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Tuesday, March 06, 2007
The schism goes back more than 1,300 hears. Now the fighting in Iraq may spread, unleashing generations of grievances and hatred between Islam's two main sects.


Some of the followers believed the rold of the Caliph, or viceroy of God, should be passed down Muhammad's bloodline, starting with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. But the majority backed the prophet's friend Abu Bkr, who duly became Caliph. Ali would eventually become the fourth Caliph befor ebeing murdered in A.D. 661 by a heretic near Kufa, now in Iraq. The succession was once again disputed, and this time it led to a formal split. The majority becaked the claim of Mu'awiyah, Governor of Syria, and his son Yazid. Ali's supporters, who would eventually be know collectively as Shi'at Ali, or partisians of Ali, agitated for his son Hussein. When the two sides met on Oct. 10, 680, Hussein was killed and decapitated. But rather than nipping the Shi'ite movements in the bud, his death gave it a martyr. In Shi'ite eyes, Hussein is a just and humane figure who stood up to a mighty oppressor. The annual moruning of Hussein's death, known as Ashure, is the most poignant and spectacular of the Shi'ite ceremnies: the fiathful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with a sword and whips.

Those loyal to Mu'awiyah and his successor as Caliph would eventually be known as Sunni, meaning followers of the Sunnah, or Way, of the prophet. Since the Caliph was often the politcal head of the Islamic empire as weel as its regligious leader, imperial patronage helped made Sunni Islam the dominant sect. Today, about 90 percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. But Shi'ism would always attract some of those who felt oppressed by the empire. Shi'ites continued to venerate the Imams, or the descendants of the Prophet, until the 12th Imam, Mohammadal-Mahdi (the Guided One), who disappeared in the 19th century at the location of the Samara shrine in Iraq. Mainstream Shi'ites believe that al-Mahdi is mystically hidden and will emerge on an specified date to usher in a reign of justice.

Shi'ites soon formed the majority in the areas that would become the modern states of Iraq. Iran, Bahrain and Azerbahjuan. There are also significant Shi'ite minorities in other Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia,Lebanon and Pakistan. Crucially, Shi'ites outnumner Sunnis in the Middle East's major oil producing regions - not only Iran and Iraq but also eastern Saudi Arabis. But outside Iran, Sunnis have historically have a lock on political power, even where Shi'ites hae the numeral advantage. (The one place where the opposite holds true is modern Syria, which is mostly Sunni but since 1970 has been ruled by a small Shi'ite subject known as the Alawites). Sunni rulers maintained their monopoly on power by excluding the Shi'ites from the military and bureaucracy; for much of Islamic history, aruling Sunni elite treated Shi'ites as an underclass,limited to manual labor and denied a fair share of state resources.

The rulers used religious arguments to justify oppression. Shi'ites they said, were not genuine Muslims but heretics. Devised for political convenience, this view of Shi'ites solidified into institutionalized prejudice. Sunnis likened reverence for the Prophet's bloodline and the Shi'ites fondness of some of the Imams to the sin of idolatry. Shi'ites rituals, especially the self-flagellation during Ashura, were derided as pagan. Many rulers forbade such ceremonies, fearing that large gatherings would quickly turn into political uprisings. (Ashura was banned during most of Saddam Hussein's rule and resumed only after the downfall in 2003) "For Shi'ites, Sunni rule has been like living in apartheid",says Vali Nasr, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Shia Revival: How Conflictsd Within Islam Will Sape the Future.

But religious respression was uneven. Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad tolerated and sometimes contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala as the most important centers of Shi'ite learning. Shi'ite Ayatullahs, as long as they refrained from open defiance of the ruling elite, could run seminaries and collect tithes from their followers. The shrines of the Shi'ite Imams in Najaf, Karbal, Samarra and Khademiya were allowed to become magnets for pilgrimage.

Sectarian relations worsened in the 16th century. By then the seat of Sunni power had moved to Istanbul. When the Turkish Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi'ite Safavids of Persia, the Arabs caught in between were sometimes obliged to take sides. Sectarian suspicions planted then have never fully subsided, and Sunni Arabs still pejoratively label Shi'ites as "Persians" or "Safavis" The Ottomans eventually won control of the Arab territories and cemented Sunni dominance. The British, the next door power in the Middle East, did nothing to change the equation. In the settlement after the World War I, they handed the newly created states of Iraq and Bahrain, both with Shi'ite majorities, to Sunni monarchs.

(Source: Abstracted from TIMEMAG by: reporters Charles Crain/Baghdad, Scott MacLeod/Beirut, Aryn Baker/Kabul and Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi)
posted by infraternam meam @ 10:47 PM  
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Name: infraternam meam
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About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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