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Sunni & Shi’a: The Struggle For Supremacy

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By Aliyu Samba

Many people in the world today perception that the sectarianism within the Muslim community was driven by faith, but rather it’s driven by the desire for power, resources, and political control, here is why;

In the 7th century, a new faith was unveiled to the world, a religion that is based on allegiance to one God refer to as “Allah”. The religion of Islam is also an Abrahamic religion that acknowledge spiritual figures such as, Adam, Moses, and Jesus as Prophets of Allah, rejecting all acts of polytheism and idolatry. Prophet Muhammad PBUH was the messenger sent with the message of the religion contained in the Qur’an which unites people of different backgrounds and ancestries, the message was passed across the Arabian Peninsula and build a great large community of diverse people.

Today, Islam is said to be practiced by an estimate of 1.8 billion people across the globe, having Indonesia with the largest number of over 219 million Muslims, and Vatican City with the least population of not less than 800 Muslims. There are approximately 50 Muslim-Majority countries in the world, but according to the Pew Research Center, there are 51 Muslim-Majority Nation (Including territories west bank, Gaza strips, Mayotte, and Western Sahara) across the Globe.

After the demise of prophet Muhammad PBUH, the Muslim split into two divisions; Sunni and Shi’a. The two divisions/Factions were both political with the aim of retaining the successorship to the Muslim ummah after the demise of Muhammad. For the Sunni, they believe prophet Muhammad didn’t leave any successor, he didn’t point out any person to succeed him in the leadership of the Muslim ummah, the Muslims should decide who should lead them through unlike the Shia who believed that Muhammad assigned his cousin who was his son in-law, Ali Bin Abi Talib to succeed him as the leader of the Muslim ummah.

The Sunni believe in consensus and not lineage or dynasty when it comes to leadership of the Muslim community, while the Shia believe that succession should be on the bloodline, that is why they favored the prophet’s son in law Ali Bin Abi Talib. This was the genesis of the movement Shi’at Ali. They also believe that it was a divine order by Allah for Ali to be the successor after Muhammad for the religion to be spiritually guided.

In 632 AD, the split of the Muslim community lead to a serious chaos on who should succeed the Prophet, finally the Sunni succeeded in electing Abubakar as the Caliph. Many from the Quraysh (people of Mecca) and Ansar (people of Medina) pledged their allegiance to Abubakar except the few that rebelled against the system and continued to support Ali Bin Abi Talib. Abubakar remained the Caliph and reigned from 632 AD to 634 AD, Umar Bin Khattab was the second from 634 AD to 644 AD, the Uthman Bin Affan as the third Caliph who reigned from 644 AD to 656 AD. All the three Caliph were chosen by the Sunni Faction which lasted for 24 years.

Ali bin Abi Talib was eventually chosen as the fourth Caliph, but his ruling was short, he was assassinated by the Kharijites. His two Sons AL Hassan and AL Hussain wanted to take his place, but they were also denied the right to retain the caliphate which lead to a power struggle of not only the prophet’s legacy, but the power of the entire Arabian Peninsula, the money involved (tax and tributes) paid by various tribes. This was what led to a civil war and resulted to the dispersed of the caliphate to the Umayyad’s dynasty in the Capital of Syria (Damascus) from 661-750 AD, it then returned back to the Abbasids in Baghdad from 750-1258 AD.

The Shiite rejected the authorities of the both the sunni rulers (Umayyads and Abbasids), they kept fighting and agitating for their belief, AL Hassan and AL Hussain were both Martyred in the course. Al Hussain led a group of 72 men from Mecca to Karbala which is now in Iraq, he went there to confront the corrupt Caliph of the Umayyad, Yazid Bin Mu’awiyya. A massive army of the Umayyad killed Al Hussain and his companions in Karbala, he was decapitated and brought to Damascus to Yazid as a tribute to the Caliph. The Sunni thought this will end all claims of leadership of the Ummah by the Shia, but their actions were totally opposite.

Al Hussain’s Martyrdom become a watershed moment for the Shia, an inspiration, a motivation for the struggle, a defining moral story of their tradition, and a hall mark of their identity and existence. Today, this is commemorated each year as Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram. They mark it with collective attornment and self-flagellation.

The battle of Karbala Sharpened the division between the Sunni and the Shia, the Sunni were with the fear that the Shia will use it to gain sympathy and public imaginations, they persecuted and marginalize the Shiite and portray them as heretics and apostates.

In the 16th Century came the first Shiite dynasty, the Safavid Empire which transformed Iran from a Sunni center to a Shia stronghold in west Asia. Shia Islam was made the state religion in 1501-1736 AD, they fought The Ottomans (The seat of the Sunni Caliphate). From this power struggles emerged a series of Sunnah and Shia dynasties and spread from central Asia to Africa, from Europe to the Indian Subcontinent.

During the on start of the European colonialism, these dynasties faded but the Sunnah and Shia differences did not. In the early 20th century, their empires took the shape of countries, the legacies result into a new demographic segmentation. More Shia Muslims settle in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon, a small community in India and Pakistan. Today they comprise 10% of the Muslim population, the remaining 90% are Sunni Muslims.

This difference was never resolved till date, and the race to leadership and power continues till date. The Muslim community remain United in the religion as Muslims, but divided in their doctrines, views, laws, theology, jurisprudence and rituals. Through most of the time, the Shiites and Sunnis live in relatives peace through most of their history, the distinction were largely irrelevant. But starting the late 20th century, the schism deepened and exploded into violence and bloodshed, with a centralized goal to attain religious and political supremacy.

Sectarian violence is still instigated among Muslims driven from an ancient division that have last long for decades. There have been Sunni-Shia civil wars and conflict in the middle east (Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq etc.) which are all driven by political ideologies of the factions.

In the year 1979 when a revolution took place in Iran and a new brand of Shia Islam emerges, it clashes with the Sunni conservatives in Saudi Arabia. Both the autocracies started fighting for religious and political control, they both got sucked into this power struggle.

Iran and Saudi have never declared war on each other, instead they fight proxy wars indirectly, supporting opposite sides in other countries at war with each other (Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, etc.) they are both aping up sectarianism to serve their political interest. The division isn’t driven by faith, it is driven by desire for power, resources, and control.

Even after the duo agreed on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam, the bitter split between them continue to escalate till date, and the struggle for supremacy remain camouflaged as a religious and doctrinal faction.

©Aliyu Samba
4th Nov, 2021

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