After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
"After the Prophet" links the personalities and events of the early days of Islam to the recent history of the Muslim world. Hazleton deftly spins a narrative that transported me back to in time to the Arabian peninsula in the 600's and introduced me to the main cast of characters in the story of Islam. She does a terrific job of rounding out each historical figure's personality and putting them in the context of their time. Hazleton also explains the ramifications of these ancient events on the dynamics of the Middle East in our own time. I particularly appreciated her explanation of why "The Satanic Verses" provoked such an acrimonious reaction in the Arab world.
The Islamic faith has a gripping origin story - one that isn't nearly well known enough in the West. Hazleton writes for a lay Western audience and I'd highly recommend "After the Prophet" to anyone seeking an intro to the history of Islam and the Middle East.
My highlights below:
Part One - Muhammad
It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons. Even one son. Though there was no strict custom of a leader’s power passing on to his firstborn son at death — he could always decide on a younger son or another close relative instead — the eldest son was traditionally the successor if there was no clear statement to the contrary. Muhammad, however, had neither sons nor a designated heir. He was dying intestate — abtar, in the Arabic, meaning literally curtailed, cut off, severed. Without male offspring.
If a son had existed, perhaps the whole history of Islam would have been different. The discord, the civil war, the rival caliphates, the split between Sunni and Shia — all might have been averted. But though Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, had given birth to two sons alongside four daughters, both had died in infancy, and though Muhammad had married nine more wives after her death, not one had become pregnant.
Most of Muhammad’s wives after Khadija did indeed have children, but not by him. With the sole exception of the youngest, Aisha, they were divorcées or widows, and their children were by previous husbands. There was nothing unusual in this. Wealthy men could have up to four wives at the same time, with Muhammad allowed more in order to meet that need for political alliance, but women also often had two, three, or even four husbands. The difference was that where the men had many wives simultaneously, the women married serially, either because of divorce — women divorced as easily as men at the time — or because their previous husbands had died, often in battle.
The Quraysh were merchant traders, their city a central point on the north-south trade route that ran the length of western Arabia. It had become so central less because of any geographical advantage — if anything, it involved a slight detour—than because it was home to the Kaaba. This cube-shaped shrine housed numerous regional deities, many of them said to be offspring of a higher, more remote deity known simply as Allah, “the God.” Mecca was thus a major pilgrimage center, and since intertribal rivalries were suspended within its walls during pilgrimage months, it also provided a safe venue for large trading fairs.
The poor, the orphaned, the enslaved — all were equal in the eyes of God, Muhammad taught. What tribe you were born to, what clan within that tribe, what household within that clan — none of this mattered. No one group had the right to raise itself up above others. To be Muslim — literally to submit yourself to God’s will — was to forsake all the old divisiveness. It meant no more tribe against tribe or rich against poor. They were one people, one community, bound together in the simple but stunning acknowledgment that there was no god but God. It was an egalitarian message, as revolutionary in its time and place as that of an earlier prophet in first-century Palestine. And to those who controlled the city’s wealth, it was downright subversive, a direct challenge to the status quo of power.
The year of his nighttime flight for refuge — the hijra, or emigration — would become the foundation year of the Islamic calendar: 622 A.D., or the year One A.H., After the Hijra.
As the old Arabic saying has it, “Only God knows for sure.”
Sunni scholars would argue in centuries to come that Muhammad had such faith in the goodwill and integrity of all Muslims that he trusted to them, and to God, to ensure that the right decision be made. He saw the community itself as sacred, these scholars would argue, meaning that any decision it made would be the correct one. But Shia scholars would maintain that Muhammad had long before made the divinely guided choice of his closest male relative — his son-in-law Ali — as his successor. He had done so many times, in public, they would say, and if Ali’s enemies had not thwarted the Prophet’s will, he would certainly have done so again, one last time, as he lay dying in that small chamber alongside the mosque.
Perhaps she was right, and it’s enough to know that it was the kind of necklace a young girl would wear, and treasure more than if it had been made of diamonds because it had been Muhammad’s gift to her on her wedding day. Its loss and the ensuing scandal would be known as the Affair of the Necklace, the kind of folksy title that speaks of oral history, which is how all history began before the age of the printing press and mass literacy. The People of the Cloak, the Episode of Pen and Paper, the Battle of the Camel, the Secret Letter, the Night of Shrieking — all these and more would be the building blocks of early Islamic history.
This was the raw material of the early Islamic historians, who would travel throughout the Middle East to gather these memories, taking great care to record the source of each one by detailing the chain of communication. The isnad, they called it — the provenance of each memory — given up front by prefacing each speaker’s account in the manner of “I was told this by C, who was told it by B, who was told it by A, who was there when it happened.”
