Some notes on the Shia-Sunni conflict

by Omar Ali

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (Karl Marx)

Sarmad 03-786777Shia killing in Pakistan started in earnest in the 1980s and proximate causes include the CIA’s Afghan project, the Pakistani state’s use of that project to prepare Jihadi cadres for other uses, the influence of Saudi Arabia and modern Takfiri-Salafist movements, the rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors and so on. Some aspects of this (especially in light of the history of Pakistan) are covered in an article I wrote earlier . Here I want to discuss a little more about the historical background to this conflict. The aim is to provide a brief overview of how this conflict has played out at some points in Islamic history and to argue that if both Shias and Sunnis are to live amicably within the same state, the state needs to be secular. The alternatives are oppression of one sect or endless conflict.

The origins of the Arab empire lie in the first Islamic state established in Medina under the leadership of the prophet Mohammed (this historical narrative has been criticized as being too quick to accept the various histories generated a century or more later in the Ummayad and Abbasid empires; skeptics claim that the early origins of the Ummayad empire and its dominant religion may be very different from what its own mythmakers later claimed. But this is a minority view and is not a concern of this article). The succession to the prophet became a matter of some controversy (primarily on the issue of Ali’s claim to the caliphate) and tensions between prominent companions of the Prophet eventually spilled over into open warfare (the first civil war). This civil war had not yet been finally settled when Ali was assassinated and Muavia, the Ummayad governor of Syria, managed to consolidate his rule over most of the nascent Arab empire. Ali’s elder son Hassan, eventually renounced his claim and settled terms with Muavia, leading to a period of relative peace. But when Muavia died and his son Yazid took over in the Ummayad capital of Damascus, there was a challenge from Ali’s younger son Hussain. This ended with the famous events at Karbala, where Hussain and most male members of his extended famly were brutally killed by a large Umayyad force. Supporters of Ali and opponents of the Ummayads (the two categories were not always synonymous) launched a series of revolts against various Ummayad rulers, including several led by different members of the extended family of Ali (and by extension, by Hashemites; since in tribal Arab terms, this was also a struggle between the Hashemite clan and the Ummayad clan). During this time the supporters of Ali and his family (Shia means partisan, as in partisan of Ali) developed their own version of Islamic history in which Ali was the rightful successor to the prophet and his right was usurped by the first three caliphs. They also developed various notions about the special status of Ali and his family. Yazid and his Ummayad successors were thus (with varying intensity) regarded as illegitimate rulers and various Shia groups formed natural foci of opposition to Ummayad rule.

This Shia resentment became one of the forces co-opted by Abu Abbas As-Saffa in the Abbassid revolt against Ummayad rule; but Shia claims were quickly cast aside once Abbassid rule was established. The Abbassids, in spite of Hashemite origins and their initial use of Shia resentment to mobilize support for their revolt, soon settled on a broadly Sunni identity and much of what we now recognize as classical Sunni Islam was created by scholars working in Abbassid times (sometimes with official sanction, at other times in spite of official persecution). Shias themselves split into various sects with doctrinal differences as well as differences about the line of Imams recognized as authentic, but they all shared some notion of the special status of Ali and his descendants and of the illegitimacy of all or most Ummayad rulers. They also adopted (but in some cases, later toned down or discarded) theological notions that were sometimes very distant from mainstream Sunni Islam.

These early conflicts provided later rulers and revolutionaries with contrasting identities that could be cynically used or sincerely adopted to differentiate themselves from rivals or to revolt against them. These conflicting groups were not always the same as they are today because neither Shia nor Sunni identities were exactly what they are today. e.g. twelver Shias were not always the most prominent Shia sect; In the 10th century, it was the Ismailis who ruled from Egypt as the Fatimid caliphate, and there were several Zaydi Shia Kingdoms when the twelvers were relatively invisible. The twelvers themselves adopted some very harsh public rituals of condemnation of the first three caliphs in early Safavid times that were not standard in previous centuries. But whatever the exact form, there were always recognizably Shia and Sunni groups with distinct historical and religious narratives. These conflicts created rival versions of crucial historical events that became deeply embedded in Islamicate historiography and popular culture. Differences were not always violent and in larger multicultural empires they could be suppressed or subordinated to the needs of statecraft. A syncretic ruler like Akbar (the great Moghul) could appoint a Shia as his chief judge (though not without resistance); but the divisions existed and could be exploited by anyone who wished to conspire against such an appointment. Thus, this particular judge ended up as one of the five martyrs of Shiaism when his rivals got the upper hand in the time of Akbar’s more orthodox successor Jahangir.

