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7. Shia and Sunni |
Violence and schism shatter Islam

Shia and Sunni is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 180, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

A bitter war of succession creates a permanent rift with repercussions which will echo down the ages

Shia and Sunni - Violence and schism shatter Islam’s unity

Shia and Sunni - Violence and schism shatter Islam’s unity
Mortally wounded by an assassin’s knife, Umar asks Abdul Rahman, one of Muhammad’s earliest Companions, if he would lead the faithful. Abdul Rahman declined, and within hours, the death of the second, and many would say greatest caliph, touched off a dispute that would create permanent divisions within Islam.

Caliph Umar did not die immediately, although the knife wound in his back was so severe that when he took a drink of milk, it gushed out of his stomach, and he remained clear in mind. His thoughts concentrated on that all-important question, the succession. He first inquired of Abdul Rahman, one of the Prophet’s earliest Companions, whether he would serve as Commander of the Faithful. But Abdul Rahman declined the honor of ruling an empire, so the dying warrior appointed a committee of five men to determine who would succeed him.

The five power brokers met immediately, and immediately launched into loud wrangling. Surely they could keep their voices down, Umar’s son protested–they were disturbing his father–but the racket continued until the stricken caliph himself intervened. Would they please, he politely requested, postpone the debate until he died? Several hours later Islam’s second and, many would say, greatest, caliph was gone.

Among the quarrelsome quintet, tempers and arguments continued at boiling point. In fact, the confrontation that emerged during those tense negotiations in November 644 would forever divide Islam. Besides Abdul Rahman, the electors assigned to this extraordinary task force included Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law and adopted son. Equally prominent was Uthman, married to two of the Prophet’s daughters in succession.1

Umar wanted his successor chosen by acclamation, as he and his predecessor Abu Bakr had been, but he clearly sensed that rivalry had become inevitable. Therefore, he laid out a unique selection procedure. The committee of five must determine the succession within three days. Further, if they failed to reach unanimity, any losing candidate was to be beheaded to prevent future strife. During the next two days of heated argument, Ali and Uthman each pushed his own claim, but neither was willing to risk execution.

Both were members of the same tribe, the princely Quraysh of Mecca. Ali, however, represented the Banu Hashem, Muhammad’s own clan, while Uthman hailed from the far more prestigious Banu Umayya, Mecca’s hereditary war leaders. Muhammad had detested tribalism, the basic organizational form of Arabic society. Clan squabbling, he taught, should be replaced by a unifying devotion to Allah, an ideal he strove for most of his life with only marginal success.

On the third day, the electors agreed to abide by the personal choice of Abdul Rahman, the man whom Umar had first approached. This arbiter chose to make his announcement before the assembled faithful in Medina’s mosque, where partisans of the two major candidates were on the brink of blows. As he rose to address the assembled faithful, Abdul Rahman assuredly realized that the Ali—Uthman clash–a clan wrangle of the classic Arab type within the Quraysh tribe–might easily destroy Islam.

He therefore strove to establish the authority of the new caliph as unquestionable. Calling Ali to the front of the mosque, he posed a careful query: “Do you bind yourself by the covenant of the Lord to do all according to the Book of the Lord, the example of the Prophet, and the precedent of his successors?” Ali, equivocating slightly, cautiously replied: “I hope that I should do so. I will act according to the best of my knowledge and ability.” But Uthman, to the same question, boldly answered: “Yes, I will.” And with that, Abdul Rahman decreed Uthman the new caliph.

It was an ironic victory. While Ali had repeatedly risked his life for Islam, the Umayyads (the faction led by the Banu Umayya) had not only rejected the new religion, but become its arch-foes. Only after Muhammad had conquered their power center of Mecca did the patrician clan embrace Islam. But Muhammad, practicing what he preached, did not discriminate against them. He promoted many of his former adversaries to high posts, and now the entire Arab empire had fallen into their hands.

