Sunnis and Shi'a
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Sunnis and Shi'a

A Political History

Laurence Louër, Ethan Rundell

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eBook - ePub

Sunnis and Shi'a

A Political History

Laurence Louër, Ethan Rundell

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A compelling history of the ancient schism that continues to divide the Islamic world When Muhammad died in 632 without a male heir, Sunnis contended that the choice of a successor should fall to his closest companions, but Shi'a believed that God had inspired the Prophet to appoint his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as leader. So began a schism that is nearly as old as Islam itself. Laurence Louër tells the story of this ancient rivalry, taking readers from the last days of Muhammad to the political and doctrinal clashes of Sunnis and Shi'a today.In a sweeping historical narrative spanning the Islamic world, Louër shows how the Sunni-Shi'a divide was never just a dispute over succession—at issue are questions about the very nature of Islamic political authority. She challenges the widespread perception of Sunnis and Shi'a as bitter enemies who are perpetually at war with each other, demonstrating how they have coexisted peacefully at various periods throughout the history of Islam. Louër traces how sectarian tensions have been inflamed or calmed depending on the political contingencies of the moment, whether to consolidate the rule of elites, assert clerical control over the state, or defy the powers that be.Timely and provocative, Sunnis and Shi'a provides needed perspective on the historical roots of today's conflicts and reveals how both branches of Islam have influenced and emulated each other in unexpected ways. This compelling and accessible book also examines the diverse regional contexts of the Sunni-Shi'a divide, examining how it has shaped societies and politics in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon.

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Chapter 1


To the great questions regarding government and its relationship to God, those who were to become the “Sunnis” and “Shi‘a” gave different answers. These, in turn, were for several centuries the object of continuous doctrinal elaboration. As a result, one cannot truly speak of “Sunnism” and “Shi‘ism” before the tenth century. In terms of their doctrine, worship practices, and relationship to power, moreover, neither Sunnism nor Shi‘ism constitutes a homogenous entity.

A Theocratic Caliphate (Seventh to Eighth Centuries)

The response offered by those who would become the “Sunnis”—literally, “those who follow the sunna,” or the Prophet’s tradition—to the question of succession and the exercise of power initially delineated an oligarchic political regime. For Muhammad’s successor was chosen from among his companions (sahaba). The latter rapidly agreed to appoint Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (d. 634), one of the Prophet’s closest companions and father of his favorite wife, Aisha, whom Muhammad tasked with leading prayer in his stead after he fell ill. Upon his death two years later, the companions chose Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644) to replace him, once again it seems without major difficulty. The latter was also a close companion of Muhammad, who had married one of his daughters.
While their early conversion to Islam, fidelity to the Prophet, and sincerity of faith were the cardinal virtues of these first two successors, they above all had to demonstrate qualities of leadership in a context marked by intensifying factional struggles and the possible disintegration of the community of believers assembled by the Prophet, particularly after the latter was repudiated by several Bedouin tribes in preference to their own prophets. Abu Bakr and Umar showed great political skill in combatting these centrifugal forces. They were also warlords who set about expanding the Muslim state, unifying the Arabian Peninsula, and extending their sovereignty northward to Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.
Muhammad’s successors often simultaneously held several titles, all referring to a form of dual authority that was indissociably political and religious in nature: khalifa, imam, amir al-mu’minin, and mahdi. In some cases, the meaning of these terms and the practices associated with them profoundly changed over time. The term khalifa, for example, which we translate by “caliph” and which is today commonly used to refer to Muhammad’s various successors at the head of the Muslim state, initially expressed the purely temporal idea of succession (the caliph is literally “he who is behind/comes after”) as well as that of divine representation on earth. Indeed, the first caliphs had called themselves khalifat Allah, which may be rendered as either “God’s caliph” or “God’s deputy.”1 The term imam (literally, “he who proceeds”) explicitly referred to the idea of religious guidance, while Amir al-Mu’minin, or “Commander of the Faithful,” denoted a charismatic leader deriving his power from God and acting to ensure that His will be done on Earth.2 The term mahdi—often translated by “messiah”—referred to the idea of a guide inspired by God.3
Though the subsequent history of the caliphate is, as we shall see, one of ever-growing differentiation between political and religious power, the first caliphs were thus also religious leaders and exercised a theocratic-type power. In particular, they played a central role in developing religious law, defining ritual, and settling on the text of the Koran. This last point is particularly important. The third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (d. 656), took the initiative of establishing a written version of the Koran. In doing so, his aim was to supply a reference text that would stand as an authority in the particular context of the time—a time characterized by a mainly oral culture (Muhammad himself was illiterate) and the circulation of several versions of the sacred text. This was a matter of great importance to the caliphal powers: settling on an official text and eliminating competing versions, which were often associated with political factions and allowed the theocratic legitimacy of the caliph to be established. The text of the Koran was later canonized on the initiative of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (d. 705) in an effort to raise Islam to the level of other monotheistic religions by providing it with a sacred book and simultaneously assert its difference and superiority vis-à-vis these competing religions.4