Al-Tabari was Sunni, but his vast history is acknowledged as authoritative by Sunni and Shia alike. Its length and detail are part and parcel of his method. He visits the same events again and again, almost obsessively, as different people tell their versions, and the differing versions overlap and diverge in what now seems astonishingly postmodern fashion. Al-Tabari understood that human truth is always flawed — that realities are multiple and that everyone has some degree of bias. The closest one might come to objectivity would be in the aggregate, which is why he so often concludes a disputed episode with that time-honored phrase “Only God knows for sure."
Muhammad had been placed in a double bind. If he divorced Aisha, he would by implication be acknowledging that he had been deceived. If he took her back, he risked being seen as a doting old man bamboozled by a mere slip of a girl. Either way, it would erode not only his own authority as the leader of Medina but the authority of Islam itself. Incredible as it seemed, the future of the new faith seemed to hang on a teenage girl’s reputation.
Ali had been the first man to accept the new faith of Islam. He’d been only thirteen years old at the time, yet he’d remember it with the kind of absolute clarity that marks the most momentous points of one’s life. It had happened just after Muhammad’s first soul-shaking encounter with the angel Gabriel. Still caught up in the utter terror of a human who had come face-to-face with the divine, he had sought refuge in Khadija’s arms, and once she had reassured him — “This truly is an angel and not a devil, and you will be the prophet of this people” — he had called together his closest kinsmen and asked for their support. “Which of you will assist me in this cause?” he asked.
There is the sword for one thing. Sometimes slung over his back, sometimes laid across his lap, this sword was destined to become more famed throughout the Islamic world than King Arthur’s sword Excalibur ever would be in Christendom. Like Excalibur, it came with supernatural qualities, and it too had a name: Dhu’l Fikar, the “Split One,” which is why it is shown with a forked point, like a snake’s tongue. In fact it wasn’t the sword that was split but the flesh it came in contact with, so that the name more vividly translates as the Cleaver or the Splitter.
It had been Muhammad’s own sword, given by him to Ali — bequeathed, you might say. And after he had fought valiantly in battle with this sword, despite multiple wounds, Ali earned the best known of the many titles Muhammad would confer on him: Assad Allah, Lion of God. That is why he is often shown with a magnificently maned lion crouched at his feet, staring out at the viewer with the calm gaze of implacable strength.
It seems clear enough when told this way: not only the designation of Ali as Muhammad’s successor but also the first sign of what Islam would mean — the revolutionary upending of the traditional authority of father over son and by implication of the whole of the old established order.
For a wronged woman, there could have been no better outcome, yet the form of it would be cruelly turned around and used by conservative clerics in centuries to come to do the opposite of what Muhammad had originally intended: not to exonerate a woman but to blame her. The wording of his revelation would apply not only when adultery was suspected but also when there had been an accusation of rape. Unless a woman could produce four witnesses to her rape — a virtual impossibility — she would be considered guilty of slander and adultery, and punished accordingly. Aisha’s exoneration was destined to become the basis for the silencing, humiliation, and even execution of countless women after her.
There was another price too, though again, Aisha had no way of knowing the full extent of it. The sight of her riding into Medina on Safwan’s camel had branded itself into the collective memory of the oasis, and that was the last thing Muhammad needed. In due course, another Quranic revelation dictated that from now on, his wives were to be protected by a thin muslin curtain from the prying eyes of any men not their kin. And since curtains could work only indoors, they would soon shrink into a kind of minicurtain for outdoors: the veil.
They were about to be widowed, and widowed forever. They were fated, that is, to become professional widows. It was right there in the revelation that would be part of Sura 33 of the Quran. “The Prophet is closer to the Faithful than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers,” it said. “You must not speak ill of the Messenger of God, nor shall you ever wed his wives after him. This would surely be a great offense in the eyes of God.”
The Quran would be supplemented by the practice of Muhammad, his example in everything from the greatest events to the smallest details of everyday life, as related by those closest to him. The sunna, it would be called — the traditional Arabian word for the custom or tradition of one’s forefathers — and this was the word from which the Sunnis would eventually take their name, though the Shia would follow nearly all the same traditions.
They would quote a later tradition in which Muhammad said, “My community will never agree in error.” The Islamic community was sacred, that is, and thus by definition free of error. But in centuries to come, this statement came to serve as a self-fulfilling argument against the Shia. It would be taken to mean that any Muslims who disagreed with the Sunni majority could only be in error; the Shia, by force of their disagreement, were not part of the true community of Islam as defined by Sunnis.
For the Shia, it was not the community but the leadership that was sacred. The Sunnis had abrogated divinely ordained power by determining it among themselves, they would argue, and this usurpation of the divine had begun right there, in the first Islamic shura. The Prophet’s will had been clear: Ali was the only true, legitimate successor to the Prophet. To acclaim anyone else as Caliph was a betrayal not only of Muhammad but of Islam itself.