The dynasty initiated by Uthman, known to history as the Umayyads, would largely ignore the Prophet’s precept of the equality of all Muslims. Instead, they would impose the old Arab order: Arabs over all other peoples, Quraysh over all other Arabs, and Umayyads over all other Quraysh. Uthman went so far as to criticize his two predecessor caliphs. Why, he wondered, had they not enhanced the fortunes of their kinsfolk, as good Arabs should?

Nevertheless, the seventy-year-old Uthman was plainly devout, and had broken ranks with the rest of the Banu Umayya to become Muhammad’s fourth convert, undiscouraged by a brutal beating from an angry uncle. He had endured exile to Ethiopia, and poured much of his comfortable fortune into the fledgling cause, once personally providing the Muslim force with a thousand camels and horses. After the deaths of Muhammad’s daughters, he had other wives, one of whom, Naila, a former Christian whom he married five years after he became caliph, would stand valiantly beside him to his violent death.

At first, Uthman’s generosity, leniency and affability came as a relief to the faithful after the stern virtues of Umar. His early decision to raise the allowance of all Muslim chiefs was certainly popular, among the chiefs anyway. Early on, however, the new caliph faced an especially delicate judicial decision. Umar’s son, hearing that a Persian nobleman had been seen with the dagger that murdered his father, promptly killed the man. But the slain aristocrat was posthumously proven innocent; furthermore, he was a Muslim. Islamic law called for the death penalty–but should Umar’s family, having just lost its father, also lose a son? The public seemed horrified at the prospect. Thus, where Abu Bakr or Umar would almost certainly have enforced the law, however harsh, Uthman commuted the sentence to a fine, then paid the fine himself. So the killer suffered no penalty whatever. People noted that.

They also noted Uthman’s blatant favoritism towards his family. Egypt’s conqueror, Amr ibn al-Aasi, was replaced by the caliph’s half brother, an apostate who had barely escaped alive from Muhammad’s wrath. Uthman’s cousin, Mu‘awiya, fastened a steely grip upon Syria. Iraq was handed over to a half brother, who would later be removed from office and scourged for leading the Friday prayers while drunk. (Muhammad reputedly had executed this man’s father as a prisoner of war, prophesying that his children were destined for hellfire.) The military bases at Kufa and Basra in Iraq were commanded by younger Umayyads. The governor of Kufa, whose father had died fighting against Islam, generated ferocious resentment when he publicly stated that the whole Fertile Crescent was now a “Garden of the Quraysh.”

Ever congenial, the new caliph seemed to court universal affection by neglecting to discipline the errant, whether friend or foe. He smiled amiably as Umayyad grandees commandeered unearned estates in Iraq and cultivated their taste for marble palaces, extensive harems, luxuriant clothing and rich foods. All this infuriated the Bedouin and other less-fortunate participants in the new Islamic imperium. Equally offensive, when a rabble rebelled against the governor at Kufa, Uthman did not have the ringleaders executed, but tamely sent a new governor. He is also said to have pliantly allowed a Jewish convert to wander through Iraq, Syria and Egypt proclaiming that Muhammad would return in messianic fashion, that Ali was the Prophet’s legitimate representative on earth, and that the Umayyads were evil.

When Caliph Uthman did crack the whip, it sometimes evidenced weakness, not resolve. His crackdown on gambling was seemingly aimed at the young, who resented it, more than at the privileged, who ignored it. Minor additions to the ritual of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca aroused heated controversy. Then came an evil omen. He lost Muhammad’s silver signet ring down a well, and frantic efforts to recover it proved futile.2 Eventually, even commoners did not fear to scorn their ruler to his face as the old man walked the streets of Medina.

In 655, the Umayyad provincial governors convened in Mecca, and noted that a spirit of seething revolt clearly was envenoming much of the Arab community. But what should he do, the old caliph, now eighty-one, pleadingly asked his own appointees. No solutions were forthcoming, however, and rebel conspirators were meanwhile coordinating a full-scale insurrection. Military expeditions from Basra, Kufa and Fustat (an Arab army cantonment in Egypt) converged on Medina in early 656. The Medinians donned armor and manned their walls, however, and Uthman’s one concession was to agree to appoint a new governor of Egypt.

