Making history relevant: Sunni and Shia solidarity in Iraq

Making history relevant: Sunni and Shia solidarity in Iraq
Review: Two books explore the history of Sunni-Shia solidarity in Iraq during the First World War, a history that, in today’s climate, deserves to be much more widely known.
4 min read
13 April, 2015
Ottoman soldiers rest between battles in 1915 [Getty]

Every TV documentary about the end of the Ottoman Empire or the First World War in the Middle East mentions the Sultan-Caliph's unsuccessful call for Jihad against Britain, France and Russia.


The better researched programmes sometimes explore this topic a little. They draw attention to the fact that there was an inconsistency in the call, since Turkey was allied to Germany and Austro-Hungary. They also tell us that the call

     The Shia of Iraq rallied to the Sunni flag of the Sultan-Caliph once British forces invaded.

met with a tepid response from Muslims. Its one apparent success was stirring up the Senoussi rebellion in Libya and the Egyptian western desert.


Just occasionally, one other fact is also mentioned: some Muslim soldiers in the British Indian army who were prepared to fight the Germans refused to take up arms against the forces of the Sultan-Caliph. Yet something else which is far more important seems to be consistently overlooked. The Shia of Iraq rallied to the Sunni flag of the Sultan-Caliph once British forces invaded.

A gripping read

In the atmosphere of today's growing sectarian tensions, this cooperation between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq during the First World War, which extended into its immediate aftermath, deserves to be better known. Fortunately, careful reading of two recent books about the history of Iraq can shed some light on what happened. These are Ali Allawi's magisterial study Faisal I of Iraq and Ian Rutledge's gripping Enemy on the Euphrates.


When a British Indian army landed on the shorelines of Iraq in November 1914, the external threat made the divisions between Sunnis and Shia pale into insignificance. Shia religious leaders, led by Grand Ayatullah Kadhim al-Yazdi, therefore called for support for the armies of the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph against the invaders. Shia ayatollahs and notables joined their Sunni colleagues in mobilising the tribes of southern Iraq as mujahideen who fought alongside the Ottoman army at the battle of Shuayba in April 1915, in an unsuccessful attempt to throw the British back into the sea.


This united front between Sunnis and Shia was not an isolated episode. In 1919, after the end of the war, the British organised a plebiscite to justify rule over Iraq by a prince from the family of their ally, the Sharif Hussein of Mecca. There was support for the proposal from influential Sunni and Shia figures in Baghdad, who saw it as preferable to direct British rule. They accordingly issued a joint statement ("We, being of the Muslim Arab nation and representing the Shia and Sunni communities inhabiting Baghdad and its suburbs...") backing the idea.


The following year, Sunnis and Shia joined together at meetings in their mosques to denounce the British mandate. This was inconvenient for British officials such as Gertrude Bell who were advocating the creation of an Iraqi state with a limited degree of independence, essentially as a kind of vassal state under British domination and tutelage. She noted in a letter to her father that the Arab nationalists had, from her point of view, "adopted a difficult line in itself to combat, the union between Shi'ah [sic] and Sunni, the unity of Islam".

A glimmer of hope?

In 1923, when there was a fear of a Turkish invasion aimed at winning back Iraq or at least Mosul, Shia religious leaders posted a fatwa on the gates of the shrine at Kadhimain forbidding action to defend Iraq against a Turkish army, even though that army would have been Sunni. They now saw Faisal, the prince from the family of the Sharif Hussein of Mecca whom the British had placed on the throne of Iraq, as betraying that unity of Islam which had led Shia tribesmen to flock to the Ottoman cause in 1914.


In July, Iraqi ayatollahs in exile in Iran joined the call. They appealed to the Caliph for "the deliverance of Iraq from the foreigners... and from Faisal and his father who came to dominate the Muslims by fighting in the ranks of the Allies and by disuniting the Muslims under the cloak of Arab nationalism in disobedience to the laws of God." 


None of this should be taken to indicate that all was well in Iraq between Sunni and Shia around the time of the First World War. Yet the above shows that there was no intrinsic reason why, in time, the sectarian problems between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq might not have been overcome. Perhaps remembering these episodes today, when the situation is so dire, also offers us a glimmer of hope for the future.