To choose Ali, another Hashimi, would be to risk turning the leadership of Islam into a form of hereditary monarchy, and that was the opposite of everything Muhammad had stood for. Leadership was not something to be inherited, like property. It had to be decided by merit, not by blood. This was what Muhammad had intended all along. This was why he had never formally declared an heir. He had faith in the people’s ability to decide for themselves, in the sanctity of the decision of the whole community.
Part Two - Ali
They had been disinherited, deprived of what they saw as their rightful place, the leadership of Islam. And this sense of disinheritance would sear deep into Shia hearts and minds, a wound that would fester through to the twentieth century, there to feed off opposition to Western colonialism and erupt first in the Iranian Revolution, then in civil war in Lebanon, and then, as the twenty-first century began, in the war in Iraq.
To add insult to the injury that had already been done her, Fatima would now lose the property she considered hers. Soon after her miscarriage, she sent a message to Abu Bakr asking for her share of her father’s estate — date palm orchards in the huge oases of Khaybar and Fadak to the north of Medina. His response left her dumbfounded. The Prophet’s estate belonged to the community, not to any individual, Abu Bakr replied. It was part of the Muslim charitable trust, to be administered by him as Caliph. He was not at liberty to give it away to individuals. “We do not have heirs,” he said Muhammad had told him. “Whatever we leave is alms.” Fatima had no alternative but to accept his word for it. Abu Bakr’s reputation for probity was beyond question, whatever her suspicions. Sunnis would later hail his stand as affirming the supremacy of the community over individual hereditary rights. “You are not the People of the House,” Abu Bakr seemed to be saying. “We are all the People of the House.” But the Shia would be convinced that Muhammad’s closest family had now been doubly disinherited, or cheated, as the poet would have it: Ali out of his inheritance of leadership, and Fatima out of her inheritance of property.
Yet no matter how many hadith would be attributed to Aisha — and there were thousands — the future would not be kind to her. As long as she lived, she was honored as the leading Mother of the Faithful, but in memory she was destined to remain an embattled symbol of slandered virtue. In later centuries, conservative clerics would point to her as an example of the division they claimed ensues when women enter public life, as Aisha would so disastrously when Ali finally became Caliph. Everything that makes her so interesting to the secular mind — her ambition, her outspokenness, her assertiveness — would work against her in the Islamic mind, even among Sunnis.
Abu Bakr declared that since the taxes belonged to Islam, to refuse them was an act of apostasy. And where grace could be extended to a nonbeliever, none could be offered an apostate, someone who had first accepted and then turned against the faith. Such a person was no longer protected by the Quranic ban on Muslims shedding the blood of Muslims. That was haram, taboo, in Islam. But since an apostate was to be considered an active enemy of Islam, to shed his blood was no longer taboo. It was now halal — permitted under Islamic law. This was to become a familiar argument, one made over time by Sunnis against Shia, by Shia against Sunnis, by extremists against moderates, by legalist clerics against Sufi mystics, and most notoriously perhaps, at least in the West, by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie. Declare your opponent an apostate, and as the Arabic phrasing goes, “his blood is halal.”
Hereditary monarchy lasted so long through history because it established a clear line of succession, avoiding the messy business of negotiation, the political maneuvering, the difficult, wearing process of the fragile thing we now know as democracy. But Islam was essentially egalitarian. As Abu Bakr himself had argued when he prevailed over the proponents of Ali, leadership, like prophecy, was not to be inherited. He was thus faced with the questions that still dog even the best intentions in the Middle East: How does one impose democracy? How can it work when there is no prior acceptance of the process, when there is no framework already in place?
In a move destined to be seen by the Shia as further evidence of collusion, the dying Abu Bakr appointed Omar the second Caliph.
The vast vine of marital alliance now reached across generations as well as political differences. Omar was the same generation as Muhammad yet had married his granddaughter. Ali, thirteen years younger than Omar, was now his father-in-law. And if Fatima turned in her modest grave at the idea of any daughter of hers being married to the man who had burst into her house and slammed her to the floor, that was the price of unity — that, and Omar’s settlement of a large part of Muhammad’s estates on Ali, exactly as Fatima had wanted.
The Arab conquest now began in earnest. Omar had taken Abu Bakr’s title of Deputy to Muhammad but added another one: Commander of the Faithful. And a superb commander he was. He lived rough and ready with his troops on campaign, sleeping wrapped in his cloak on the desert floor and leading his men into battle instead of ordering them from the rear, thus earning their absolute loyalty and respect. If he had a reputation for strictness and discipline, it was balanced by his insistence on justice. As part of his commitment to Islam, he would tolerate no favoritism, least of all for his own family. When one of his own sons appeared drunk in public, Omar ordered that the young man be given eighty lashes of the whip, and refused to mourn when he died as a result of the punishment.