The dissidents left, and the Medinians relaxed their guard–but six days later, the revolutionaries suddenly reappeared. The Egyptian group claimed to have caught a black slave carrying a letter instructing the Umayyad governor of Egypt to arrest and execute their leaders. The messenger allegedly belonged to the caliph’s household, they charged, and the letter bore his seal. Just then, whether by coincidence or design, the Iraqi contingents also reappeared, and the mutineers managed to talk their way through the city gates.

Uthman calmly denied sending the letter, and firmly rejected demands that he abdicate. He was either a liar or a fool, shouted his implacable adversaries–and a tyrant, too–and that Friday in the mosque, stones rained upon the Commander of the Faithful. He was taken unconscious to his home, which his enemies blockaded while Medina’s residents, although their sympathy for Uthman was rapidly increasing, nevertheless cowered in their dwellings. Only a small band of young Quraysh guarded their tribal leader against the large, primarily Bedouin mob. Ali refused to intervene effectively, thus posing a disturbing possibility: Was the Prophet’s son-in-law the secret author of this rebellion? Uthman certainly thought so, and said so.

An impasse of several weeks’ duration ensued, during which Mu‘awiya set out from Syria with a powerful Umayyad force, already assembled in the event of trouble. Hearing this, the insurgents refused to allow any water into the caliph’s palace. Uthman’s defenders, and Ali, too, remonstrated with them that the caliph and his household were being treated worse than prisoners on a battlefield, but were ignored. The besieged family signaled its deepening desperation from the roof. A’isha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, tried to penetrate the cordon with a mule carrying water, but the desert warriors roughly turned her back.

As the Syrian troops drew nearer, the rebels realized that their time was running short, and on June 17, 656, they attacked the palace, hammering down its stout gate and simultaneously pouring over the rooftops. They found Uthman seated with the Qur’an spread open on his knees. Abu Bakr’s son, a leading rebel, seized him by the beard, but could not bring himself to slit the throat of Islam’s chief. Three other individuals also shrank from such a deed. But some, less squeamish, drove their swords into the old man’s body, while Naila loyally threw herself across her husband in a hopeless attempt to protect him, and the sweep of a blade sliced off her fingers. The regicides started to remove the head from Uthman’s corpse, but were stopped by the shrieks and sobs of his women.

For three days, no outsider ventured to enter the house. Silence reigned over it–a silence that marked the end of Islam’s original idyll. For an amazing quarter-century the Quraysh had led all Arabia in triumph after triumph, but now Muslim unity had been shattered by the war cries of Quraysh slaughtering Quraysh. Henceforth, the Umayyads would be the dedicated enemies of Ali, whose partisans would be called Alyites.

Six days after Uthman’s murder, however, Ali accepted the caliphate. Short, full-bearded and stout in middle age, he unquestionably had a strong claim, as one of Muhammad’s first converts, his cousin, the husband of his daughter Fatima, and an energetic lifelong supporter. The historical records are factually shaky as usual, since all accounts originate a century or more later, and are written by Islamic scholars with partisan axes to grind. However, it seems that Medinians and mutineers alike felt that Ali would bring more vigor to the helm of the Arab Empire than Muhammad’s aging contemporaries.

The rebels dispersed to their bases in Iraq and Egypt. The Umayyad soldiers marching to relieve Uthman halted and returned to Syria. Throughout the new empire, devout and battle-hardened veterans waited to see how their new chieftain would deal with the killers of Muhammad’s third successor. Islam might have been healed at this crucial point, suggests British historian John Bagot Glubb (The Arab Conquests), by the spectacle of a Hashemite caliph wreaking vengeance on behalf of the Umayyads. Virtually the whole Arab aristocracy, he surmises, would have rallied behind Ali against the Bedouin mutineers.

