbed legacy will forever demarcate the schism line between Sunnis and Shiites.

In this article, I bring to you the story of this very schism, which will divide the Muslim community along very bloody lines for the next 13 centuries.

This Sunni-Shiite strife that dates back more than 1,300 years plays out every single day in the streets of Lebanon, the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in the appalling Syrian conflict and as ferociously in Iraq, which everybody assumes will probably be severed into divisions following this very Sunni-Shiite dichotomy.

We live in such an interconnected world where conscious disconnection has become effectively dangerous. Most of today’s complications are a byproduct of inherited problems that our hallowed ancestors have created, and subsequently passed on to us as if part of our DNA package.

As the ages pass, those problems harden in form and our understanding of them coarsens in difficulty, thereby adding more complex layers to issues that could have formerly been solved with one simple, mature conversation.

One of those problems is religion and the many self-claimed unequivocal interpretations of religion: its wars, its manmade divine intractability, and the subsequent insuperable damage it has created in our societies shape our lives, our mindsets and our identities to a very dangerous degree. Every single “branch” of our religions was created by some guy (always a guy) who didn’t like what the other guy was doing, and wanted to officiate his opinions into a divine sect, to which you adhere today.

I don’t know about you but I am not okay with the concept that my identity and my social distinctions were set by some men who refused to agree centuries ago. What has historically divided our ancestors does not divide me from you today, and sometimes all it takes is a review of history to come to terms with our differences. And we won’t be able to make a difference without full knowledge of history in order to defy the weight of history. That is why I bring to you the story of Ashoura.

Ashoura: The Story

It all started as soon as Prophet Muhammad died — a matter of succession which was never sorted out.

During the course of his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad never officiated a successor. Historians do not have the exact answer for why he didn't explicitly do so, but this very lack of a designated successor brought about ruthless political divisions, civil wars, and assassinations of many of the prominent men of the Muslim community who rose to power.

The main succession disagreement basically lay along the lines of the following: Should the leadership power stay within “the Prophet’s family” or must it expand to “the Muslim community”? Should you say “family,” you agree with Shiites; should you say “community,” you agree with Sunnis.

Shiites believe there is a holiness to the Muslim leadership that can only be inspired by divine order and that is the lineage of the Prophet; while Sunnis believe that Muslim leadership should be primarily a matter of politics determined by the earthly realities of the Muslim world. In other words, it is the Shiite divine Imamate vs Sunni political Caliphate; or Catholic vs Orthodox.

Divinely Appointed Family or Nominated Political Officials?

After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the elderly companions of the Prophet decided the caliphate (leadership) would go to the established men of the community (themselves) — the ones who have experience and statute in politics, and not to 32-year-old Ali, even if he was blood-wise closest to the Prophet as his cousin and son-in-law.

Thus, the caliphate was given to Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the oldest companion of the Prophet, also his father-in-law; then it went to Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second oldest companion, and fellow father-in-law of the Prophet; then it went to Othman bin Affan, an elderly Umayyad nobleman and fellow loyal companion of the Prophet as well; and upon the murder of the latter, the caliphate finally went to Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the Prophet’s cousin, husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and father of the Prophet’s only grandchildren — Hassan, Hussein, Zaynab and Umm Kulthum.

Ali waited 25 years to become Caliph, during which he became very respected for his unwavering sense of integrity, undone by his reluctance to compromise on his principles or the unity within Islam. His courage, nobility, obdurate devotion to Islam, utter faithfulness to the Prophet, legendary equal treatment of all, and renowned generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies would make him an adored member of the community — but at the same time, a big threat to those who had their eye on the caliphate.

To the heartbreak of his followers, Ali would rule for only five years — he was then assassinated. Thus began the resentful division of the Muslim community: the “fitna” (strife) that paved the road to continuous civil conflict.

Upon Ali’s death, the very powerful Governor of Syria, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufian — himself a distant relative of the Prophet Muhammad and also the Prophet’s former secretary — impudently declared himself Caliph with all due pomp and circumstance, ignoring the Prophet’s grandsons. Mu’awiya turned the caliphate into a hereditary monarchy and his dynastic, Umayyad despotism appropriated Islam in the same way that Byzantine despotism had appropriated Christianity.

At that point, Ali’s elder son, Hassan, did not wish to fight for the caliphate, wage more wars, nor risk dividing the community further; out of sheer loyalty to Islam, he accepted a pension in return for not pursuing his claim to the caliphate.

Hassan abdicated and then, unfortunately, died within a year — Sunnis say of natural causes, while Shiites say Mu’awiya poisoned him.

The followers of Ali were devastated. Ali had been sidelined for 25 years and then assassinated as soon as he became caliph; Hassan abdicated and died. The last strand of hope now lay in the hands of the last one of the Prophet’s household: Hussein, Ali’s younger son.

Hussein agreed to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until Mu’awiya’s death to avoid any clashes. However, when Mu’awiya died in 680AD, Mu’awiya’s son Yazid usurped the caliphate in accordance with the now hereditary monarchy established by his father. As such, there was no mention of Hussein and, to add insult to injury, Yazid ordered Hussein to be arrested.

But this time, the followers of Ali, Hassan and Hussein did not stand by this inadmissible treason; they decided to fight to “reclaim the soul of Islam.”

The Battle of Karbala

It is this fight that will incise the disastrous rift between Shiites and Sunnis deep into the Muslim psyche.

