A Concise History of Sunnis & Shi'is

A Concise History of Sunnis & Shi'is
Book Club: John McHugo's work looks beyond lazy punditry on the Sunni-Shia divide to take us on a journey of Islamic history and coexistence.
8 min read
28 February, 2019
McHugo's book details the history of Sunni-Shia relations [TNA]
With Iraq still in the throes of sectarian conflict, and tensions between the region's powerhouses - Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran - reaching fever pitch, the re-release of John McHugo's book A Concise History of Sunnis & Shi'is is aptly timed.

The work gives a general historical perspective on the relationship and current political and religious divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslim communities, which have been simplified by many commentators as an ancient sectarian conflict. McHugo argues in this book that although there are distinctions between the two communities, their histories remain intertwined. 

The writer begins by explaining the conditions that led to the early split among Muslims, and eventually gave birth to the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The book not only details the various schisms in Islam, but also provides a concise history on the region between these divisions and other religious and political developments. 

McHugo explores important events in Islamic history, such as the Abbasid caliphate when the schism between the two sects grew clearer, and the Fatimid Empire when Shia Islam appeared to be briefly in ascendency. He also discusses the historical rivalry between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and Shia Iranian dynasties, which continued as something of a Cold War for centuries.
The book goes on to lead us to the present day and the birth of sectarian conflicts and tensions in the region, such as the situation in Iraq post-2003 with the country still largely split on denominational and ethnic lines.

'Ancient divisions'

McHugo explains that the simple narrative of Sunnis and Shias embroiled in centuries' old conflict is not accurate or helpful and the so-called ancient schism in the Islamic faith we see today has its roots in more contemporary developments.

McHugo states that for many years scholars of Islam viewed Twelver Shia Islam as just another school in the orthodox Muslim faith with few differences to their Sunni brethren.

"I did my degree in Arabic in 1973 and we had a paper on Muslim beliefs... I got the impression that the predominate view in the academic world of the time was that Sunni and Shia Islam differences were of little consequence," McHugo told The New Arab.

Author and historian John McHugo, a long-time observer of the Middle East, explains the west's obsession with sectarianism as a driving force for turmoil in the region began during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. At this point political Islam, and particularly Twelver Shia Islam, became more apparent with an ideology and a government using its own theological and revolutionary language, which began to enter mainstream media in the west via Tehran.
"[You then had] commentators of the Middle East writing 800-word op-eds in the broadsheets and wanting to be clever saying 'ah, here is the miracle reason [Muslims] hate each other," he said, referring to the tendency of many pundits to put current political divisions in the region down to sectarianism.
I got the impression at the time of my studies that the predominate view in the academic world of the time that Sunni and Shia Islam differences were of little consequence

"First of all I don't think they hate each other but it really sickens me when people latch onto the Sunni-Shia divide and that only became apparent in 1979."

Although daubed in the colours and imagery of Shia Islam, McHugo says in his book that the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution was most menacing for the region's leaders because he attempted to paint it as a pan-Islamic victory, which threatened Sunni and Shia regimes alike.

"I think the main thing about the Iranian Revolution which has been drowned out is that what Khomeini wanted was to be the leader of the whole Islamic world. That means he wanted Sunnis to fall in behind him as well," McHugo told The New Arab.

"He did various things to propitiate Sunnis, like putting to an end this Twelver Shia practice of cursing the first three caliphs (before Ali)... and closed the shrine of Piruz Nahavandi who killed (the third caliph) Omar," whose murder, McHugo adds, was motivated more by personal vendetta than sectarian impulse.

"Khomeini was trying to do little things to reach out to Sunnis while at the same time saying, 'I am the leader of Islam'," which was a direct challenge to the Saudi regime in particular with its status as custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam. 

War of ideas

The Iranian Revolution was not as sudden as is often described today, but was a popular revolt that eventually morphed to fit the Khomeinist ideals of government - known as Wilayat al-Fiqh. This followed oppression of liberals and leftists by the Islamists, along with political alliances and betrayals.