Legitimist Dissidents: The Alids

The response offered by those who would become the Shi‘a to the great questions raised by the power vacuum after Muhammad differed from that offered by the future Sunnis. While it contained a conception of political power that would increasingly diverge from that embodied by the caliphate, it was at first perfectly in keeping with the dominant conceptions of the caliphate as a theocratic power fusing political and religious authority. The term “Shi‘a” comes from the Arabic shi‘a, which means “party” or “partisans.” In the context of the factional quarrels surrounding the succession of Muhammad, it refers to the “party of Ali” (shi‘at Ali), or the “Alids.” In contrast to those who would become the Sunnis, today’s most prevalent current, who held that Muhammad had not left instructions for his succession, the Alids claimed it was impossible that the Prophet would have left Muslims without direction. According to them, shortly before his death and directly inspired by God, Muhammad appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) as his successor while stopping with his entourage in the oasis of Ghadir Khumm on his way back to Medina following his final pilgrimage to Mecca. Ali was the Prophet’s young cousin and husband to his daughter Fatima. According to Shi‘a tradition, he was the first man to convert to Islam (the Sunnis claim that status for Abu Bakr).
Ali’s claim to succession and that of his partisans may be likened to a legitimist movement. For them, the succession should be open only to members of the Prophet’s family, the Ahl al-Bayt (or “People of the House”) of Muhammad. Given the importance of lineage in Arab societies, it may be conjectured that, should Muhammad have had one or more living sons (all his sons died in childhood), the legitimist movement would have focused on the claims of his male descendants. In their absence, the blood tie with the Prophet passed by way of his daughter Fatima. The partisans of Ali in effect claimed that, following the latter’s death, the government of the Muslim state should be transmitted to his male descendants issuing from his union with Fatima.
It seems that, while he may have had some reservations, Ali did not truly seek to assert his claim when the first three caliphs were being selected. Historians often describe him as a man lacking political sense and thus ill-suited to exercising caliphal power. It was the quarrels that developed during the reign of Caliph Uthman that made Ali a unifying figure for many of the discontented.
Like Ali, Uthman was a son-in-law of the Prophet and one of the first to have embraced Islam. But he was also the representative par excellence of the Meccan aristocracy, the very group that had plotted to expel Muhammad from Mecca where he lived, forcing him to seek refuge in the neighboring town of Medina, and who only belatedly joined the Muslim community—according to their detractors, for purely opportunistic reasons. Furthermore, Uthman came to power at a time when the Muslim state was undergoing major transformations, a fact that created tension between the various categories of believers. The first two caliphs’ conquests had considerably increased the state’s territory, rapidly enriching a class of conquerors who resided far from the Medina caliphate and wished for greater independence vis-à-vis the central government.
In an effort to contain these centrifugal forces, Uthman in this context relied on the members of his clan, the Umayyads, putting them in key positions, sometimes to the detriment of actors who had won renown in the conquests such as Amr ibn al-As, the governor of Egypt whom Uthman dismissed from his duties. The growing discontent resulted in a series of revolts ending in political assassination: soldiers killed the caliph while he was reading the Koran at home.
Uthman’s opponents proclaimed Ali as the new caliph. Though he had neither orchestrated nor even encouraged it, Ali soon appeared the principal beneficiary of Uthman’s murder and was accused of not seeking to punish the guilty, particularly since he had kept some of them in his immediate entourage. Under these conditions, Ali’s rise to power, far from appeasing the situation, witnessed a continued struggle between factions, the most powerful of which were strongly anchored in the various provinces of the empire. Among those opposing Ali were Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, whose soldiers he defeated at the Battle of the Camel (656), and, above all, the Umayyads, who demanded vengeance for the assassination of Uthman. Leading them was the powerful governor of Syria, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan (d. 680), a skilled politician with a powerful and disciplined army.
Having sought in vain to dismiss him from his functions, Ali decided to confront Muawiya in what remains one of the most painful episodes in the history of Islam: the Battle of Siffin (657), which took place on the banks of the Euphrates near the present-day city of Raqqa in Syria. After several days of fighting and negotiation, the two parties submitted themselves to arbitration: each side chose two wise men to determine who was in the right, Ali or Muawiya. It seems that they came down against the caliph, who was held responsible for failing to take action against Uthman’s murderers. Yet nothing was resolved for all that. Ali did not relinquish the caliphate, and, even as he prepared his next military strike against Muawiya, at the Battle of Nahrawan (659) he decimated the ranks of those of his partisans who had opposed his decision to accept arbitration.
Denying any validity to human judgment, the latter held that Ali should have continued the battle, with its outcome to be determined by God himself. They left Ali’s camp and for this reason came to be known as the Kharijites—literally, “the leavers” or “the withdrawers.” Today Kharidjism—the third great current of Islam after Sunnism and Shi‘ism—recognizes the legitimacy of only the first two caliphs. It is principally represented by Ibadism, whose followers reside in certain regions of Algeria (the Mzab) and, above all, Oman, where the Ibadites established a state in the eighth century and today constitute a majority of the population.
Following the Battle of Siffin, Muawiya for his part launched raids against Ali’s strongholds, mainly located in what is today southern Iraq. In 660 his supporters officially proclaimed him caliph in Jerusalem. A few months later, in 661, Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite. The Battle of Siffin resulted in what Muslims call fitna—that is, schism or strife. It deeply divided the Umma, or community of believers. Ali’s murder marked the end of what historians call the primitive caliphate, a period that, as we shall see, has provided Sunnis with a veritable golden age myth. After Ali’s death, the Umayyads, who reigned from 660 to 750, and then the Abbasids, who held power between 750 and 1258, transformed the caliphate into a classic dynastic power. The towns of Mecca and Medina lost all political centrality, becoming mere places of pilgrimage, while Damascus and, later, Baghdad became centers of political power and doctrinal elaboration.