And the timing was perfect. Just as Islam had come into being, a vast vacuum of power had been created. The two great empires that had controlled the Middle East — the Byzantines to the west and the Persians to the east — were fading fast, having worn each other out with constant warfare. The Persians could no longer even afford the upkeep on the vast irrigation systems fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. The Byzantines’ hold on Damascus and Jerusalem was tenuous at best. Both empires were collapsing from within, their power waning just as the Muslim nation was born, opening its eyes to what was practically an open invitation to enter and take over.
But there was another strong incentive to keep conversion to a minimum. Omar had set up the diwan, a system by which every Muslim received an annual stipend, much as citizens of the oil-rich Gulf state of Dubai do today. It followed that the fewer Muslims there were, the larger the stipends, and since the taxes that provided these stipends were no greater than those previously paid to the Byzantines and the Persians, there was at first little resistance to them. As in any change of regime today, when photographs of the old ruler suddenly come down off the walls and ones of the new ruler go up, most people made their accommodations with Arab rule. But not everyone.
How bitter must it have been to see the leadership withheld from him yet again? How patient could he be? How noble in the name of unity? In the blinding light of hindsight, Ali should surely have been more assertive and insisted on his right to rule. But then he would not have been the man he was, the man famed for his nobility, his grace and integrity — a man too honorable, it seemed, for the rough-and-tumble of politics.
His predecessor, Omar, had certainly foreseen it. When the spoils from the Persian court were sent to Medina, Omar had not smiled with satisfaction as all had hoped. Instead, he looked gravely at the piles of gold regalia, at the jewel - encrusted swords and the lavishly embroidered silks, and tears began to roll down his cheeks. “I weep,” he’d said, “because riches beget enmity and mutual bitterness.”
Muhammad had wrested control of Mecca from Othman’s Umayyad clan, but with one of their own now in the leadership of Islam, the Umayyads seized the chance to reassert themselves as the aristocracy, men of title and entitlement, and Othman seemed unable — or unwilling — to resist them. Nobody doubted his piety and devotion to Islam, but neither could anyone doubt his devotion to family. Top military positions, governorships, senior offices — all now went to Umayyads.
Under Abu Bakr and Omar, Muhammad’s ethic of simplicity and egalitarianism had prevailed, but now conspicuous consumption became the order of the day, exemplified in the extravagant new palace Othman had built in Medina, with enclosed gardens, marble columns, even imported food and chefs. Where both Abu Bakr and Omar had taken the relatively modest title of Deputy of Muhammad, Othman took a far more grandiose one. He insisted on being called the Deputy of God — the representative of God on earth — thus paving the way for the many future leaders all too eager to claim divine sanction for worldly power.
The ruling class of Mecca was back in control, and with a vengeance. There was no doubt as to who was drawing the milk, and the ones left holding the horns became increasingly outspoken as nepotism and corruption devolved into their inevitable correlates: wrongful expropriation, deportation, imprisonment, even execution. The most respected early companions of Muhammad began to speak out in protest, as did all five of the other men who had sat in caucus and elected Othman, and none more clearly than Ali.
One particular goat’s fart, however, would reach all the way to Medina when Walid appeared in the Kufa mosque flagrantly drunk and, in front of the assembled worshipers, vomited over the side of the pulpit. The Kufans sent a delegation to Medina to demand that he be recalled and publicly flogged, but Othman refused them point-blank. Worse, he threatened to punish them for daring to make such a demand, and when they then appealed to the leading Mother of the Faithful for support, he was heard to sneer in disdain: “Can the rebels and scoundrels of Iraq find no other refuge than the home of Aisha?”
The following Friday she stood up at the morning prayers, brandishing a sandal that had belonged to Muhammad. “See how this, the Prophet’s own sandal, has not yet even fallen apart?” she shouted at Othman in that high, piercing voice of hers. “This is how quickly you have forgotten the sunna, his practice!” How could Othman have underestimated her? But then whoever would have thought that a mere sandal could be used so effectively? As the whole mosque erupted in condemnation of the Caliph, people took off their own sandals and brandished them in Aisha’s support. A new propaganda tool had made its first powerful impression, one not lost on all the caliphs and shahs and sultans of centuries to come, who would produce inordinate numbers of ornately displayed relics of the Prophet — sandals, shirts, teeth, nail clippings, hair — to bolster their authority.
Under Omar, loyalty to the principles of Islam had trumped any loyalty to family — a principle now utterly undermined by Othman.
The end began with a rumor. Word spread among the rebels that military reinforcements for the besieged Caliph were on the way from his governor in Syria. The reinforcements never arrived, and nobody knew whether the Syrian governor had ever received such a request, or if he had received it and, for reasons of his own, ignored it. Either way, it made no difference; the very idea of Syrian reinforcements brought things to a head. Rumor did its work, as it always does.