Within the core Arab and Persian heartland of Islam, the distinction between Shia and Sunni acquired a rather different edge when the Safavid dynasty conquered Iran and imposed twelver Shiaism as its state religion, distinguishing itself from the Sunni Ottoman empire in the process and making Shia Islam an integral part of Persian identity. Their prolonged clash with the Sunni Ottoman empire included a healthy dose of anti-Sunni polemics, and vice versa. So successful was this fusion of Persian and Shia identities that even when the Safavids were replaced by a Sunni emperor (Nadir Shah) who made an effort to bring Iran back towards Sunni Islam, this effort had very little success.

But Ottoman-Safavid polemics were mild compared to what was brewing in Arabia. The 18th century Islamic reformer Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahab was virulently anti-Shia. Driven not by the pragmatic needs of statecraft but by the logic of a true believer, he insisted that the theological deviations of Shiaism and their historical role as rebels against the authority of the early Islamic empires put them outside the pale of Islam (he had similar views about Sufis and most other Muslims, following the same logic of purity and “one truth, one religion, one law”). His followers mined the propaganda of past conflicts (propaganda that naturally included the creation of holy traditions and archetypal “historic battles”) to create a narrative of Shia-hatred that is unmatched by any other sect of Islam. In the Wahabist version of history, Islam was a united, theologically pure, crystal clear divine project that was supposed to literally conquer the world. Its followers set out on this divinely appointed taks and were going from conquest to conquest until civil war erupted in the reign of the 4th caliph (Hazrat Ali) thanks to the machinations of internal enemies (including the Yemeni Jew Ibn Saba… a story that is vigorously contested by Shias). In this version of history, Shias are not just another sect within Islam. They are the enemy within. At best, they are dupes who are unwittingly serving the interests of infidels; at worst, they are conscious enemies of true Islam who need to be eliminated if Islam is to successfully fight off the infidels and conquer the world.

This narrative was not created denovo by Wahab. A thousand years of Shia and Sunni polemics had left a vast store of opposing propaganda narratives from which Wahab picked out the juiciest parts and gave them a special edge. His followers have since been instrumental in inserting this unusually harsh version of shia-hatred into the broader salafist movement. When Wahab formed an alliance with the Al-Saud family in Arabia, this alliance created the first Saudi state in 1744. Fighters from this state captured Karbala in 1801, destroyed shia shrines and massacred local Shias in large numbers. They then captured Mecca and Medina from the Ottomans, but in doing so they over-reached and their state was destroyed by Mohammed Ali Pasha (Ottoman governor of Egypt). But they rose again and then again to become the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (like most ruling families in history) prioritizes its own rule over any theological niceties, their alliance with Wahabi theologians and the position of Wahabi orthodoxy as the official ideology of the Kingdom has made intense Shia-hatred a feature of Saudi religiosity.

When the Saudis found themselves suddenly rich with oil wealth the state as well as private citizens were eager to promote their version of “true Islam” all over the world. At the level of the state, the ancient conflict between Persians and Arabs was also easily cast in Shia-Sunni terms, especially after the rise of Shia theocracy in Iran. Thus the spread of Salafist ideas in mainstream Sunni discourse was driven by both parties in Saudi Arabia: true believers promoted these ideas because they sincerely believed them to be correct and “Islamically necessary”; cynical statesmen promoted them because they saw them as a convenient tool with which to attack Iran and Iranian influence (the Iranians did the same on their side).