A Religious and Communal Imamate (661–874)

According to all religious currents deriving from the Alid group, Ali is at once the fourth caliph and the first in a lineage of Imams. Like the caliph in the early years of Islam, the Imam simultaneously exercises religious and political power. While, as we have seen, the caliphs were often called “imams” over the course of history, this term took on specific meaning in Shi‘ism, becoming “the mainspring of all Shi‘a doctrine.”5 According to the Shi‘a, each prophet is accompanied by one or several Imams. While the prophet is responsible for transmitting the obvious meaning of God’s message to as many people as possible, the Imams are tasked with revealing its hidden meaning to an elite by virtue of their intimate relationship with God. The Shi‘a call this intimate relationship to the Divine wilaya. This polysemic term, the uses of which have, as we shall see, significantly evolved over time, was used by the Imams themselves to refer to their doctrine as an unveiling of secrets. It also refers to the notion of love of God and authority.
In Shi‘ism, not surprisingly, the notion of the imamate is based on the idea that the world is divided between an exoteric apparent reality (zahir) and an esoteric hidden reality (batin). While the Shi‘a adhere to the fundamental dogma of Islam according to which Muhammad is the last of the prophets sent by God (khatimiyya) and thus do not present the Imam properly speaking as a prophet (nabi or rasul in Arabic), the Imam nevertheless possesses all attributes of a prophet according to the classic terms of religious sociology: in personal contact with God, he reveals divine secrets, is exempt from sin, and has infallible judgment (ma‘sum).
After Ali’s caliphate, none of the Imams wielded state power. The eldest son of Ali and Fatima, Hassan al-Mujtaba (d. 670), succeeded his father as Imam and, realizing that the balance of power was clearly against him, reached an agreement with Muawiya whereby Hassan officially renounced his claims to the caliphate. Upon his death, his brother Hussein Sayyid al-Shuhada (d. 680) took over and, imitating Hassan, kept to Medina, far from political matters. Yet the death of Caliph Muawiya in 680 opened a window of opportunity. Under pressure from his father’s supporters, who had gathered in the town of Kufa (contemporary southern Iraq) and assured him they possessed an army ready to serve him, Hussein was persuaded to lay claim to the caliphate. Accompanied by his family, he set out to join his troops ready to confront the new Umayyad caliph, Muawiya’s son, Yazid ibn Muawiya (d. 683). Several kilometers from Kufa, he was intercepted by Yazid’s troops. Abandoned by his supporters, who at the last moment thought better of it given the unfavorable balance of forces, Hussein was killed together with most of his entourage on the site of what subsequently became the town of Karbala, today one of the main sites of Shi‘a pilgrimage.
Hussein’s martyrdom is a central episode, as indicated by the fact that he is to this day commemorated by various rituals of mortification known as Ashura (in reference to the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, when Hussein was killed and the ceremonies came to an end). It was rapidly transformed into a myth that continues to profoundly mark Shi‘a identity to this day. This myth has been the object of several interpretations. The Alids initially held that Hussein, nicknamed the “prince of martyrs,” had obeyed a divine commandment in voluntarily submitting to death, an understanding close to Christian conceptions of the death of Christ: Hussein was said to have offered himself in sacrifice in the aim of saving the true religion and unifying the community of “true Muslims.”6 In the contemporary period, the Karbala myth has been reinterpreted as the act of a man who chose death rather than submission to an unjust power, and he is treated as an exemplary figure by Shi’a Islamist movements.
At the same time, the Karbala episode marked a definitive renunciation of political power on the part of the descendants of Ali and Fatima. For after Hussein, none of the Imams openly laid claim to power. What is more, they regularly recommended that their followers not publicly display their convictions and even conceal them (taqiyya or kitman). Given these circumstances, the imamate above all assumed the form of a communitarian and religious authority. Apart from the particularly difficult task of disciplining and bringing together the various Alid factions, the Imams were also responsible for administering the everyday affairs of the faithful, something that included developing and spreading doctrine as well as collecting and redistributing...

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