To what can we attribute this general state of shock regarding the mounting tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Syria and Iraq following the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in the region?
It is completely natural that such tensions exist, and that they are further intensifying the perilous security situation in the Gulf. It is as though we have never seen similar tensions emerge in our region before, as though, prior to ISIS, the Middle East was a paradise of contentment and happiness, free from sectarianism.
The reality is we have become accustomed to viewing the political and social history of the region through the lens of the Sunni–Shi’ite conflict; something that could even extend to how we look at the Middle East’s cultural heritage.
The Sunnis and Shi’ites were born out of mutual conflict, which has continued throughout history. The region has witnessed successive Sunni–Shi’ite wars, which increasingly gained pace from around the seventh century onwards.
We have seen the Shi’ite Qarmatians and their revolt against the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, which extended from the deserts of the Rub Al-Khali (Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula) northwards. There was also Hassan Ibn Al-Sabbah and his Shi’ite Hashashin (Assassins) in the Alamut Mountains of Iran and their confrontation with the Sunni Seljuks. And what about the countless wars enacted by the Umayyad caliphate, particularly at the instigation of Governor of Iraq Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf who defended Sunni Islam under Caliph Abd Al-Malik (685-705)? Not to mention the conflicts during the reigns of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mansur (754-775), Al-Mutawakkil (847-861) and Al-Mu’tadid (861-902).
However the peak of Sunni–Shi’ite conflict took place between the rival Shi’ite Safavid and Sunni Ottoman caliphates and the series of wars between these two great empires between the 16th and 18th centuries. This began with the famous Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between Ottoman forces under Caliph Selim I, and Safavid forces under Ismail I. The Ottomans secured an important victory that spurred Safavid ambitions for centuries.
Iraq, with its historic Shi’ite shrines and Sunni heritage was the scene of conflict between the Persian Shahs and Turkish Sultans, with Sunnis and Shi’ites vying for control of the region.
These wars exhausted the Ottoman Empire and ultimately ended the Shi’ite Safavids after Afghan ruler Shah Mahmud Hotaki was able to invade and take over the Persian Empire, appointing himself King. The Hotaki dynasty gave way to the Afsharid dynasty thanks to the brilliant military command of founder Nader Shah, who introduced himself as the protector of the Shi’ites.
Nader Shah ultimately came to an important realization, namely that if he wanted to be an acceptable ruler for all Muslims, then he had to move people away from sectarian affiliations. He believed that it was important to break the Shi’ite sectarian isolation by refining Shi’ism. It is largely through his influence that the Shi’ite Ja’afari Madhab (school of thought) gained popularity and was counted alongside the four main Sunni madhabs.
Nader Shah made this call during the famous 1743 Conference of Najaf which was attended by senior Sunni and Shi’ite scholars.
In more modern times we have seen the Shi’ite Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Tehran’s subsequent influence in Lebanon and Iraq. And now we are witnessing the tragedies in Syria, the horrors being committed by Sunni ISIS and increasing calls from both the Sunni and Shi’ite leadership labeling the other as apostate.
Looking around at the escalating sectarian tension in our region today, I can only say that little has changed.