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The Age of the Sects - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The world recently witnessed Shia Muslims taking part in congregations and marches in remembrance of the Battle of Karbala in which Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed and son of Ali Bin Abi Taleb and Fatima Zahra, was murdered.

This commemoration of the battle and its leading figures who were murdered, most prominently Hussein, is not a new phenomenon. In fact it is a distinguishing factor of Shia Muslims. What is new however is the level of crossover between politics and the religious rituals of this event.

The significance of the Battle of Karbala, as one Orientalist said, exceeds its military description. “The importance of the battle of Karbala is not simply about the battle itself: it was a small battle that lasted for one day and resulted in the deaths of tens of casualties.” This small battle transformed into something inspirational as a result of the catastrophic murder of Hussein. After the Battle of Karbala, Hussein came to be perceived as a “symbol in Islam and a slogan; the essence of this slogan is struggle for righteousness and the truth and the martyrdom of every fighter for the sake of achieving justice.”

The Shia perception of this tragedy, as well as the view of many Sunni Muslims who had risen against tyranny developed based on these events; however matters intensified with the development of sectarianism. “This is how the relationship between martyrdom and truth, justice and pain, had been established for generations among the Shia,” (Francois Thual, Geopolitique de Chiisme).

For whoever wants to know more about the history of the battle/catastrophe, it took place on the tenth day of Muharram in the Hijri year of 61, over 1300 years ago. The Umayyads challenged Hussein who, along with some of his family members and supporters, had risen against the Ummayad state in a land that later came to be known as Karbala. Hussein’s shrine was built in Karbala. Today, this area witnesses mobilised marches, fiery speeches, lamentation and mourning over the martyrs and cursing upon those who killed them.

This bloody event was a turning point in the history of Muslims. The level of bloodshed and pain as a result planted the first seeds of Shiism in Islam and resulted in the emergence of more Shia orientations.

Before that, owing to the conflict between Hashemite and Umayyad clans, and the clash between the jurisprudence of the consensual community [Jamaa] and the jurisprudence of the authority on one hand, and the jurisprudence of opposition and clandestine movements on the other hand, emerged a large number of Islamic sects. With the elapse of time and the rotation of political authorities as well as the constant overlap between politics and religion, many additions and amendments were introduced to the images, ideologies and structures of these sects. Opposition movements against the Umayyad and then Abbasid clans clearly expressed themselves, culturally and ideologically, through arguments regarding predestination and free-will, God’s attributes and the political Imamate and so on and so forth. These arguments from different sects were recorded by historians who focused on the various sects and groups of Islam. These arguments of logic and theology shifted into independent theological and jurisprudential issues.

In any case, this is an issue that entails lengthy debate that could not be covered entirely in this short article. However, attention should be drawn to the basic political motive behind the emergence of all political sects and movements.

While the Shia exaggerated in describing, endorsing and centralizing the historical Battle of Karbala in order to produce a special “Book of Genesis” of its own that separates the sect’s private recollection and its perception of history, its movement and aim, the Sunnis, on the other hand, over interpreted the assassination Sayyedna Uthman and the role of the “Jewish informant” Ibn Saba from the Iraqi, Alawi camp to assert internal purity and the accredited interpretation of Islam.

The political-religious conflict began early in Islam’s history. Even the names of sects and groups entail a political spirit and the essence of an old struggle over authority such as “Imamate” among the Shia and “Jamaa” among the Sunnis.

Uncovering the details of the emergence [of such groups] and investigating their real roots as well as any later additions is quite a critical and thorny issue that will cause both parties to be enraged as it simply places them within the conditions of human history.

The truth is that a brief look at these dramatic and dangerous moments in the history of Muslims is necessary. Let us look at what is happening today in the realm of investment in the conflict between “political Shiism” and its opponent “political Sunnah” that causes us to remember the battles that had taken place in the deserts of Iraq and on its river banks 1300 years ago between those who supported the Imamate and others who supported the Jamaa.

Is this not somewhat frightening? Does it not provoke serious questions? Why should these historical conflicts be renewed and mobilized? Who is benefiting from politicized religious sentiment?

When Sunni meets Shia, they fight over who is the best: my Imam or yours? Which is correct: my history or yours? Who will put things back in order: my unknown or yours? They do not meet in scientific debate or even engage in innocent social chit-chat but rather they meet in trenches with their machine guns or refer to each other disrespectfully in their speeches. Does this mean that we belong to the past or the present? Did we overcome the battles of our predecessors only to face our real problems?

I do not have the answers to these questions, however it is apparent that manipulation of- and investment in- these historical political problems that were cloaked in religion by opponents throughout history have been renewed. The epic Safavid-Ottoman struggle, which was a conflict between different empires, is crystal-clear evidence of this exaggerated exploitation of sectarian differences in politics and it was preceded by the Abbasid-Fatimid struggle. Currently, there is a fierce clash raging between political Shiism and its Sunni opponent, both sides of which utilise the weapon of the old sectarian conflict.

All it takes is one visit to internet websites and forums created by zealous members of both sides to detect a mutual rejection of the other. Even with regards to contemporary causes that are inevitably problematic, ancient history is invoked. We all remember the comments made by the most prominent political symbol of political Shiism in Iraq (let us not name names) who described his enemies, Sunni leaders who rejected the political project, as “the new Umayyads” only causing them in turn to name their Shia opponents “the new Safavids.”

What we are now seeing is dangerous sectarian turmoil, which was dormant but has now been revived by the interests of politicians. If Sunni and Shia elements fought for one hundred years, they would not re-write history and accordingly these conflict-laden ideologies would never be eliminated for several reasons that are related to ideological, religious and new political inputs.

In this regard, I would like to refer to what Francois Thual stated in his book about Shia emancipation: “I must assert the fact that no ideology can die out easily when it is backed by the authority of the state.” From here until an unknown time, the fate of this region and its intellects, ideologists and media along with the international community will be preoccupied by this “political” confrontation between Sunnis and Shia for years to come and for reasons that (for now) have nothing to do with history or with the battles of Siffin and Karbala.

According to Thual, this preoccupation is unavoidable for all parties. He quoted the former French minister of defence and interior Jean Pierre Chevenement in his book ‘Le Vert et le Noir’ in which he stated that the zone of influence in the Arab world has shifted from the Mediterranean to the Gulf over the past 25 years. If we wish to scrutinize, we would have to say that the zone of influence in this world has shifted from Sunni regions to mixed Sunni-Shia areas. This is a real observation especially if we take into consideration that these areas from Iraq to the western and eastern banks of the Gulf are where wealth, oil, politics, nuclear weapons and sectarian commotion are focused.

On the sectarian level, the scene is extremely disturbing and alarming. From here, blame, if not incrimination, has reached a dangerous level for how do the preachers of Ashoura who belong to the political echelons in Iraq and Lebanon, along with preachers of mosques and those who write articles from the Jamaa fulfil their roles within this heated arena? Do they ignite the fire or do they put it out?

The answer to this question will definitely have its significant impact upon their destinies in the court of human conscience and clarify their role in determining the future of humans and tolerance in this part of the world.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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