The almost pathological hatred nurtured by Americans and the Shia Iranian theocracy against each other, and the longstanding relationship of the US with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States led to American support (or toleration?) of virulently anti-Shia groups, at least until those groups turned their guns directly on Americans. Some observers would go further and insist that the US and Israel actively support Shia-Sunni conflict and play more than just a permissive role in the process. But irrespective of the truth of such theories, the fact remain that there is a long hisory of conflict and it is very likely that Wahabi-influenced Salafists would promote their lethal brand of Shia-hatred with or without assistance from the CIA, the Saudis (or any other state aiming to become the dominant Arab power in the region) would find it convenient to add a Sunni-Shia edge to their propaganda against the Persian enemy, and Iran would act as a patron of Shia causes, especially where these overlap with the needs of Iranian state policy.

The point of reciting this history (in briefest outline) is that this conflict has deep roots in Islamic history and can be easily exploited, particularly when religion is actively mixed with politics, especially in states that lack deep “secular” foundations and institutions. Conflict is not everywhere inevitable. If states become secular and secular discourse dominates, then the fights will be over other things (there will still be fights, that much is given) and perhaps they will not be as apocalyptic as religious wars can become. Domestically too, a secular state could suppress or bypass such conflicts. It would see competition for power between different groups using different ideologies, but religious civil war is orders of magnitude more horrific than the world of democratic elections and their associated politics; where the bare minimum basis of such electoral politics and associated administrative institutions already exists, as in Pakistan, that system is hugely superior to fighting to the death to establish a theocratic state.

If the state withers away (as it has in Somalia) then there will be no choice. Nature abhors a vacuum, so order will eventually be established by some local armed militias or some sufficiently resourced and motivated outside power. In Islamic countries that will mostly mean armed Islamist militias organized on sectarian lines (fantasies of Western university-based anarchists notwithstanding). With the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of us, and with Chinese imperialists not yet ready for prime-time, its unlikely that outside powers will step in except in the most oil-rich or the least populated regions.

There is another alternative in theory: Instead of a secular state, we could have an “Islamic state” that manages to governs with popular consent and with relatively transparent methods of organizing politics and trasnferring power from one group (or person) to another. For various reasons, I think that is not a real possiblity in this day and age. Some facsimile of a democratic state has been established in Iran by the Shia clergy, but even this (far from satisfactory) system is impossible to conceive in a state that is not overwhelmingly dominated by one sect, where that sect is not Shia, and where that country is not named Iran. The Shia clergy in Iran are the most sophisticated Islamic clergy on the planet (leaving aside tiny sects like the Ismailis). NO Sunni clergy can manage that feat, not even the latest great White hope of Sunni Islamism, the Turkish Islamists. Their state will do well as long as its European-style secularist structure is intact. If they manage to undermine that, they will cook their own goose. Without a detailed argument, this is just a bald assertion, but it seems a very plausible one to me.

Where the state has large Shia AND Sunni populations, or where there is a large non-Muslim minority, modern secular democracy is by far the better alternative. Islamization involves working through the accumulated detritus of 1400 years of Shia versus Sunni polemics. Even if there are no other religions present, any state that wishes to create an authentically “Islamic” system will face the task of generating a fresh and innovative synthesis while having millions of individuals, dozens of parties, and several outside powers avoid the temptation to start a violent confrontation based on existing medieval sects and salafist fantasies. Given the current state of Islamist discourse, this seems so unlikely that its not even worth trying. This is a sweeping judgement. but I am happy to put my money where my mouth is. I am willing to bet that NO Muslim country will be able to create a functioning “Islamic” system, clearly distinct in spirit and substance from current secular models, established without harsh suppression of minorities and irreligious people; and I mean suppression by currently fashionable mainstream standards, not to speak of sky-high academic Left-wing standards.