Abu Bakr was the first to strike, the son of the first Caliph leading the assassins of the third. His dagger slashed across the old man’s forehead, and that first blood was the sign that released the others. As Othman fell back, they piled in on him, knives striking again and again. Blood splashed onto the walls, onto the carpet, even onto the open pages of the Quran — an indelible image of defilement that still haunts the Muslim faithful, both Sunni and Shia. Yet still they attacked, even after there was no breath left in Othman’s body.
They had no idea that Ali would rule for only five years. They rejoiced, applauding the new Commander of the Faithful when he refused to take the title of Caliph. That title had been honored by Abu Bakr and Omar, Ali said, but it had since been corrupted beyond repair by the Umayyads. Instead, he would be known as the Imam — literally, he who stands in front. On the one hand, it was a modest title, given to whoever leads the daily prayers. On the other, this was Imam with a definite capital I, the spiritual and political leader of all Muslims. And between Caliph and Imam, a world of politics and theology would intervene.
Ali was destined to be the only man aside from Muhammad himself whom both Sunnis and Shia would acknowledge as a rightful leader of Islam. But while Sunnis would eventually recognize and respect him as the fourth Caliph — the fourth and last of the rashidun, the “rightly guided ones” — the Shia would never recognize the caliphate at all, not even the first three Caliphs. To them, Ali was and always has been the first rightful successor to Muhammad, designated by him as the true spiritual leader who would pass on his knowledge and insight to his sons, so that they in turn could pass it on to their own sons. Ali, that is, was the first of the twelve Imams who would join Muhammad and his daughter Fatima as the true Ahl al-Bayt.
The sensitive Islamic term fitna is still more complex. The root is the word for being led astray. It can mean trial or temptation, intrigue or sedition, discord or dissension. It always implies upheaval, even chaos. But the most common meaning is civil war — the most uncivil warfare of all. Tribes, clans, even families split against themselves; cousins and in-laws take opposite sides; brothers may even fight brothers, and fathers, their own sons. Fitna is the terrible wrenching apart of the fabric of society, the unraveling of the tightly woven matrix of kinship, and it was seen in the seventh century, as it still is today, as the ultimate threat to Islam, greater by far than that of the most benighted unbelievers.
This was the traditional role of women in battle, though never before from the center. Usually they stayed at the rear, where they urged on their side, mocking the virility of their enemies and daring their own fighters to feats of valor. Their shrill ululations were designed to strike fear in the hearts of the other side, much as the eerie sound of bagpipes in a very different part of the world.
It was women who called for blood, and if any doubted what they were capable of, people still talked with awe of the aristocratic Hind, whose husband had led the Meccan opposition to Muhammad and his followers. Her father had died in the first major battle between the Meccans and the Medinans, and she knew who had killed him: Muhammad’s uncle Hamza. So when the Meccans marched on Medina to do battle again, it had been Hind who led the chanting, taunting Muhammad’s men and daring them to advance; Hind who had been fired up with the thirst for revenge and who put a price on Hamza’s head; Hind who roamed the battlefield after the two sides had fought to a standoff, who strode from corpse to corpse, searching for the one she wanted. She found it, and when she did, she uttered a cry of victory that years later still froze the blood of those who had heard her. She stood astride Hamza, gripped her knife with both hands, and plunged it deep into his body, gouging him open to rip out not his heart but something far larger and far more visceral — his liver. Ululating in triumph, she held that liver up high above her head and then, in full view of all, she crammed it into her mouth, tore it apart with her teeth, spat out the pieces, stamped on them, and ground them into the dirt. Who could ever forget the sight of that blood running from her mouth and streaming down her chin and her arms, of those eyes gleaming with revenge? It was so compelling that people still referred to her son, half in taunt, half in admiration, as the Son of the Liver Eater. Never to his face, though, for he was none other than Muawiya, the man who had become the powerful governor of Syria. Like his mother, he was not one to be trifled with.
But nobody denies that such tales are a matter of bravado, and everyone knows bravado for what it is: an attempt to ward off terror. That is why most of the stories of the Battle of the Camel forgo heroics for a palpable sense of folly, of the senselessness and tragedy of it all.
All the while, a far more formidable opponent had been merely biding his time. In Damascus, Muawiya had stood calmly by as Ali had been drawn into civil war. The grisly relics of Othman’s assassination still hung on the pulpit of the main mosque as he had ordered, serving as all too vivid testimony to the original sin of Ali’s rule. But Muawiya saw no reason to take action as long as there was a chance Aisha would do his work for him. Now that she had been defeated, however, he decided to play his hand. He made the cool calculation that if Ali had displayed great nobility of purpose in dealing with Aisha, that same nobility could also serve to hasten his undoing.
By his own account, Muawiya was “a man blessed with patience and deliberateness” — an expert dissimulator, that is, with a positively Byzantine sense of politics that allowed him to turn things to his advantage without seeming to do so.
Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception.