But Ali did nothing to avenge Uthman, contending that he lacked sufficient armed strength to punish the regicides. Further, he dismissed all Umayyad governors and appointed Alyites in their place, many of them his cousins. From Syria, Mu‘awiya viewed his own dismissal by Ali as tantamount to a declaration of war. In defiance, he nailed Uthman’s blood-soaked shirt and Naila’s amputated fingers to the pulpit of his great mosque in Damascus, a grisly and visible demand for vengeance.

Mu‘awiya had reason for confidence. Syrian Muslims were the most disciplined of any provincial garrison, and Syria’s Monophysite Christians were apparently content with their governor’s relatively benign administration. As one twelfth-century Monophysite patriarch of Antioch would comment, “It was no light advantage for us to be delivered from the cruelty of the Romans . . .” (Chronique de Michel le Syrien). Mu‘awiya, therefore, secured his northern border by paying a peace tribute to the Byzantines, and waited upon events.

Another rival Quraysh group was meanwhile emerging in Mecca; A’isha and two close Companions of the Prophet (each with his own aspirations to the caliphate) also raised the standard of revolt. Muhammad’s youngest bride, now his most-respected widow, exhorted all the faithful to fulfill their holy duty by avenging her husband’s slain successor. Now in her forties, the tireless A’isha accompanied a punitive expedition from Mecca to Basra, Iraq, and street fighting broke out within that military cantonment. The Meccan faction, emerging triumphant, promptly identified and executed hundreds of participants in Uthman’s killing, write professors Sayed Abdul Qadir and Mohammad Shuja-ud-Din in History of Islam, Part I.

Ali was in a tight spot. Medina had no standing army, a vulnerability that had unquestionably contributed to his predecessor’s death. The Bedouin tribes were as likely to sack the town as to fight for him, and Egypt had fallen into faction-ridden confusion. His best hope was the military cantonment at Kufa in Iraq, twice as large as the Basra garrison, and still harboring many of Uthman’s adversaries. Ali sent his son Hassan to woo these troops by promising to transfer his capital to Kufa. The ploy succeeded.

Marshalling Kufans and tribesmen, Ali marched against Basra in December 656, and for the first time, two Muslim armies stood face-to-face in open warfare. But the caliph, a patient and persuasive man, managed from his position of numerical superiority to induce his foes to negotiate. This stratagem nearly worked, as Ali assured his opponents that he would avenge Uthman just as soon as circumstances permitted. But this commitment inevitably leaked back to his own troops–who were by no means all of one mind.

Many Bedouin, along with others offended by post-Muhammad developments, saw themselves as inevitably exploited by the Qurayshite aristocracy, whether of the Alyite or Umayyad variety, and this category included the regicides. They had acted not as champions of Ali, but as opponents of Quraysh elitism. Now they believed that their best policy was to encourage war between the Quraysh clans, since rapprochement among the Quraysh would mean continued exploitation, and very possibly death, for them. So they hatched a counterplot, gambling their lives on an attempt to trigger full-scale fighting between the Alyites and the Umayyads.

Their plan played out brilliantly. In the gray light of dawn, their lancers charged full-tilt into the Basra lines, ending any hope of a treaty, while yells of “Treachery!” arose from both sides. Ali, watching as thousands of warriors leaped into combat with instinctive efficiency, shouted in vain that it was all a false alarm. The Muslims, undefeated for a generation, proceeded to inflict terrible casualties upon each other in this encounter, known as the Battle of the Camel, after the animal that carried A’isha amidst the carnage. Her litter, initially positioned behind the lines, had become engulfed in the battle, taking so many arrows that it resembled a hedgehog. Seventy dauntless soldiers died defending her, and her two fellow conspirators both perished in the fighting.

Ali took possession of Basra, which remained unsacked, and the vanquished troops accepted pardon. The fallen of both sides were buried with identical honors, side by side in common graves. A’isha, unharmed, received a courteous visit from Ali, who greeted her with a rebuke, that under the circumstances, seems rather mild: “The Lord pardon you for what has passed, and have mercy upon you.” “And upon you also!” the lady briskly responded. But thereafter, the thoroughly shaken A’isha became affectionately reconciled to Ali, dismissing their earlier feud over her imputed infidelity to the Prophet as a mere family squabble. Nor did she ever again meddle directly in affairs of state. Instead, the sharp-tongued lady, like other contemporaries of the Prophet, became a voluble and valuable source of stories and sayings attributed to Muhammad.3 A’isha died at age sixty-six, having spent forty-seven years in widowhood.

With Basra beaten, Ali next sought peace with Mu‘awiya, but the Syrian governor vigorously rejected any truce until all Uthman’s murderers were punished. Unfortunately, whether he wanted to or not, Ali could not have complied. The conspiracy that began at Kufa, and thwarted the projected truce at Basra, was still energetically growing into Islam’s first breakaway sect: the Kharijite movement, made up of devout Muslims, mostly from the humbler classes, many of them able to recite the entire Qur’an by memory. Populist and puritanical, the Kharijites had no love for the Umayyads, and their loyalty to Ali was shaky, too.

Kharijite translates as “dissenter.” Its Arabic root (khraja) also means “to purge” or “to throw out,” denoting their determination to rid Islam of human impurities. They yearned for a world governed by the will of God rather than the debased dictates of sinful mankind, and true to their Bedouin heritage, they evinced egalitarian impulses suggestive of a primitive democratic socialism. Their preachers taught that even a slave could become caliph if Allah so willed, that all Muslims should be treated as brothers, that extreme wealth and luxuries are sinful, and that Islamic rule should be based on Qur’anic principles and not aristocratic faction. Their urge to reduce the social disparities and injustices of their times represented a sentiment that would echo and re-echo in later events, both eastern and western.

But the Kharijites developed another and less benign urge, based on a conviction that their beliefs should be backed by individually initiated violence. Others deemed them fanatics. Not so, they countered; didn’t the Qur’an instruct believers to “command the good and prohibit evil?” (Sura 9:71). Hadn’t the Prophet himself set clear precedents in this regard? Therefore all deviants from the real, true Islam were fit targets for their violence. Sociologists Fuad Baali and Ali Wardi observe that the sectarians “did not hesitate to kill the women and children of their enemies and to plunder their property,” on the grounds that Umayyads and Alyites were both “the worst of infidels” (Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Thought Styles: A Social Perspective). Assassination was not just permissible, it was mandatory.

The immediate Kharijite controversy, however, also stemmed from a different cause, namely Muhammad’s failure to clearly spell out a method of selecting his successors as political and theological leader of Islam.4 With no such specific provision, Ali had no way of establishing the legitimacy of his caliphate. Thus, when he became dependent on the Kufa garrison, the Kharijites–driven by their hatred of Quraysh greed under Uthman–were able to block any compromise with Mu‘awiya, arch-advocate of vengeance for that murdered caliph.

The inevitable military showdown between Mu‘awiya and Ali took place in the early summer of 657, in gravel-strewn desert far up the Euphrates River near Siffin. The commanders, both notably deliberate men, tried again to reach a compromise–but failed. Warriors from the same tribes, even the same families, now had to attack each other; since few were enthusiastic about such a prospect, the opening rounds amounted to little more than light skirmishing. After two months, however, the Battle of Siffin erupted in earnest.

Constantly foremost in the bloodshed were the Kharijites. One headlong charge by four hundred Bedouin “readers” (devotees who memorized long passages of scripture) almost reached Mu‘awiya himself. Equally fierce was an aged Companion of the Prophet who died embattled at Siffin, while crying out that paradise was near. Muhammad himself had predicted, it was said, that this man would be killed by “a cruel and unjust people,” which now was naturally taken to mean the Syrians, who had indeed killed him. The Iraqi troops, their cause apparently vindicated on the highest spiritual authority, redoubled their attack on the correspondingly downcast Syrians.

Such morale-destroying discouragement could indeed have been fatal, but for one individual. Amr, twice conqueror of Egypt and now a field commander in Mu‘awiya’s army, rallied his disheartened troops. What, he demanded, is this fight about anyhow? Isn’t it simply about Ali’s wicked refusal to punish the killers of a holy caliph? Isn’t this the only real cause of all these unnecessary deaths? Amr’s rationale restored the Umayyad spirit, and after another indecisive day, he further demonstrated his sure grasp of Bedouin psychology. Next morning, pierced on the spear tip of every Umayyad cavalryman was a page from the Qur’an. “The word of God!” they shouted as they tore into the Alyite ranks. “Let the word of God decide!”

“Ignore this trickery!” shouted Ali, backed by a Kharijite leader yelling, “Victory is near! Keep fighting,” but the Bedouin warriors refused to assault the Qur’an. Ali had no choice but to parley, and also to acquiesce in a notably disadvantageous proposition. The question of the caliphate was to be arbitrated by two umpires, one appointed by each side, both sworn to act in the spirit of the Qur’an. Worse yet for Ali, his troops insisted on nominating as his arbitrator a former governor of Kufa, whose heart was more neutral than Alyite. Mu‘awiya nominated the cunning Amr.

When negotiations got underway, Amr proposed that both Mu‘awiya and Ali forego the caliphate in favor of a third candidate, to be selected by the citizens of Medina. Ali’s man agreed to this proposition, in effect acknowledging before this multitude of Muslims that the reigning caliph ought to abdicate. But Amr, stepping forward in his turn, treacherously and clearly proclaimed his support for Mu‘awiya. On that basis, the Umayyads claimed the caliphate.

The enraged Ali refused to acknowledge the result of this mischievous procedure, but he could not renew his attack against Syria. First, he had to deal with an armed revolt by four thousand Kharijites who, true to their violent creed, began massacring even children and pregnant women in Allah’s name. When other Alyite supporters brought these diehards to bay at the Battle of Nahrawan in 658, eighteen hundred of them mounted a suicidal charge directly onto their enemies’ spears and virtually all died, although their movement was by no means extinguished. After that, Ali had to eradicate an armed flare-up in Basra in favor of Mu‘awiya. After Siffin, the luckless fourth caliph was consistently victorious, but he was to enjoy neither peace nor prestige. He was even deserted by one of his own brothers, who went over to his Syrian rival.

The Umayyads, by contrast, prospered mightily. Amr invaded Egypt for the third time in 658, and Abu Bakr’s son, the Alyite governor, mounted only a feeble resistance. (Because this man allegedly had laid violent hands on Uthman, his captors burned his corpse inside a donkey skin.) Backed by Egypt’s vast revenues, Amr acknowledged Mu‘awiya, not Ali, as caliph. Now there were two caliphs, one in Kufa and one in Damascus. Two years later, Umayyad forces took Mecca and Medina, extracting oaths of allegiance to Mu‘awiya at sword-point before returning to Syria. The Alyites counterinvaded the holy cities from Iraq. When the competing caliphs finally tired of the pointless destruction and arranged a truce, the border between their realms replicated the former Byzantine—Persian frontier.

Both parties, if not content, were now at least resigned. But a third party–the Kharijite movement–was neither, and three Kharijite warriors in Mecca, lamenting the division of Islam, resolved on a solution. This unholy schism, they decided, was obviously the fault of three Quraysh: Ali, Mu‘awiya and Amr. The solution was equally obvious: They must assassinate all three. Each conspirator chose one target, swearing to slay him during Friday prayers on the fourteenth day of Ramadan, and their astonishingly audacious plot might easily have succeeded. But in Egypt, the Kharijite killer, having murdered the Friday prayer leader, discovered afterward that he was not Amr.5 The attacker assigned to Mu‘awiya wounded him, but not fatally. In Kufa, however, the third assassin gashed Ali’s skull and side with a poisoned sword, and he died the next day. Islam’s fourth caliph had reigned less than five years.

