The myth of a Sunni-Shia war 17 June 2014


The narrative of a Sunni-Shia war is so prevalent it is now accepted without challenge – but Abdul-Azim Ahmed argues it is misleading to the point of inaccuracy.

‘But what about the great divide that is currently ripping apart the Middle-East?’

The question was asked to me at the launch of an exhibition about Muslim and Jewish relations at Cardiff University. The questioner was an elderly gentleman, clearly an academic, who had just finished reading part of the exhibition. I asked him to clarify.

‘The Sunni and Shia divide, that tore Islam asunder from the earliest days after the Prophet up to today’ he explained. As we continued our conversation, I discovered that this Professor of Chemistry felt the exhibition was intellectually dishonest for not acknowledging the impact of the division.

It is a view that is increasingly common. Namely, that much of the conflict in the Middle-East and to some extent North Africa, can be summarised as a struggle between warring factions within Islam -the Sunni majority and the Shia minority. You can read about it in respectable titles such as TIME magazine, The Spectator, even the New Statesman – all of whom covered it with front-page features, illustrating the conflict with stereotypical images of Arabs that tapped into centuries of Orientalist depictions of Muslims.

The Sunni versus Shia narrative has been featured in almost every newspaper I cared to check. Most recently, The Independent published a piece with the headline ‘The vicious schism between Sunni and Shia has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years – and it’s getting worse’. The article of course mentioned the idea of the ‘Shia Crescent’ (a crescent-shaped area of land where there is a high Shia population) that is so ubiquitous in analysis it is almost cliché, not to mention being almost entirely useless as a tool for understanding geopolitical relationships.

The Sunni-Shia thesis essentially posits that a 7th century conflict of leadership amongst Muslims is the source of current Middle-Eastern unrest. The conflict led to two distinct theological groups emerging, the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (People of the Example of the Prophet and the Majority – conveniently shortened to ‘Sunni’) and the Shi’at Ali (the Party of Ali or ‘Shia’). The story goes that the two groups have been locked in a 1400 year conflict that has spanned continents, nation states and empires, and reaches its modern zenith in Syria, Bahrain, and the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The problem with this thesis is that it is wrong. Not just partially wrong (as political analysis is, of course, always subject to interpretation) but so misleading, so inaccurate, and so detached from reality that it cannot be described as anything other than myth.

Even more problematic is that this myth has become so pervasive that gentlemen such as the professor I met consider it inconceivable to talk of Islam without talking of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Religious journalism has never been so dismally let down.

An Ancient Conflict?

The most common myth associated with the Sunni-Shia thesis is that Islam has been rent asunder by the sectarian conflict since its inception. This is simply reading history through solely modern eyes.

There was of course a dispute about religious authority following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Historical specificities aside, the Sunni and Shia divide was largely a political one. There were no direct theological implications until the 10th and 11th centuries when orthodoxies began to settle and a Sunni Islam became distinct from a Shia Islam, led in separate directions as they developed distinct legal and interpretative traditions.

The lines have always been blurred between Sunnis and Shias, and they are so blurred that it is often difficult to make a distinction at all in the early centuries of Islam – for example, both Sunnis and Shias celebrate and claim for their own many of the same historical figures. Many of the Imams of Twelver Shiism are regarded as pious and orthodox by Sunni Muslims. Identities were fluid too, so that the revolution that put the Abbasid’s in power in the 9th century started as strongly Shia but ended as ardently Sunni.

Paul Vallely, writing in The Independent, argued that ‘the division between the two factions is older and deeper even than the tensions between Protestants and Catholics’. He is certainly correct that the division is older. But deeper? More significant? Certainly not historically, nor theologically. Sunni and Shia divergence in practice is really only intelligible to those very familiar with Islam in general.

There are differences in notions of orthopraxis (how and when to pray, for example). There are differences too in how scripture is assessed and interpreted – important yes, but historically, these have been the topic of scholarly dispute rather than military dispute. There have been times when Sunnis and Shias fought against each (the 7th century not being one of those times, importantly), but there have also been times when Shia have fought against Shia and Sunni have fought against Sunni.

The argument that Sunnis and Shias have been at each others throats since the 7th century is wrong in every way possible.

A War of Two Nations

So, if the claim of a Sunni-Shia conflict is historically incorrect, what about in the modern context?

What journalists and those who buy in to the Sunni-Shia narrative are doing is essentially replicating unquestioningly the rhetoric of two particular nation states. Saudi Arabia and Iran are perhaps the two most significant powers in the Middle-East, and since the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, both have been vying for ascendency. Saudi Arabia especially has been exporting anti-Shia theology in a bid to delegitimise Iran and isolate it from other Muslim-majority nations.

Both nations recognise that amongst Muslims, any claim to legitimacy and authority to rule must be expressed in religious terms. Murtaza Hussain, a journalist at The Intercept, argues that Iran however, is less eager to push sectarian rhetoric than Saudi – ‘Iran’s statements are much more conciliatory because they know they can never achieve their goal of leading a largely Sunni Muslim world if they are openly sectarian’.

Conflict in the Middle-East is very much about resources and influence; it is of course however marked by religious rhetoric—rhetoric however that should rarely be taken at face value.

The Syrian Civil War

What about in nations such as Syria, where a Shia government is fighting against a Sunni populous? Surely here the claim of a Sunni-Shia conflict has merit?

