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How conflicts within Islam will shape the future

In “The Shia Revival,” Vali Nasr dissects the political and theological conflicts within the religion. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

The show continues their series, “TODAY's 101,” with help from Vali Nasr, author of “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.” In his book, he provides an understanding of the 1,400-year struggle between Shias and Sunnis, and sheds light on its modern day consequences. Read an excerpt:

Chapter 1
The Other Islam
Who Are the Shia?
Every year on the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram, the first on the Islamic lunar calendar, Shia Muslims show a distinctive face of Islam, one that sees spirituality in passion and rituals rather than in law and the familiar practices that punctuate Muslim lives. Open spaces and narrow alleys in cities, towns, and villages take over from mosques and seminaries as Shias individually and collectively make a show of their piety and their identity. No observer of this day, the festival of Ashoura, will remain unaffected by the Shias’ display of fealty to their faith. None will fail to see the uniqueness of Shia Islam or the values and spirituality that define it.

Every year on this day — whose date on the Western calendar changes from year to year because of differences between the Gregorian solar reckoning and the lunar months of the traditional Muslim calendar — the Shia mark the anniversary of the death of their most vividly recalled saint, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad known among the Shia as the Imam Husayn. The day is called Ashoura, from the Arabic word for “tenth.” It is an occasion for collective atonement through lamentation and self-flagellation. It is a distinctly Shia practice and has no parallel in Sunnism. In those areas of the Muslim world where Shias and Sunnis live side by side, Ashoura underscores Shia distinctiveness and often draws Sunni opprobrium. Ashoura is a day when the Shias announce who they are — often going to great extremes to do so—and when the Sunnis, by condemning and protesting, in equal measure may announce their objection to Shia practices.

When Ashoura falls on a warm day late in the spring, throngs of Shia women and children line the narrow byways of the old city of Lahore, a medieval village now surrounded by the sprawling bustle of modern urban Pakistan. Old Lahore’s meandering streets (too small for cars), its antique villas with their high ceilings, graceful courtyards, and jutting verandas, and its ornate mosques and towering gates take a visitor back centuries, to the days when the Mughal emperors ruled these lands. On one side of the old city sits the grand Badshahi (Royal) Mosque. Arching gates mark each of the four main passages into the old city’s humming bazaars. To the discerning eye of the knowing pedestrian, the old city reveals itself to be a Shia settlement, dotted with small shrines and places of worship dedicated to Imam Husayn.

Each quarter of the old city has its own Ashoura procession. They compete and converge as they wend their way through the streets, visiting every one of those mosques and places of worship. At the head of each procession marches a group of young men carrying a tall metal staff ornately decked with thin strips of red, green, and white cloth that flutter and snap in the breeze. High on the staff sits a triangular black pennant. Above it, at the very top, is the elaborately carved shape of a human hand. The hand represents the five holy people whom the Shia hold in highest regard: the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima al-Zahra, his son-in-law and cousin Ali, and his grandsons Hasan and Husayn. The hand and the black flag mark Shia houses, mosques, and processions from India to the Middle East.

Young boys offer water to the watching crowd. Everyone drinks and says a prayer for the martyred Husayn. Behind the men carrying the staff comes a riderless white horse with a beautiful saddle on its back and white feathers on its drooping head. The horse is the center of attention. Its empty saddle reminds watchers of its fallen master, the object of the crowd’s adulation. Several women, their heads covered with scarves, trail the horse, gently beating their chests and chanting “O Husayn!” They are praying for forgiveness, for on this day, the Shia believe, God answers prayers and forgives the repentant more readily than on any other day—regardless of either the nature and number of the sins committed or the penitent’s degree of adherence to the daily practices that characterize Muslim piety.

Some of the women are weeping. The atmosphere is charged with anticipation. From around a bend in the street comes a rhythmic thudding interspersed with chanting. Then the bulk of the procession, a long line of men, heaves into view. Dressed in black, they walk four abreast and fill the narrow alleyway. Following the lead of an older, white-bearded man up front, they beat their chests with both hands as they chant and call in unison, “Ya Husayn!” As the procession passes, the sounds of the voices and the thumping echo from the old city’s ancient walls.

The sights and sounds of Ashoura are gripping. This is a ritual filled with symbolism and passion. It is deeply spiritual and communal. It defines Shias and renews their bond to their faith and community. It reminds believers that the essence of their religion is not works but faith. With some local variations, the same ritual will be taking place on this day in the Indian city of Lucknow, the Iranian capital of Tehran, Karbala in southern Iraq, the island country of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, and the town of Nabatiye in southern Lebanon. Ashoura is an act of piety, but not one that is recognized as an obligatory practice of the faith. It has no foundation in the Quran and was not practiced at the time of the Prophet. Yet this is also Islam, even if not in a guise that most Westerners readily associate with the religion.1

So what is Shiism? And what separates the Shia from the Sunni? Most Western discussions of Islamic matters or the Arab world tend to focus, often implicitly, on Sunnism. This is perhaps to be expected, since the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shias number from 130 million to 195 million people, or 10 to 15 percent of the total.2 In the Islamic heartland, from Lebanon to Pakistan, however, there are roughly as many Shias as there are Sunnis, and around the economically and geostrategically sensitive rim of the Persian Gulf, Shias constitute 80 percent of the population.

