Monday, March 06, 2006

The Economist provides a primer on the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam

The Economist, surprisingly, has a rather good article this week. Ten years ago good writing was common at The Economist, but nowadays in must be applauded. They've provided a primer on the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Some interesting fragments (emphases mine):
Sunnis and Shias: Does it have to be war?:

Mar 2nd 2006 | CAIRO, From The Economist print edition

... Iraq's experience may be unique, yet it is far from being the only example of tension between Sunnis, who make up 85% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and the multiple sects of the Shia minority...

... In fact, throughout most of Islam's 14 centuries, the Shia-Sunni divide has been peaceful. Geography, for one thing, largely separates the sects. Both the far west and east of the Muslim world are solidly Sunni. Moroccans or Indonesians hardly know what a Shia is. Egyptians or Bangladeshis have little knowledge of what Shias believe. Shias have tended to cluster in small, often isolated communities in the centre of the Muslim world—in the Levant, the Indian subcontinent, Yemen and the Gulf—and on the Arabic-, Turkish- and Urdu-speaking fringes of historic Persia.

In terms of basic rituals, such as prayer and fasting, the two are not radically different. Before the modern era, the practice of Sunni Islam in many places was imbued with folk beliefs, such as veneration of Sufi saints, that softened the contrast with Shia customs. In mixed cities such as Baghdad and Beirut, the sects often intermarried. Some Iraqi tribes include clans from both. And while at times Shias have thrived under Sunni rule, in Mughal India for example, Sunnis fared well during the reign of the Fatimids, an illustrious and tolerant Ismaili Shia dynasty that ruled Egypt, the Levant and the heart of what is now Saudi Arabia from the 10th to the 12th centuries.

... the danger of conflict has always existed, ever since the murder, 29 years after Muhammad's death in 632AD, of the Caliph Ali, who was the Prophet's son-in law and the father of his grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein. The word shia derives from the Arabic shi'at Ali or the partisans of Ali, and referred at first to the political faction that believed leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet's family. When the caliphate passed instead to a rival branch of Muhammad's tribe, other disgruntled groups, including many non-Arabs recently converted to Islam, joined the Shia cause, which drew further emotive strength following the martyrdom of Hussein at the hands of a Sunni army.

Over time this political division deepened into doctrinal splits, with each branch elaborating its own interpretations of sharia, or religious law. Sunni Muslims preserved their unity by coming to accept four rival, but equally valid legal schools of varying rigour. Shia Islam followed a different course. It continued to split into subsects over questions of whom to recognise as the imam, a leader whose blood links to the Prophet were held to render him an infallible interpreter of God's will.

Whereas the Zaydis in Yemen recognised only five succeeding imams, Ismailis recognised seven, and Jaafaris 12, before the line of the imamate passed into occlusion, meaning that the imam is hidden but will one day return. The Jaafari, or Twelver branch now predominates among Shias, while most Ismaili communities are small and scattered, although esoteric offshoots of Ismailism, such as the Druze and Syria's Alawites, remain concentrated in the mountain redoubts of the Levant, their historic refuges from persecution.

While often remote from each other in beliefs, all these Shia sects retain relatively defined clerical hierarchies. The Jaafaris, who make up around nine in ten Shias, sustain a loosely church-like clergy through the application of a tax. The faithful are expected to pay one-fifth of their personal profits every year to whichever of several rival ayatollahs they choose as a marja, or source of authority. This tax base has given the Jaafari clergy both power and independence, while the pressure of constituents' choice has pushed them towards relatively innovative interpretations of scripture.

... The Shia clergy themselves are hardly united, and seldom have been. Throughout much of the 19th century gangs backing rival ayatollahs clashed in the holy city of Najaf. Bitter debate has persisted in modern times over the crucial issue of relations with the state. Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, aroused fierce opposition from other marjas with his declaration of Velayet al Faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, which was, in effect, a ruling that only learned religious scholars were qualified for worldly power...

... there is a rising sense in both communities, and not only in Iraq, of some kind of impending historical showdown.

One obvious factor is the upsetting of old balances by the intrusion of western power, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and more widely, through the global campaign against Islamist terrorism. But this intrusion was in turn largely provoked by something else, the radicalisation of large numbers of Sunni Muslims, fired by ideas of a return to “pure” Islam and of uniting Muslims into a single nation modelled on the early caliphate.

The most famous proponent of such ideas, Osama bin Laden, has always carefully refrained from any reference to the Shias. Yet he and many fellow-travellers adhere to a school of thought, influenced by Saudi Wahhabism among other currents, which holds the rival sect to be an elemental threat to Islam as a whole.

Before their overthrow, Mr bin Laden's protectors in Afghanistan, the Taliban, mounted merciless pogroms against that country's Shia minority, the Hazara, on purely doctrinal grounds. It is the parties in Pakistan most closely aligned to al-Qaeda that have bombed Shia mosques and torched Shia villages, simply because they hold the Shia to be infidels. Mr bin Laden's lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, refers to Shias as al-Rafida, a Wahhabist slur meaning rejectionists or turncoats. They are the near enemy, as opposed to the American far enemy, he says, “and far more destructive”...

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