Muawiya was known for his generosity as much as for his ruthlessness. In fact, he prided himself on being exactly as generous and precisely as ruthless as he needed to be. “If there be but one hair binding someone to me, I do not let it break,” he once said. “If he pulls, I loosen; if he loosens, I pull.” As for any sign of dissent: “I do not apply my sword where my whip is enough, nor my whip where my tongue is enough.”
Yet Muawiya accepted with equanimity the one thing that might have displeased him most, and that was his nickname, Son of the Liver Eater. He certainly recognized the taunt in it, for it was an insult for any man to be known by his mother’s name instead of his father’s, as though he had been born out of wedlock. But he purposely let it ride. “I do not come between people and their tongues,” he said, “so long as they do not come between us and our rule.”
Ali never intended the move to Kufa to be a permanent one. His plan was to return to Medina as soon as he had settled the issue with Muawiya and Syria, but he never would return. From the moment he made the decision in favor of Kufa, Muslim power began to leave Arabia behind, and this was entirely Muawiya’s doing. By refusing to recognize Ali as Caliph, he had forced the issue. It was his defiance that had brought Ali to Kufa and that would lead to Iraq’s becoming the cradle of Shia Islam.
The Meccans’ concerns were well founded. Their descendants were to be the Islamic rulers of the future, but they would never live in Arabia. As the centuries passed, Muslim power would center in Iraq, in Syria, in Persia, in Egypt, in India, in Spain, in Turkey, anywhere but Arabia, which became increasingly cut off, saved from reverting back to its pre-Islamic isolation only by the pull of the annual hajj pilgrimage. Arabia would not exert political power again for more than a thousand years, until the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect emerged from the central highlands in the eighteenth century to carry out violent raids against Shia shrines in Iraq and even against the holy places of Mecca and Medina. In alliance with the Saud family, the Wahhabi influence would spread worldwide in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Financed by oil wealth, Arabia — now Saudi Arabia — would regain the preeminence it had once held in Islam, aided and abetted by the Western thirst for oil even as it nurtured the Sunni extremists who would turn so violently against the West.
In the twenty-first century, Westerners shocked at the scope of Muslim reaction to Danish cartoons of Muhammad seemed to conclude that there is no tradition of satire in Islam. On the contrary, there is a strongly defined tradition, and one clearly linked to warfare. In the seventh century, satire was a potent weapon, and it is still seen that way. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses created such a stir in the Islamic world because it was an extraordinarily well-informed satire. By playing on Quranic verses and on hadith reports of Muhammad’s life, Rushdie cut close to the bone. While satire may be thought relatively harmless in the West — at its best, cutting-edge humor, but the cut only a figurative one — in Islam the cut is far more literal. When they are the first weapon in war, words draw blood.
Such poems could not possibly have circulated without Muawiya’s knowledge and approval. They were an essential part of his campaign to rouse the will of the people to war — a will that was eminently amenable to skillful manipulation. In fact, the will of the public can still be manipulated in much the same way in even the most proudly democratic of countries, as was clear when the Bush administration falsely presented the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a response to the Al Qaida attack of September 11, 2001.
But Muawiya was more than content to leave honor and valor to Ali. His concern was far more practical. “It is not a fair offer,” he retorted. “Ali has killed everyone he has ever challenged to single combat.” And with this refusal, the only option left was battle.
Ali himself was nearly killed. Arrows fell so thick and fast around him that as one witness said, “his two cubs, Hasan and Hussein, were hard put to fend off the shafts with their shields.” They urged Ali to move faster so as to avoid being so exposed. His famed reply, the epitome of heroic sangfroid in the face of battle, was an augury of what was to come. “My sons,” he said, “the fateful day will inevitably come for your father. Going fast will not make it come later, and going slow will not make it come sooner. It makes no difference to your father whether he comes upon death, or death comes upon him.”
Ali himself was not deceived. The very idea of arbitration to decide who was to be Caliph not only placed his own right to the caliphate in question from the start, it also made the Quran itself a matter of negotiation. For the first time, the Quran was being made into a political tool.
Ali had been thoroughly outmaneuvered. No matter that he could plainly see how Muawiya had manipulated the situation, or that one of the most worldly of men had used faith as a weapon against one of the most spiritual. With his troops standing fast by their refusal to fight any further, Ali was left no option but to consent to arbitration.
But there is nobody as righteous or as blind to reason as the reformed sinner. “When we wanted arbitration,” Wahb replied, “we sinned and became unbelievers. But we have repented. If you now do the same, we will be with you. But if you will not, then as the Quran says, ‘We reject you without distinction, for God does not love the treacherous.’
Wahb declared that the whole of Kufa was mired in a state of jahiliya, the pagan darkness that had reigned before the advent of Islam. “Let us go out, my brothers, from this place of wicked people,” he said, and go out they did, some three thousand strong. Fifty miles north of Kufa they established a new settlement on the Tigris at Nahrawan. It was to be a haven of purity, Wahb announced, a beacon of righteousness in a corrupt world. He and his men were to be the first Islamic fundamentalists. They called themselves the Rejectionists — khariji, meaning “those who go out.” The reference was to the phrase “those who go forth to serve God’s cause” in Sura 9 of the Quran, which is aptly titled “Repentance.” They had seen the light and repented, and with the absolutism of the newly penitent, they devoted themselves to the letter of the Quran and to the exclusion of its spirit. We are holier than thou, they were saying, purer than the pure. And as is the way with such righteousness, they took their zeal for purity over the brink into all-out fanaticism.
They did so with the clearest of consciences. Even the murder of the wife and unborn child, they maintained, was called for by God, since women and children of the enemy shared in the sin of their male kin. There were no innocents. And in this, the seventh-century khariji Rejectionists set the pattern for their descendants.
The Wahhabis’ impassioned call for a return to what they saw as the purity of early Islam gathered strength in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in such movements as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Salafis in Egypt, and Al Qaida. The perceived enemy within Islam would become as dangerous as the enemy without, if not more so.
The man who had sacrificed so much to avoid fitna had now fought three civil war battles. In all three, he had been victorious — or would have been if his men had kept fighting at Siffin — but he could not escape a growing feeling of self-loathing. He had waited twenty-five years for this? Not to lead Islam into a new era of unity but to kill other Muslims?
Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon. His personal physician, Ibn Uthal, a Christian and a noted alchemist, was an expert on poisons, as was his successor, Abu al-Hakam, also a Christian.
By the late twentieth century, Najaf was so large that nearby Kufa had become little more than a suburb hard by the river. All the more canny, then, of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of today’s Mahdi Army, when he adopted not the Najaf shrine but the main mosque of Kufa as his home pulpit. In doing so, he took on the spirit not of Ali assassinated, but of the living Imam. Preaching where Ali had preached, Muqtada assumed the role of the new champion of the oppressed.
Part Three - Hussein
“Let each man save himself,” he ordered. “Inform me of troublemakers sought by the Caliph Muawiya. Make lists of them, and you will be free from harm. Anyone who refuses will be denied protection, and his blood and property will be halal” — Ziyad’s to take at will. With his secret police, his network of informants, his brutal reprisals, Ziyad ran Iraq much as another dictator was to run it fourteen hundred years later. Like Saddam Hussein, he was a Sunni ruling a majority Shia population. If they pined for Ali, that was their problem. He could not control their hearts, but he could, and did, control their every action. He was every bit as ruthless as Saddam would be, and seemingly as immovable.
Muawiya’s dynastic ambition was to utterly change the caliphate. On this, both Sunnis and Shia are in agreement. The protodemocratic impulse that had driven the earliest years of Islam — the messy business of the shura, with the principle, if not quite the practice, of consensus — would become a thing of the past. As Byzantine despotism had appropriated Christianity, so now Umayyad despotism would appropriate Islam.
In time they would cite the bitterly anti-Shia thirteenth-century scholar Ibn Taymiya, whose writings are still central to mainstream Sunni thought. Sixty years with an unjust leader were preferable to a single night with an ineffective one, Ibn Taymiya declared. His reasoning was that without an effectively run state, the implementation of Islamic law was impossible. But he was also clearly stating that church and state, as it were, were no longer one and the same, as they had been in Muhammad’s time.
Hussein’s story was about to become the foundation story of Shiism, its sacred touchstone, its Passion story. The long journey from Mecca to Iraq was his Gethsemane. Knowing that the Kufans had betrayed him, he rode on nonetheless, in full awareness of what was waiting for him.
Shahadat is a word of subtle shadings, though as with the double meaning of jihad, this may be hard to see when the image of Islamic martyrdom is that of suicide bombers so blinded by righteousness that they sacrifice not just their own lives but all sense of humanity. In fact, while shahadat certainly means “self-sacrifice,” it also means “acting as a witness,” a double meaning that originally existed in English too, since the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for witness. This is why the Islamic declaration of faith — the equivalent of the Shema Israel or the Lord’s Prayer — is called the shahada, the “testifying.” And it is this dual role of martyr and witness that would inspire the leading intellectual architect of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to utterly redefine Hussein’s death as an act of liberation.
Ali Shariati is all but unknown in the West, yet for years he was idolized in Iran on a par with the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Martyrdom has a unique radiance,” Shariati declared. “It creates light and heat in the world. It creates movement, vision, and hope. By his death, the martyr condemns the oppressor and provides commitment for the oppressed. In the iced-over hearts of a people, he bestows the blood of life and resurrection.” Such sacrifice was not for Islam alone. It was for all people, everywhere. Hussein acted as witness “for all the oppressed people of history. He has declared his presence in all wars, struggles, and battlefields for freedom of every time and land. He died at Karbala so that he may be resurrected in all generations and all ages.”
