The Sunni-Shia Controversy

Iraq Table of Contents

The most critical problem that faced the young Islamic community revolved around the rightful successor to the office of caliph. Uthman, the third caliph, had encountered opposition during and after his election to the caliphate. Ali ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law (by virtue of his marrying the Prophet's only surviving child, Fatima), had been the other contender.

Ali's pietism was disquieting to certain vested-interest groups, who perceived the more conservative Uthman as more likely to continue the policies of the previous caliph, Umar. Discontent increased, as did Ali's formal opposition to Uthman based on religious grounds. Ali claimed that innovations had been introduced that were not consonant with Quranic directives. Economics was the key factor for most of the members of the opposition, but this, too, acquired religious overtones.

As a result of the rapid military expansion of the Islamic movement, financial troubles beset Uthman. Many beduins had offered themselves for military service in Iraq and in Egypt. Their abstemious and hard life contrasted with the leisured life of Arabs in the Hijaz (the western part of the Arabian Peninsula), who were enjoying the benefits of conquest. When these volunteer soldiers questioned the allocation of lands and the distribution of revenues and pensions, they found a ready spokesman in Ali.

Groups of malcontents eventually left Iraq and Egypt to seek redress at Medina in the Hijaz. Uthman promised reforms, but on their return journey the rebels intercepted a message to the governor of Egypt commanding that they be punished. In response, the rebels besieged Uthman in his home in Medina, eventually slaying him. Uthman's slayer was a Muslim and a son of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. The Muslim world was shaken. Ali, who had not taken part in the siege, was chosen caliph.

Two opponents of Ali enlisted Aisha, a widow of the Prophet Muhammad, to join them in accusing Ali and demanding retribution for Uthman's death. When the three went to Iraq to seek support for their cause, Ali's forces engaged theirs near Basra. Aisha's two companions were killed, and Ali was clearly victorious. Muawiyah, a kinsman of Uthman and the governor of Syria, then refused to recognize Ali, and he demanded the right to avenge his relative's death. In what was perhaps the most important battle fought between Muslims, Ali's forces met Muawiyah's at the Plain of Siffin near the largest bend of the Euphrates River. Muawiyah's forces, seeing that they were losing, proposed arbitration. Accordingly, two arbitrators were chosen to decide whether Uthman's death had been deserved. Such a decision would give his slayer status as an executioner rather than as a murderer and would remove the claims of Uthman's relatives. When the arbitrators decided against Ali, he protested that the verdict was not in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) and declared his intention to resume the battle.

Ali's decision, however, came too late for the more extreme of his followers. Citing the Quranic injunction to fight rebels until they obey, these followers insisted that Ali was morally wrong to submit to arbitration. In doing so, they claimed, he bowed to the judgment of men--as opposed to the judgment of God that would have been revealed by the outcome of the battle. These dissenters, known as Kharajites (from the verb kharaja--to go out), withdrew from battle, an action that had far-reaching political effects on the Islamic community in the centuries ahead. Before resuming his dispute with Muawiyah, Ali appealed to the Kharajites; when they rejected the appeal, he massacred many of them. Furious at his treatment of pious Muslims, most of Ali's forces deserted him. He was forced to return to Al Kufah--about 150 kilometers south of Baghdad--and to await developments within the Islamic community.

A number of Islamic leaders met at Adruh in present-day Jordan, and the same two arbitrators from Siffin devised a solution to the succession problem. At last it was announced that neither Ali nor Muawiyah should be caliph; Abd Allah, a son of Umar, was proposed. The meeting terminated in confusion, however, and no final decision was reached. Both Ali and Muawiyah bided their time in their separate governorships: Muawiyah, who had been declared caliph by some of his supporters, in newly conquered Egypt, and Ali, in Iraq. Muawiyah fomented discontent among those only partially committed to Ali. While praying in a mosque at Al Kufah, Ali was murdered by a Kharajite in 661. The ambitious Muawiyah induced Ali's eldest son, Hasan, to renounce his claim to the caliphate. Hasan died shortly thereafter, probably of consumption, but the Shias (see Glossary) later claimed that he had been poisoned and dubbed him "Lord of All Martyrs." Ali's unnatural death ensured the future of the Shia movement--Ali's followers returned to his cause--and quickened its momentum. With the single exception of the Prophet Muhammad, no man has had a greater impact on Islamic history. The Shia declaration of faith is: "There is no God but God; Muhammad is his Prophet and Ali is the Saint of God."

Subsequently, Muawiyah was declared caliph. Thus began the Umayyad Dynasty, which had its capital at Damascus. Yazid I, Muawiyah's son and his successor in 680, was unable to contain the opposition that his strong father had vigorously quelled. Husayn, Ali's second son, refused to pay homage and fled to Mecca, where he was asked to lead the Shias--mostly Iraqis--in a revolt against Yazid I. Ubayd Allah, governor of Al Kufah, discovered the plot and sent detachments to dissuade him. At Karbala, in Iraq, Husayn's band of 200 men and women refused to surrender and finally were cut down by a force of perhaps 4,000 Umayyad troops. Yazid I received Husayn's head, and Husayn's death on the tenth of Muharram (October 10, 680) continues to be observed as a day of mourning for all Shias. Ali's burial place at An Najaf, about 130 kilometers south of Baghdad, and Husayn's at Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, are holy places of pilgrimage for Shias, many of whom feel that a pilgrimage to both sites is equal to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The importance of these events in the history of Islam cannot be overemphasized. They created the greatest of the Islamic schisms, between the party of Ali (the Shiat Ali, known in the West as Shias or Shiites) and the upholders of Muawiyah (the Ahl as Sunna, the People of the Sunna--those who follow Muhammad's custom and example) or the Sunnis (see Glossary). The Sunnis believe they are the followers of orthodoxy. The ascendancy of the Umayyads and the events at Karbala, in contrast, led to a Shia Islam which, although similar to Sunni Islam in its basic tenets, maintains important doctrinal differences that have had pervasive effects on the Shia world view. Most notably, Shias have viewed themselves as the opposition in Islam, the opponents of privilege and power. They believe that after the death of Ali and the ascension of the "usurper" Umayyads to the caliphate, Islam took the wrong path; therefore, obedience to existing temporal authority is not obligatory. Furthermore, in sacrificing his own life for a just cause, Husayn became the archetypal role model who inspired generations of Shias to fight for social equality and for economic justice.

During his caliphate, Ali had made Al Kufah his capital. The transfer of power to Syria and to its capital at Damascus aroused envy among Iraqis. The desire to regain preeminence prompted numerous rebellions in Iraq against Umayyad rule. Consequently, only men of unusual ability were sent to be governors of Al Basrah and Al Kufah. One of the most able was Ziyad ibn Abihi, who was initially governor of Al Basrah and later also of Al Kufah. Ziyad divided the residents of Al Kufah into four groups (not based on tribal affiliation) and appointed a leader for each one. He also sent 50,000 beduins to Khorasan (in northeastern Iran), the easternmost province of the empire, which was within the jurisdiction of Al Basrah and Al Kufah.

The Iraqis once again became restive when rival claimants for the Umayyad caliphate waged civil war between 687 and 692. Ibn Yasuf ath Thaqafi al Hajjaj was sent as provincial governor to restore order in Iraq in 694. He pacified Iraq and encouraged both agriculture and education.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress