With the declared establishment of a caliphate in the overrun provinces of north Syria and Iraq, it might be time to revisit some of the religious terminology of this roiling region.
What we’re seeing in the headlines is a rematch after centuries of violence between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims of the Mideast. Radical Sunni of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS and ISIL) have erupted from Syria, where they already had largely hijacked the stalled revolution from more moderate Sunnis, into Iraq where they’ve startled everyone.
They quickly captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, killing hundreds of Shiite prisoners and claiming land within a few dozen miles of Baghdad. Iraqi Shiites have lined up to fight for their capital and want to eventually expel the hardline Sunni Islamists.
It’s been 90 years since the last caliphate or reign of a religious/political ruler of Muslim lands.
Q: So why can’t the Sunni and the Shiites get along? After all, doesn’t the Qur’an say: “It is not for a believer to kill a believer unless by mistake?”
A: Both branches of Islam are bound by the same Qur’an, the same five pillars of Islam — belief in one God, daily prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage. Yet each faction has its own religious holidays, customs, heroes and shrines.
The key is who considers whom a “believer” or a “true” Muslim?
It dates to 632 and the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Who would become “caliph”— from the Arabic “khalifa” for successor — and assume leadership of the explosively expanding new religion?
Sunnis supported Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s friend; Shiites felt the spiritual and temporal leader rightfully should be the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali bin Abu Talib.
While Ali eventually did become the fourth caliph, he was assassinated in 661 at the mosque of Kufa (south of Baghdad). One of his enemies, Muawiya, became caliph. Then al-Hussein, the son of Ali and maternal grandson of the Prophet, refused to acknowledge Muawiya’s son as caliph and al-Hussein was massacred in 680 with his family and fighters at a Karbala battle.
The deaths fostered the Shiite sense of betrayal and martyrdom. While all of Islam reveres that tragic day, known as Ashura, Shiites traditionally stage elaborate rituals, often involving bloody self-flagellation in the streets.
Shiites still believe caliphs should come from the bloodline of the Prophet; they consider those who were elected or fought their way to power after Hussein usurpers.
Finding themselves the oppressed minority — more than 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni — in most Islamic countries, the Shiite faith has a strong messianic element of waiting for deliverance. One tenant is the “hidden imam,” Allah’s messenger who will appear and bring justice.
In turn, many Sunnis, especially Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, despise Shiites as a heretical cult. In the 1800s, Wahhabis accused the Shiites of idol worship and destroyed their shrines at Mecca, Medina, and Karbala.
The hyper-Islamists of the Taliban and Islamic State would wipe out what they call apostasy, including Shiite beliefs. In recent years, a key Shiite shrine was destroyed in Samarra, rebuilt and attacked again in Iraq’s fighting.
Where are these factions located?
Syria is a majority-Sunni country, but the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a close ally of Shiite-dominated Iran. Assad is neither Shiite nor Sunni, but Alawite, a minority sect also seen as heretics by radical Sunnis.
The deadly, drawn-out civil war there is largely Sunni against the Alawite regime. Christians, who also have fared well under the Damascus government, find themselves aligning mostly with Assad because of fear of Sunni reprisals. Christian towns have suffered from deadly Islamic State raids.
Then things got really exciting when Islamic State forces swarmed out of east Syria into a large chunk of Iraq.
Although Iraq has a Shiite majority, northern and western provinces are Sunni strongholds. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni who oppressed Shiites, fought a meat-grinding war with Iran and gassed the Kurds — an ethnic group of mixed Sunni and Shiite, now close to breaking off their own far-north swath of Iraq.
Since the U.S. invasion and withdrawal, most Sunnis, in turn, have felt abused by President Nuri Kemal Al-Maliki’s Shiite-packed army and government in Baghdad. That’s why many were content to see the Sunni-dominated Islamic State forces march in. Many insurgents have spent the last years riddling Shiite neighborhoods with car bombs.
Now Shiite militias are reorganizing to protect their many shrines and push back the intruders. Sectarian violence and security force assassinations of Sunnis are ramping up again.
Sectarian strife claimed the lives of 8,868 Iraqis in 2013, the United Nations counted. About 800 died in May of this year.
The conflict between the two factions is as political as religious now. Iran is now militarily aiding their fellow Shiites in Iraq, while Saudi Arabia to the south, the lodestar of Sunni Islam and an enemy of Iran, had been quietly supporting the Islamic State.
During the Arab Spring uprising, Shiite minorities were suppressed in Bahrain and Yemen. Hazara Shiite in Pakistan and Afghanistan often are targeted by the Taliban. Meanwhile South Lebanon’s Hezbollah continues to vex Israel and sends thousands of Shiite fighters next door to shore up Assad.
Azerbaijan may be the last country where Shiites and Sunni pray together.
So what is this we heard June 29 about a caliph?
At its peak in the mid-1500s, the caliphate under Suleiman the Magnificent reached from the tip of Yemen to Vienna, Austria. The last caliph was deposed in 1924 in Turkey with the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.
Re-establishing the caliphate represents the dream of restoring Islam to its glory days as an empire — with an attendant Medieval theocratic system of rule. Its return has been called for by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiya and, of course, al-Qaida.
The Islamic State declared its leader with the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “descendant from the family of the Prophet, the slave of God.”
Not much is known about him. His full name is Ibrahim bin Awad bin Ibrahim bin Ali bin Mohammed Al-Badri Al-Qurashi Al-Hashimi Al-Husseini; he was supposedly born in Samarra, Iraq, and studied in Baghdad for a doctorate in Islamic studies.
The caliphate he now claims stretches from Aleppo in Syria to Iraq’s Diyala province on the Iranian border and spits on old colonialist-imposed borders.
His spokesman said: “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas. Listen to your caliph and obey him.”
The story was compiled by Darryl Levings of The Star in part with information by Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service.