For centuries, Hussein’s martyrdom had been the central paradigm of Shia Islam, the symbol of the eternal battle between good and evil, but Shariati raised it to the level of liberation theology. He transformed Ashura, the ten-day commemoration of what happened at Karbala, taking it out of the realm of grief and mourning and into that of hope and activism. Karbala would no longer merely explain repression; it would be the inspiration to rise up against it, and Shariati’s most famous call to action would become the new rallying cry of activist Shiism, chanted by idealistic young revolutionaries in the streets of Teheran even as the Shah’s troops fired volley after volley into the crowd: “Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.”
In the ten days leading up to Ashura, every detail of the ordeal at Karbala fourteen hundred years ago is recalled and reenacted. The story so central to Shia Islam has been kept alive year after year, century after century, not in holy writ but by the impassioned force of memory, of repetition and reenactment.
With time, it made no difference if Abbas had really fought on with only one arm, or if the horse really did cry, or if the doves really did fly down as though from heaven. Faith and need said they did. The stories have become as true as the most incontrovertible fact, if not more so, because they have such depth of meaning. As with the death of Christ, the death of Hussein soars beyond history into metahistory. It enters the realm of faith and inspiration, of passion both emotional and religious.
The Karbala story was still used, though in a far more deliberately manipulative way. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, thousands of Iranian boys were given headbands inscribed with the word “Karbala,” then sent off to become human minesweepers. Wave after wave of them ran headlong into Iraqi minefields to be blown up to clear the way for Iranian troops, each of them in the desperate faith that he was heading for a martyr’s paradise. Frontline troops were inspired to sacrifice by visits from singers and chanters of Karbala lamentations, the most famed of whom was known as “Khomeini’s Nightingale.” Khomeini had swept into power with the help of the Karbala factor, then taken control of it, taming it into the docility and obedience Shariati had warned of.
The Abbasids ousted the Umayyads just seventy years after Karbala and brought the caliphate back from Syria to Iraq. In 762 they built a magnificent new capital city on the banks of the Tigris. Laid out in a perfect circle, it was originally called Medinat as-Salaam — “City of Peace” — though it quickly became better known as Baghdad, from the Persian for “gift of paradise.”
A night, it seems, when wishes and prayers really could come true, which is why on this night the Shia faithful make their way not to Samarra, where the twelfth Imam was born, but to Karbala, where it is believed he will return, followed by Hussein on one side and Jesus on the other.
More than four out of five Muslims are non-Arab.
Such heavy-handed intervention helped create the intense anti-Westernism that today underlies both Sunni and Shia radicalism. The fear and resentment of manipulation by the West were expressed in best-selling fashion by Iranian cultural critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whose 1962 book Gharbzadegi — “Occidentosis,” or “Westoxification” — saw Western cultural and financial dominance as a fatal disease that had to be rooted out of the Iranian body politic and by extension out of Islam as a whole. Ahmad’s call was taken up across the Shia-Sunni divide by Egyptian radical ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who helped lay the groundwork for modern Islamism. In his 1964 book Milestones, Qutb wrote that “setting up the kingdom of God on earth and eliminating the kingdom of man means taking power from the hands of the human usurpers and restoring it to God alone” — a deliberate echo of “Judgment belongs to God alone,” the seventh-century rallying cry of the khariji Rejectionists who assassinated Ali.
Sunni and Shia radicals alike called on a potent blend of the seventh century and the twentieth: on the Karbala story and on anti-Westernism. By the 1980s such calls were a clear danger signal to the pro-American Saudis, who were highly aware that radical Sunni energies could come home to roost in an Arabian equivalent of the Iranian Revolution. Their answer, in effect, was to deal with radical Islamism by financing it abroad, thus deflecting its impact at home. The Saudis became major exporters of Wahhabi extremism and its bitterly anti-Shia stance, from Africa to Indonesia, countering a newly strengthened sense of Shia identity and power — “the Shia revival,” as it’s been called — energized by the Iranian Revolution. The Sunni-Shia split had again become as politicized as when it began.
In such a confrontation, the Sunnis would seem to have a clear advantage since the Shia are only some fifteen percent of all Muslims worldwide. But raw numbers can be misleading. In the Middle East heartland of Islam, the Shia are closer to fifty percent, and wherever oil reserves are richest — Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf coast, including eastern Saudi Arabia — they are in the majority. So long as oil dominates the world economy, the stakes are again as high as they were at the height of the Muslim empire. And the main issue is again what it was in the seventh century — who should lead Islam? — now played out on an international level. Where Ali once struggled against Muawiya, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia today vie with each other for influence and political leadership of the Islamic world, a power struggle demonstrated most painfully in the cities of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.