Bitter Rivals: Sunni vs Shia
Approximately 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 15% are Shia. While both sects agree on most of the fundamental practices and beliefs of Islam their dispute originated on the succession of their prophet Muhammad on his death in AD 632.
Muhammad did not clearly name who he would have preferred as his successor and died without a male heir. Most of his followers (now known as Sunnis, derived from the phrase Ahl al-Sunnah, or “People of the Tradition”) wanted senior members of the Islamic community to choose his successor while others believed only that his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, should succeed him. The latter became the followers of Ali, in Arabic the Shiat Ali, or Shia. These two groups became bitter rivals.
The father of Muhammad’s third wife, the 9-year-old Aisha, Abu Bakr, was appointed the first caliph. In 656, Ali became the fourth caliph. This resulted in the first Sunni rebellion (first Muslim civil war or First Fitna). Ali was assassinated in 661.
Sunni vs Shia
The split between Sunni and Shia deepened to the point of war at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The huge (thousands of soldiers) Sunni army of caliph Yazid I defeated the small (less than 100 soldiers) army of Husayn ibn Ali, son of Ali, thus Muhammad’s grandson. Husayn ibn Ali, two of his sons and almost all of his family and followers were killed.
Battle of Karbala painting
There would be many more civil wars and conflicts in Islam, continuing until today.
But 1979 was a critical point when the Shah of Iran was ousted and replaced by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. He called for Velâyat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) in which a Faqih (Islamic jurist) should be Supreme Leader of all Muslims – and of all governments. He was of view that all monarchies should to be abolished, calling out the the Sunni royal family of Saudi Arabia.
The Sunni vs Shia rivalry would escalate into the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) and, after the ousting of Sadam Hussein in 2003 Iraq war and subsequent disbandment of the largely Sunni-led Iraq army, into conflicts all over the middle East and North Africa.
Middle East conflict.
Image from Vox video featured in Syrian Civil War: who is fighting and why.
To counter Iranian influence – read Shia influence – in the region, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries began supporting Sunni rebels. It was the turn of radical Sunnis to call on religious fervency. It led to proxy Sunni-vs-Shia wars in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other countries. And, totally unforeseen, it led to the establishment of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the most atrocious human and animal rights abuses in history.
Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia
In the PBS Frontline video “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia” award-winning correspondent Martin Smith explains the origins of the sectarian extremism and the continuing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.