Again the reality is more complicated. It was only in 1973 that modern Shias formally accepted Allawis (the religious sect to which the Assad family belong) as a branch of Shia-Islam. Musa al-Sadr, a senior Shia cleric in Lebanon, issued the fatwa, which brought centuries of ambiguity to an end. Until then—the Allawis were an unknown quantity. The religion was certainly influenced by Islam, but much else too, and Orthodox Sunnis and Shias both were sceptical of the high secretive tradition. Al-Sadr’s fatwa was as much motivated by politics as by piety—but it should underscore the fractured nature of religion and power in the Middle-East—a fracturing that is most clear in Syria today.

Journalists who consistently frame the conflict in sectarian terms also add to a pressure for religious groups to adhere to a particular political standpoint.

‘It’s called legitimacy by blackmail’ says James Gelvin, an academic and author who has researched the Middle East and Arab Spring. He explains to me the relevance of a Shia identity for Syria’s Assad Regime; ‘What the Syrian government has done is make itself stable by identifying the government with a particular sect, what they have done is forced other members of that sect into support of the government.’ It is a common tactic not only in Syria but in Bahrain also; ‘What that means of course is that the government tells minority communities, ‘if you do not support us, you’re dead, the majority will do something to you’’.

When journalists in the West repeat the ‘legitimacy by blackmail’ narrative in newspaper reports, they make the job of important bridge-builders, such as an Allawite Shia who doesn’t support the Assad regime, even more dangerous.

The same tatic is used by cheerleaders of the conflict, framing the Syrian Civil War as one between to Sunnis and Shias so as to garner theological support from certain quarters or to delegitimise claims of authority in other quarters. Muhammad Reza Tajiri, a Shia scholar in the United Kingdom, believes ‘the Syrian conflict certainly did not start on sectarian grounds, but as a result of opportunism from ‘scholars’ of both sides, the sectarian ideological issue is now inseparable from the conflict’.

Misleading Analysis

But it is clear that sectarianism is an element of the conflict; a devil’s advocate may argue that describing the conflict as Sunni-versus-Shia isn’t inaccurate. To truly appreciate how misleading it can be, try the following thought experiment.

Imagine a newspaper in the Middle-East, let’s say reporting in the 1990s. It is covering The Troubles of the UK and Ireland, specifically the Manchester Bombing of 1996. The headline of this piece is ‘The vicious schism between Protestant and Catholic has been poisoning Christianity for 500 years – and it’s getting worse’.

You begin reading the first few paragraphs of this article which professes to trace the history of the conflict between Britain and Ireland. It then locates the source of this conflict as beginning with Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg.

The article concludes that the only way to resolve the dispute over Northern Ireland is sitting the Archbishop of Canterbury down with the Archbishop of Westminster to hammer out points of theological divergence, perhaps beginning with Transubstantiation. Only then, the author argues, can we hope for peace in Western Europe.

This bizarre article would never address the core of the issue, nor the problems being faced, nor offer any real solutions or clear ways forward. In fact, by choosing and forcing the narrative of a Christian sectarian conflict, it obfuscates the issue so drastically that it is useless.

It is the same with the Middle-East. Sectarianism is an aspect of Syria, but should the Muslim world come to some consensus about who should have been leader after the Prophet Muhammad, the difference at the centre of the original Sunni-Shia divide, the conflict in Syria would not cease.

Despite this, it isn’t uncommon to find articles talking about Syria, Bahrain or Pakistan, beginning with a discussion about 7th century Islam and disputes of who should be the next leader, Abu Bakr or Ali. Clearly this is neither insightful nor informed.

Alternative Understandings

If sectarianism is the wrong paradigm by which to understand conflicts in the Middle-East? How should they be understood?

‘The region has been economically stagnant’ believes James Gelvin, who has written extensively on the economic and social factors that led to the Arab Spring; ‘there is a largely young demographic, an unemployed youth, living amongst regimes that are incredibly oppressive’. Murtaza Hussain agrees that the problem is a combination of ‘economic failure’ and ‘identity politics’.

There is an emphasis sometimes put on the Saudi Arabia-versus-Iran cold war, but there are other pressures too. Most recently, the fracturing of relationships highlights how Qatar has emerged as a major player in the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have increasingly been hyping up tensions and rhetoric (a very Sunni-versus-Sunni conflict, to use the sectarian lens). Turkey too has very carefully developed links with post-Arab-Spring states, positioning itself as a potential moral voice for Muslims globally. The United States, which supports the Egyptian army with $3 billion annually, and Russia, which is propping up a beleaguered Assad Regime in Syria, also have deep interests in the region.

Conflicts are messy. Tony Blair’s speech in late April showed this most clearly. He advocated supporting intervention in Syria, but creating ties with Russia to fight Islamist threats. Yet Russia is supporting Assad, the same regime fighting the rebels Blair suggests offering support. His policy would quite literally force Britain and other Western nations to support two sides of the same war.

If experienced statesman like Blair can’t provide a coherent narrative without stumbling over themselves, we should certainly be wary of newspapers that simplify the problems of the Middle-East using the Sunni-versus-Shia schism.

Perhaps best to conclude then with James Gelvin:-

“In terms of the Middle East, the straw people always grasp at first is religion. They don’t do that in the case of the West. If there is a problem, it’s not a national problem, it’s not an economic problem, it has to be nailed on religion. It’s facile, simplistic and lazy analysis.”

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion. Stay ahead of the debate by subscribing to our print media magazine for just £19 annually.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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