The peculiar history of this process in Pakistan was discussed in my earlier article, but is worth reiterating as an instructive example. In colonial India, Muslims were focused on their position vis-a-vis the Hindus and the British, so Shia-Sunni rivalries did not take center stage in politics. A Shia led the movement for Pakistan with minimal notice being taken of his Shiaism and many other Shias enthusiastically participated in the ruling elite in the new state (including army chief Mohammed Musa, Presidents Yahya Khan and Asif Zardari and Prime ministers Zulfiqar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto). But problems lay buried deep in the foundations of the new state. Was Pakistan an “Islamic state” or a secular state for Indian Muslims? The “secular state for Muslims”option has its own problems, but the “Islamic state” option is pretty much fatal. This issue did not take center stage right away; the early ruling class was a mix of North Indian Muslim leaguers (superficially Westernized Muslim elite of North India, primarily UP-ite in the early days), Punjabi turncoat politicians, British colonial bureaucrats and mid-level military officers who were suddenly promoted from colonel to general and found themselves in possession of an army and then a state. The short-sighted politicians who created the state were soon eclipsed by wilier bureacrats, who in turn learned the truth of Chairman Mao’s dictum that power grows from the barrel of the gun and lost primacy to semi-literate military officers. But all parties were clueless enough to imagine that the arrangements of the British Raj could be kept going forever, with vaguely defined Pakistani nationalism added on as a unifying cement instead of “loyalty to King and country”. After Hindus and Sikhs had been mostly driven out, and East Pakistan had been “lost”, the new Pakistan seemed quite manageable.

But the tiny shoots planted in the “Objectives resolution” in 1949 and the anti-Ahmediya agitation in 1953 had been nurtured by Islamists in and out of government for many years and started to bear fruit in 1974. Bhutto was pushed into declaring the Ahmedis as non-Muslims by an Islamist agitation; a decision most Shias, secure in their own status as fully Muslim citizens of a Muslim state, probably regarded as perfectly legitimate. But it has not taken forever to find out that “first they came for the Ahmedis” now they are coming for the Shias.

When General Zia took over in 1977 and started Islamizing the state in earnest, the sophisticated scions of the permanent establishment (pucca sahib types like Agha Shahi and General Yaqub) may have regarded General Zia as a country bumpkin, but (perhaps because there were no such instructions from the US embassy?) they never uttered a word of warning. Meanwhile the CIA arrived bearing Jhadist gifts in connection with their Afghan project and the Saudis sponsored jihadist madressas all over Pakistan. The “moderate faction” of the Pakistani army permitted Jihadist militias to operate outside the law because “higher objectives” were in view. The smaller but more clear-sighted, Islamist faction did the same knowing that one day these militias will help to transform Pakistani society itself. Virulent anti-Shia propaganda exploded out of these madressas (some regularly visited by senior state functionaries and openly funded by beloved Saudi donors) alongside the general’s desired Kashmiri Jihad and strategic depth in Central Asia. For the first time, the cry of “kafir kafir shia kafir” became a routine part of the madressa-jihadi landscape. Since this landscape is well away from the world of upper-middle class Pakistanis, the significance of this slogan didn’t really register on Western trained Sunni intellectuals (the most educated of whom are still grappling with imperialism and the “crisis” created by the fall of the Soviet Union). But it has registered in blood on the minds of the Shia community. And unless the state reverses course (which is no longer possible without significant violence), this poison will comprehensively tear the nation apart.

The point of this example is that all this could have been avoided as long as the state was more or less secular, or only pretended to be “Islamic”. But once Islamization was firmly on the agenda, it could not escape the question of “whose Islam”. And in a world where the “truest” Sunni Islam comes from Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam from Iran, that question leads inevitably to violence. A society in which polarization of Shia versus Sunni was historically not as intense as it is in Iraq or Iran, moved closer to the Islamic mainstream and became one of the leading battlegrounds for this clash. In a secular state, all this shia-sunni tension would be a relatively minor police matter (as it is in India). In an “Islamic state” it cannot avoid becoming much more.

PS: The artist is Sabir Nazar ( This is his depiction of the martyr Sarmad (

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