In September of 680AD, Hussein set out for Iraq, where Yazid lived. Hussein traveled with all members of his family and only 72 armed men. This became the infamous journey toward his death. Nobody disputes what happened. What they dispute is why it happened, for the answer hinges on the incomprehensible. What was Hussein thinking? How could he have thought of surviving this suicidal quest to take on an army of 4,000 soldiers and heedlessly lead all his men to their deaths?

To Sunnis, Hussein’s resolve to travel to Iraq is evidence of his ineptness to lead a vast empire. Hussein should have acknowledged reality, they say, and forgo of his romantic and impractical quest. In fact, Sunnis believe that if it wasn’t for Mu'awiya, the vast Islamic empire would have inevitably disintegrated, and Islam might never have been able to survive. But to Shiites, Hussein’s journey to Iraq was a fundamental act of bravery, the noblest self-sacrifice as he was taking the only way to expose the dishonesty and depravity of the Umayyad regime.

And so it was: Hussein led his men against Yazid’s soldiers, led by the ruthless Shimr. But, hopelessly outnumbered, he and his men were left under siege, cut off from all access to the river and not allowed one drop of water — 4,000 against 72. There was no escape. And there, one by one, the tragic iconic images of Shiism were formed, those that feed the sorrow of the Shiite believers until today.

Hussein’s nephew, Kassem, was betrothed to Hussein’s daughter in the encampment; no sooner was the wedding ceremony finished that Kassem set out to engage the enemy in single combat on his wedding day. Kassem was cut down in his embroidered wedding garment. Then, there was Hussein’s eldest son, Ali al-Akbar, barely an adult, who also decided to fight. As soon as they swung him open with their swords, Hussein is said to have “swooped down like a hawk” to cradle his dying son in tears — a famed pose that is shown in Shiite posters today, purposefully imaged by posters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite leader, cradling the body of his father who was shot along with his two older sons by men of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

The most iconic image is that of Hussein’s 3-month old son, Ali al-Asghar, who was so frail from dehydration that Hussein urged himself to walk out to the army of Shimr and hold his infant out in his arms, begging them to just have mercy of the young ones and allow water only for them. They replied with an arrow shot into the neck of the infant as he lay in Hussein’s outstretched hands.

Then, on the tenth and final day, comes Ashoura, bringing infinite streams of tears that would last 13 centuries and counting. Passion plays have been staged every year by Shiites to commemorate the torture felt by Hussein, his men and family; Shiite grievance meetings are held over the course of ten days with a minute retelling of the suffering endured by Hussein and his family.  Women sit together in a room and cry nonstop for hours and implore Hussein to intervene for them, and their children. Men slap their cheeks and beat their chests in unison, sounding like the drums of war, and some go to the extent of self-mutilation as they thump their heads and torsos with razors so blood can pour down their faces.

Yes, grief and sorrow are encouraged because they are the signs of deep faith for Shiites. But nothing equates the torturous sorrow brought about by Hussein’s death: Ashoura.

He said farewell to the women of his family, mounted his white horse Lahek, the Pursuer, and brazenly charged the enemy lines. An arrow first struck at Hussein and knocked him off his horse. The soldiers proceeded to crowd him and, by the time they were done, he had 33 knife and sword wounds on his body and was trampled by the spurring of their horses over his corpse. The last bout is the hardest: They decapitated Hussein, and Shimr ordered his head speared on a lance and carried like a trophy in front of everyone.

This story happened not even 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder and the core essence of Islam. Not even five decades after the Prophet’s passing did people find a way to massacre his own family.

Yazid is said to have broken down in tears at the news of what happened, swearing that he never wanted to kill Hussein. But remorse does not bring back the dead. And today, 1,333 years later, the grief which ignited this schism still feeds the fires that burn the Muslim community’s unity, and still won’t bring any of them back from the dead.

This is Karbala. This is the ongoing stream that feeds the rupture of Islam.

Ode to Prophet Muhammad 

We must start to understand that religion is not faith. Religion is merely the storytelling of faith. With time, religion becomes dangerous to the harmony of society as it becomes institutionalized in hallucinatory dogmas of self-righteousness with its intractable symbols and metaphors, and we forget the initial composition of faith.

All this divisive ruckus caused around the story of faith is nothing but disappointing to the very essence of what Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali both stood for. If you read any of the stories that were catalogued by Prophet Muhammad’s biographers — ibn Isshaq, ibn Hisham, and al-Tabari — one cannot help but recognize that Prophet Muhammad’s message was a sweeping one aimed above all at tackling the injustices and inequalities of urban life where one’s standing was determined by what tribe he/she was born into.

Prophet Muhammad preached and acted continuously that the poor, the orphaned, the enslaved, the ill — all were equal in the eyes of God. No one group had the right to raise itself up above others, for literally: “submit yourself to God’s will.” The very meaning of “al-Islam” (i.e. to surrender) is to forsake all the old divisiveness and recognize that nobody is superior to anybody except God, the one God.

So there is no way that anybody’s story could be superior to anybody else’s. Harmony and acceptance is the gist of the Prophet’s message. So for anybody who terms themselves as “Sunni” or “Shiite” and believes in this difference is by definition disagreeing with the very core of Prophet Muhammad’s message. And I cannot think of anything more antithetical to the Muslim faith than this.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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