So little regarded was Ali at the time that the location of his grave is unknown. Perhaps he was too patient to rule a turbulent people. The horrific events of his caliphate echo through Islam to this day, however, commemorated in two Islamic denominations: the Shi‘ites, as the Alyites would later be known, and the spiritual descendants of the Kharijites. The latter, on account of their anarchic philosophy, fractured into many groups, sometimes, but not always, displaying the original blend of slaughter and religion. One famous manifestation of their violent side resurfaced in Persia and Syria during the eleventh century, in a sect popularly known as the Assassins. The name derives from hashish, a drug given to these thoroughly trained fanatics who terrorized both other Muslims and the Christian Crusaders.6

Organizationally, no Kharijite group survived the medieval period, but theologically, their modern spiritual heirs, at least in part, were the so-called “Islamists,” who in later centuries would instigate bloody revolt against corrupt governance and infidel influence. In 1981, Islamists assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization formed and led by Osama bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, also breathes the Kharijite spirit of bloodshed initiated by suicidally devout individuals. Most prominent among its many deeds was the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Equally consistent with the Kharijite tradition were the Palestinian suicide bombers who killed and injured thousands of Israeli civilians, by no means excluding children.

Persia and Iraq, whose non-Arab populations so heartily resented consistent Umayyad favoritism for Arabs, provided a multitude of ears sympathetic to the claims of Ali and his descendants. Today, the Shi‘ites constitute the majority of Muslims in Iran (the modern name for Persia) and Iraq. Elsewhere within Islam, they form significant minorities, often articulating the concerns of the poorer classes. They constitute perhaps ten percent of the world’s Muslims, and over the centuries have evolved a distinct theology and legal system, while continuing to share the Qur’an with the rest of Islam.

Following Ali’s assassination, the Kufa troops rallied to his son Hassan. In a society where the familial connection was so important, Hassan was an appealing candidate, for his mother Fatima had been Muhammad’s favorite daughter, and the Prophet had delighted in playing with Hassan and his younger brother Hussein as children. Pious and grave in manner, Hassan was temperamentally even more pacific than his father. After six months he agreed to abdicate in favor of Mu‘awiya, on condition he be granted a royal revenue for life. (Thereafter, Hassan reportedly lived in Mecca, married and divorced scores of wives, and was fatally poisoned by an embittered wife eight years after his “retirement.”)

Mu‘awiya, enabled by Hassan’s resignation to reign over a relatively united empire, proceeded to use the imperial treasury to buy loyalty among the Arab tribes. Although personally devout, he governed politically. One particularly skillful coup involved his half brother Zayyad, sired by their father during a brief encounter with a slattern. Despite his unacknowledged paternity, Zayyad had achieved high office under Ali, entirely due to his own competence; after Ali’s death, Mu‘awiya declared his half brother to be a legitimate scion of the Banu Umayya. A scandal ensued among the class-conscious Arabs, but Zayyad governed Persia and Iraq with outstanding ability and loyalty, his performance equaling that of Amr in Egypt.

When he grew old, Mu‘awiya persuaded Muslims–and where necessary forced them–to swear loyalty to his son as his heir apparent, something no previous caliph had attempted. Islam’s rulers in centuries to come would prefer a hereditary system to popular acclamation, but at this time, the novelty infuriated rival claimants to the caliphate. When Mu‘awiya died in 680, the ever-restless Kufans deluged Ali’s surviving son, Hussein, with invitations to revolt, a proposition to which Hussein finally and fatally agreed.