"By the end of 1979 Iran had a referendum saying they wanted an Islamic Republic and a bit like Brexit they didn't specify exactly what they meant by Islamic Republic."

The subsequent war between Iran and Iraq on paper pitted Saddam Hussein's secular - but Sunni-dominated - Iraqi regime against Shia Iran.

Religion played little role in this conflict, with Iraq relying largely on Shia conscripts and Iran intent on exporting the Islamic Revolution to Sunni countries in the region. Neither had little interest in sectarianising the conflict, McHugo explains. Hussein's main war aim was probably to reverse the national embarrassment that came from the earlier fixing of the border in the Shatt al-Arab, which ended in Iran's favour.

"Iran is [in 1979] in complete chaos, all the Shah's fighter pilots were all on death row, street battles are going on, so he probably thought why not invade Iran and raid the oil-rich, Arab areas. At the same time the Arab League had thrown Egypt out (over the peace deal with Israel) so Iraq had become the largest political and military power in the Arab world. It was a no-brainer."

Far more significant in widening the schism between hardliner Sunni and Shia factions was the role of Gulf monarchies, Egypt and others players who aided Saddam against Iran.

Each of these regimes had their own reasons for preventing the Islamic Revolution from being a success among Sunni and Shia Muslims. Riyadh - threatened by Wahhabi extremists at home and Arab nationalism in the region - looked to export their brand of Islam across the world.

There have been big battles over that has come from textbooks (in Sunni and Shia countries). Do you teach it all from the Sunni point of view or the point of view of Ali?

Wahhabi and Salafi preachers targeted mostly poorer countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, opening up madrassas and mosques that transformed Islam in many areas, while Arabs and Muslims working in oil-rich Saudi Arabia also served to boost Riyadh's image in the region.

"It really took off with the oil boom [post-1973 oil embargo]... you suddenly had all these jobs for poverty-stricken Arabs to come to Saudi Arabia and make real money with a convertible currency. Saudi prestige was growing and growing, while expatriates would return home having absorbed much of the Wahhabi stuff. It was soft power and deliberate exporting."

War of survival

McHugo explains that over the decades Iran's regime has adopted a pragmatic approach. It has supported Shi'i Hizballah alongside Sunni Islamist movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

One example of this pragmatism, McHugo says, is Tehran's propping up of the secular Syrian regime since anti-government uprisings broke out in 2011, while the opposition includes many Islamist elements.

Iran has sent thousands of foreign militants - many of them Afghan refugees - to fight in Syria. They have been mobilised either by a desire to fight for Shia Islam or the hope of Iranian residency and money to fight for Assad's regime against the rebels. 

"They have taken the name of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, named after Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, wife of Ali and mother of Hussein," said McHugo. They see themselves as defending the Damascus shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, Husain's sister, an important pilgrimage destination for Shias. They have fought rebel groups with strong Sunni identities and names of these armed movements often reflect this. 

Fighters from both sides have been described as jihadists, with some among them likely viewing Syria as a battle ground between their interpretations of faith. Some of the horrors committed by both sides have been driven by sectarian hatred, while others out of more general resentment.

The roots of the Syrian uprising were fed more by state terror and corruption than religious sentiments.

One of those who has attempted to portray the current divisions in the Middle East as an ancient battle between Sunnis and Shias was Barack Obama, saying the current wars "are sectarian... [which] date back millennia".

It was politically expedient for him to do so as it bolstered Obama's case for non-intervention in Syria, while also underplaying the role of the American-led invasion of Iraq, which gave birth to the Islamic State group - one of the forces in the region most driven by sectarian hatred.

McHugo's book serves as an essential read for a firm grasp of the historical developments of the Sunni and Shia faiths. It also explains that identity politics, foreign intervention, and manipulation from politicians and religious leaders from all sides have all led to the current situation in the Middle East.

Ultimately it also ends with optimism, pointing out that these sectarian identities matter less to young Muslims, who remain more driven by a desire for accountability of their governments.

John McHugo's A Concise History of Sunnis & Shi'is is available from SAQI's website here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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