The Origins of Shia Sunni Split in Islam

The great great grandfather of prophet Mohammad was Abd Manaf (circa 400 AD) from the Banu Quresh tribe. Banu Quresh was the custodian of Kaaba. As hundreds of idols were housed in Kaaba and as it was also at the intersection of trade routes, several caravans would make a stop-over, make donations to the idols, buy goods and services and hold trade fairs adding considerably to the wealth of the merchants of Mecca.

Abd Manaf had two sons, Hashim and abd-Shams. Legend says that they were conjoined twins who were separated by their father with a sword. After the death of Abd Manaf his son Hashim assumed the prestigious position of his father-custody of Kaaba and looking after and providing water to the pilgrims of Mecca. Hashim also banished Abd-Shams from Mecca which gave birth to enmity between the two families.

When Abd Shams died, his son Ummaya laid the foundations of Banu Ummaya clan. The rivalry between the two clans was already set in motion primarily due to superiority complex, old grudges, desire for vengeance of the murder of kinsmen, political views, personal sentiments, and differences in lifestyle and thinking. Both Banu Umayya and Banu Hashim were the chiefs of Mecca and held high offices.The chieftainship of Banu Hashim was spiritual, whereas that enjoyed by Banu Umayya was political and they were also tradesmen and possessed enormous wealth.

Banu Hashim were the first ones to embrace Islam yet majority of Banu Ummaya remained pagans until the invasion of Mecca by prophet Mohammad in 630 AD. It was then that Abu Sufyan, the patriarch of Banu Umayya alongwith other members of the clan embraced Islam.

Prophet Mohammad had two of his sons from Khadija who both died in infancy while one son named Ibrahim from Maria Copt also expired when he was 17 months old. He had no offspring from the rest of his 9 wives. Had prophet Mohammad had a son,there would have been no issue with succession but this was not to be.

Though Shias claim that Prophet Mohammad gave indications about Ali as his successor yet he was never explicit about it. However, we find that though Abu Bakr and Umer proposed Fatima,the prophet bestowed the honor upon Ali as his son-in-law. Hence, when prophet Mohammad died in 632 AD, there was no successor.

Soon after the prophet’s death, fissures and divisions among various power brokers emerged with full might. Yemenese tribes versus Hejazi tribes, Meccan tribes versus Medinese tribes, Ansars versus Mahjaroons, the elite and the commoners of Quresh, the two groups of the wives of the prophet, Muslemeen versus Munafiqeen, Ayesha versus Ali, and Banu Hashim versus Banu Ummaya.

Umer nominated Abu Bakr while several others opposed it. But his nomination was never unchallenged as others were independently following Ali as spiritual chief yet opposed Abu Bakr’s political leadership. The Shia-Sunni divide was already in place. Abu bakr died after two years and on his deathbed he nominated Umer as the next caliph. Umer ruled from 634 AD to 644 AD until he was stabbed to death by a Persian slave named Abu Lulu. Omer was succeeded by an Ummayad named Usman. It is said that the 12 year rule of Usman was marked by nepotism, intrigue and rebellion. And it was Abu Zar Ghaffari who laid the foundation of Islam’s first political party known as Shiyan-e-Ali (Ali’s friends).Abu Zar was thus exiled by Usman.

While resentment was growing against Usman, Muawiyah, Usman’s governor at Damascus was building a parallel state in Damascus out of the wealth looted from the Byzantine Empire. Usman was murdered in 656 AD. Ali then succeeded as the fourth Caliph on support from some Medinites. The transition,however, was not smooth. While the rebels from Kufa and Basra stood behind Ali alongwith the people of Medina, Egyptian rebels backed Talha as the next caliph whereas Meccan Quresh dominated by Ummayads expressed strong reservations about Ali. Although Talha and Zubair, Ali’s associates supported him, they later stated that they were under duress.

Soon after Ali’s ascendancy as Caliph, the Muslims were split into three groups. One of those joined Muawiya in Damascus. Zubair, Talha and many others went to Mecca and formed an alliance with Aisha, the prophet’s widow, to revive the governing style of Abu Bakr and Umer while the rest at Medina were standing behind Ali. Pure power politics and contrary to the abstract concept of “Islamic brotherhood” Islam’s first civil war was on the horizon.This war known as battle of camel( 656 AD)was fought between Ayesha and Ali resulting in the death of 3000 Muslims. The war was won by Ali but the caliphate as an institution symbolizing Muslim unity was blown apart forever. Ali faced another big challenge from the governor of Damascus; Amir Muawiya. When Ali sought his allegiance, he mocked and told that Ali was responsible for the death of Usman. Muawiyah was an extremely sharp and seasoned politician and a master of horse-trading. And while Muawiyah was buying loyalties including that of Ali’s brother Aqil, Ali was fast losing allies.

Muawiya also proposed that there can be two caliphates simultaneously wherein Ali could retain power over Iraq, Persia, Mecca and Medina while he could retain control over Egypt and Syria. The progressive Byzantine city civilization culture adopted in Syria was challenging the regressive culture of desert-dwelling Beduins. Ali rejected the proposal and Muslims were all set for the second Islamic civil war.

In April 657 AD, the armies of Ali and Muawiyah faced each other at Siffin (present day Raqqah in Syria). The battle continued for four days leading to deaths of thousands of Muslims at the hands of fellow Muslims. On January 26,661 AD as Ali entered a mosque in Kufa to say his prayers, Ibn-e-Maljam the assasin struck him with a poisoned sword. He died two days later.
After Ali was murdered in 661 AD,his eldest son, Hasan, succeeded him but he soon signed a peace treaty with Muawiyah wherein Hasan was to hand over power to Muawiya under some conditions. When Hasan was poisoned to death in 670 AD,Hussain ,his younger brother, became the head of Banu Hashim clan. His father’s supporters in Kufah gave their allegiance to him. However, he told them he was still bound by the peace treaty between Hasan and Muawiyah as long as Muawiyah was alive.

Muawiyah appointed his son Yazid as the next caliph who upon succession, asked Governors of all provinces to take an oath of allegiance to him. The necessary oath was secured from all parts of the countrybut Hussain and Abdullah ibn Zubayr refused to declare allegiance.
Interestingly,Hussain had fought under the command of Yazid when his army laid siege to the Byzantine city of Constantinople (674-678.) Hussain would also frequently visit Muawiya and enjoyed cordial relations with both Muawiya and Yazid before Yazid was nominated as the next Caliph.

Kufa was a garrison town in Iraq, which had been Ali’s capital, and many of his supporters lived there. Hussein received letters from people of Kufa expressing offer of support if he claimed the caliphate.But this proved untrue. As he prepared for the journey to Kufa, Abdullah bin Umar, Abdullah bin Zubayr and Abdullah bin Abbas argued against his plan, and if he was determined to proceed to Kufa, asked him to leave women and children in Mecca. But Hussein rejected their suggestions.

Ibn-e-Zayad,the governor of Basra sent a message to Hussein, at instruction of Yazid, stating, “You can neither go to Kufa nor return to Mecca, but you can go anywhere else you want.” Despite the warning, he continued towards Kufa and during the trip, he and many members of his family were killed or captured during the Battle of Karbala which took place on October 10,680 AD. The rivalry between the Banu Hashim and Banu Ummaya clans of Banu Quresh culminated in the battle of Karbala.

The battle of Karbala also proved decisive in fragmenting the supporters of Ali and his progeny vis-a-vis those who sided with the other three caliphs as prophet Mohammad’s successors.
The divide between Shias and Sunnis was also complete.
It was to grow and expand further and was destined to engulf the Middle East centuries later.

By: Wasim Altaf

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