From Medina, the Alyite prince set off across the desert with his family, accompanied by only a few dozen warriors. But before he reached Iraq, the Umayyad governor, having decisively quelled sedition in Kufa, dispatched an armed force that pinned down the little expedition from Medina at a place called Karbala, near the Euphrates. Hussein, despite his hopeless position, refused to surrender his claim to the caliphate. In the same spirit, his womenfolk rejected the opportunity to leave his side.

All parleying over, arrows showered into the huddle of tents in the desert. The Kufa troops, attacking in overwhelming numbers, practically annihilated Ali’s nephews, grandsons and other relations. Hussein’s severed head–whose lips had been kissed by Muhammad himself–was displayed in the mosque at Kufa. This courageous man, although imprudent by any worldly standard, has impressed many Muslims as an admirable model of Islamic virtue. Every year, Shi‘ite millions attend highly emotional ceremonies in remembrance of the brutal fate of Ali’s family.

Just four of Hussein’s children and one of his sisters survived the massacre. Treated courteously by the Umayyad court, they were permitted to reside in Medina, where many pilgrims heard their recollections of Karbala, and carried the Alyite message homeward. To these poignant memories soon were added other causes of dissatisfaction. Mu‘awiya’s successor, for example, was subjected to a torrent of vituperation for leading a dissolute life unworthy of a Muslim.

In Mecca, a Quraysh claimant to the caliphate successfully raised the unruly tribes of Arabia against Damascus, and the Kharijite threat exploded again. But the rebel factions, far from uniting, fought each other. After the Meccans defeated the Kharijites in a series of battles, their own forces fell as relatively easy prey to the Umayyad army. Medina itself was sacked for three days by Muslim troops.

Although triumphant in war and astute in politics, the Umayyad dynasty never could staunch the startling torrent of moral denunciation attracted by its caliphs, and was further damaged by recurrent rebellions on behalf of one or another Alyite descendant. Over time, moreover, a shrewder crew worked its way to the forefront: a numerous clan descended from Muhammad’s Uncle Abbas, the man who so consistently supported his nephew, while so long delaying actual commitment to Islam.

With devious skill, this Abbasid faction gradually grew until its strength matured–then openly challenged the Umayyads. The Abbasids seized power in 750, amid a welter of Umayyad blood, subsequently forsaking Damascus to create Baghdad as the capital of what would be Islam’s Golden Century, in terms of culture. Their caliphs were deliberate and reverent in their public pronouncements, and they championed the development of the Sunna movement. The Sunnis describe themselves as followers of a “middle path,” based on the practice of the Islamic community as defined by the hadith, the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet, and by the twentieth century would account for close to ninety percent of Muslims.

The duration of the Abbasid dynasty was shorter–scarcely two centuries–but glorious. With Sunni advice, they crafted a workable administration for their increasingly complex empire, and their Christian subjects were helpful, too. Until the ninth century, notes British historian Laurence Browne in The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia, all the doctors, astrologers and philosophers appointed by these caliphs were Christian, and so were their all-important tax accountants. (The welcome later turned sour when Muslims became educated, and resented the influence and prosperity of the infidels.)

To this Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, traders brought silk, gold, rare woods, perfumes and a host of other treasures. Palaces and gardens worth millions of gold pieces graced its riverbanks; beautiful shrines and mosques, public baths and luxuriant gardens abounded. Out of Baghdad came such folkloric tales as the Arabian Nights, with heroes like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba. Its scholars assimilated Greek science and philosophy, and made significant contributions to mathematics.7 In the meantime, dynastic quarrels sometimes slowed, but never halted the spectacular military success that carried Islam both eastward and westward, generally on the razor edge of Muslim swords.

But a parallel phenomenon was by now observable amidst the barbarian chaos of western Europe: the Christian church, which in the darkest hours of the Dark Ages became a unifying force strong enough to stop dead the Muslim advance. Its crucial unification was largely the accomplishment of one man, a contemporary of Muhammad, and his work, too, would play a lasting role in human history.

This is the end of the Shia and Sunni category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 180, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Shia and Sunni from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at