Explaining Islam’s great divide

Parbina Rashid 

Islam, which is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions, has fallen into the trap of sectarianism since the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, resulting in a long history of bloodshed in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The regional rivalry of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’i Iran seems to be the root cause of many conflicts plaguing the world today, directly or indirectly.

This was the trigger point for John McHugo, an international lawyer, a scholar of Islamic studies and author of the critically acclaimed book, A Concise History of the Arabs and Syria to write a sequel, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is.

The book aims to explain the great divide in Islam throughout the entirety of its history. It also  explains how in Islam the sectarian (the author calls Sunni and Shi’i as sects for want of a better term) spilt happened not because of religious differences from the mainstream, possibly because of some charismatic leadership of some spiritual figure, but because of two different perceptions of who should exercise religious authority among Muslims, after the Prophet’s death.

The dispute is as much political as it is religious. The author interprets it as the pitting of those who favoured a somewhat more democratic form of religious authority (Sunnis) against those who supported a strictly monarchical one.

Although reliable figures are hard to come by, the author quotes Sunni being 85-90 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. Most of the rest are Shi'is. Hence, it becomes easy to see the Shi'is as the victim. But McHugo desists himself from doing so, thus putting forward both sides of the story looking through the historical prism.

The history of the Arabian Peninsula has been a volatile one and it does not make for an easy read. And the pace of the book which has packed almost 1,400 years of history, right from the time of the Prophet’s death till the modern day, runs at a breakneck speed, making it difficult for a reader to keep pace. Hugo tries to help his reader by keeping his language lucid and his narrative linear.

The endless tensions, conspiracies and political unrest between the Sunnis and Shi’is finally see some ray of hope when one reaches the point in 2003, when an Islamo-liberal alliance of Sunnis and Shi’is in Saudi Arabia presented a petition for reforms which included an end to sectarian and religious discrimination.

A positive step! After all, the seventh-century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shi’is or Sunnis — need not be dragged any further. It’s time such a perception took a bow to the DNA, both Shi’is and Sunnis share.

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