The divide between Shiism and Sunnism is the most important in Islam. The two sects parted ways early in Muslim history, and each views itself as the original orthodoxy. Their split somewhat parallels the Protestant-Catholic difference in Western Christianity. Just as past intra-Christian conflicts shaped European politics, so the Sunni-Shia conflict continues to shape the history of the Islamic world and the broader Middle East.

Shiism and Sunnism not only understand Islamic history, theology, and law differently, but each breathes a distinct ethos of faith and piety that nurtures a particular temperament and a unique approach to the question of what it means to be Muslim. The rivalry goes back to the early days of Islam and the succession crisis that followed the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 c.e. Most Muslims at the time (the forebears of the Sunnis) followed the tribal tradition according to which a council of elders would choose the most senior and respected elder to become the head of the Islamic community, or umma. Early Muslims found justification for this practice in the Prophet’s declaration that “my community will never agree in error.” For the Sunnis, the successor to the Prophet would need no exceptional spiritual qualities but would merely have to be an exemplary Muslim who could ably and virtuously direct the religious and political affairs of the community. The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s close friend and father-in-law, as his successor or caliph. A small group of the Prophet’s companions believed that the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was more qualified for the job and that it had been the wish of the Prophet that he lead the Muslim community. In the end consensus prevailed and all dissenters, Ali included, accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership.

Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, Uthman, and finally Ali. Sunnis call these four men, whose successive terms spanned the three decades from 632 to 661, the Rightly Guided, or Rashidun, Caliphs. They had all been close companions of the Prophet and were knowledgeable in matters of religion. For Sunnis, the time of these caliphs was Islam’s golden age, an era when political authority continued to be informed by the pristine values of the faith and when Muslim society remained close to its spiritual roots.

Even the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, however, proved to be far from harmonious. Umar was killed by an Iranian prisoner of war, but most notably, Uthman was murdered in 656 by mutinous Muslim soldiers, his blood spilling onto the Quran that he was reading. The young Muslim community was in shock at the spectacle of Muslims murdering the successor to the Prophet. The aftereffects of Uthman’s murder plagued the caliphate of Ali. He faced mutinies — including one that included Abu Bakr’s daughter and the Prophet’s wife, Ayesha — and was hard-pressed to restore calm, and soon confronted a strong challenge from Uthman’s cousin Muawiya, the governor of Damascus, who demanded that Ali avenge Uthman’s murder. The tribal demand for justice soon took on the quality of a power struggle between the new caliph and the governor. A civil war between the caliph’s army and Muawiya’s forces ensued, further miring the Muslim community in conflict and confusion. That war ended only when Ali was assassinated by angry extremists who blamed both him and Muawiya for the crisis. Muawiya survived their wrath to assume the caliphate. The nearly century-long reign of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750) had begun, and Damascus would be its center.

Sunni Muslims accepted Muawiya’s rise. He lacked religious authority, but he guaranteed the basic order that the faith was thought to need. Under the Umayyads the caliphs became both pope and caesar, delegating authority over religious matters to professional religious scholars and functionaries, the ulama. The Sunnis were well on their way to embracing their traditional stance of accepting a regime’s legitimacy so long as it provided order, protected Islam, and left religious matters to the ulama.3 The famous saying “Better sixty years of tyranny than a single day of civil strife” captures the spirit of the Sunni position.

Not all Muslims were content with this formula, and Shiism arose in part on the foundation of their dissent. Ali’s murder, the transformation of the caliphate into a monarchy, and the de facto separation of religious and political authorities under the Umayyads led a minority of Muslims to argue that what had come to pass was the fruit not of God’s mandate but of man’s folly. They saw the roots of the problem going back to the choice of the first successor to the Prophet. Muslims had erred in choosing their leaders, and that error had mired their faith in violence and confusion. The dissenting voices rejected the legitimacy of the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs, arguing that God would not entrust his religion to ordinary mortals chosen by the vote of the community and that Muhammad’s family — popularly known as the ahl al-Bayt (people of the household) — were the true leaders of the Muslim community, for the blood of the Prophet ran in their veins and they bore his charisma and the spiritual qualities that God had vested in him.4 Abu Bakr and Umar were particularly at fault for ignoring the Prophet’s wishes about how his authority should be handed on and convening a gathering at Saqifah Bani Saeda to elect his successor. This view would become foundational to Shiism.5

Excerpted from “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future,” by Vali Nasr. Copyright © 2006, Vali Nasr. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.