Voices

Ancient enemies

Why Sunnis and Shiites hate each other as much as they hate the West

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

The Muslim world erupted when Danish cartoonists drew caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Imagine their reaction if someone desecrated one of their holy figures not just in a drawing but in reality. By, say, blowing up his tomb.

This is what has happened in Iraq, with the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, the "Golden Mosque" that contained the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, the last ruling descendants of Muhammad himself.

But this act of sacrilege against the prophet's flesh and blood was committed not by Westerners but by other Muslims. Now Iraq may face a religious war between the Islamic world's two main sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

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They both sponsor terrorism. Al-Qaeda is Sunni; Hezbollah is Shiite. They both sponsor insurgent attacks against Americans in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi is Sunni; al-Sadr is Shiite. They both want to destroy Israel. They both protested the Muhammad cartoons. They both preach jihad and dream of Muslim conquest and the imposition of Islamic law over all the world. But they hate each other.

The division and the unforgiven grudges go all the way back to 632 a.d. when Muhammad died. Who would succeed him as the leader of what was becoming both a religious and a political empire? One group claimed that the prophet had chosen his cousin and son-in-law Ali. These "Shiites"-a shortened form of the words for "the party of Ali"-believed that future successors should be physical descendants from the prophet's family.

The other faction believed Muhammad had said that future rulers should be chosen by consensus of the other leaders. They chose the prophet's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to be the "caliph." His followers became the "Sunnis," from a word for followers of the "tradition."

A bloody civil war between Muslims erupted, which Abu Bakr and his faction won. But the party of Ali kept their allegiance to the prophet's line. After Ali died, Muhammad's grandson Husayn became the "2nd imam." He was murdered by the mainstream Sunnis, an event Shiites still commemorate by flagellating themselves bloody with chains.

The Shiites had 10 more imams descended from the prophet. The 12th imam, though, mysteriously disappeared, leading to the messianic belief that in the last days, after a time of lawlessness and violence, he shall return in triumph to impose order and establish Islamic law in all the earth.

Sunnis consider Shiites to be idolaters. Though they mingle during the pilgrimage to Mecca, many orthodox Sunnis do not consider Shiites to be true Muslims. They do not approve of their veneration of human beings, their devotion to shrines, or their mysticism. They reject giving canonical authority to later Shiite writings. Sunni polemical writings accuse the Shiites of sexual immorality for permitting temporary marriage-a type of prostitution in which a man pays a woman, says the words of marriage, has sex, and then says the words of divorce.

Most Muslims across the world are Sunnis, with only about 15 percent being Shiites. But Shiites dominate Iran and Syria, and they make up a 60 percent majority in Iraq.

In an intercepted letter in 2004, al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, spelled out his plans to foment a civil war in Iraq. This Sunni terrorist said that the Shiites are "a greater danger and . . . more destructive to the nation" than Americans. "Targeting and hitting them," he said, "will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies."

Al-Qaeda is almost certainly responsible for blowing up the Golden Mosque, with the tombs of the last two imams. Which, in turn, has provoked the Shiites to brutal retaliations against the Sunnis, threatening to tear apart the fledgling democratic government. All according to al-Zarqawi's plan.

As the United States struggles against this Sunni terrorism, we also have to worry about the Shiite beliefs of the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has been preaching that the second coming of the 12th imam, the "Mahdi," is at hand. The Iranian president has connections to a group that believes Muslims can hasten the Mahdi's coming by creating chaos on earth. And Iranian Shiites are developing nuclear weapons.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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