The Sunni vs. Shiite Division
The violence currently convulsing Iraq, especially following the demolition of the famed golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra, is nothing new. It goes back some twelve centuries, to the very foundations of Islamic society. The Shiites (shia meaning "division" or "sect" in Arabic) insisted that the future leaders of Islam must all be descendants of Mohammed, while the Sunnis believed that their rulers must be those who most faithfully follow the sunna or "traditions" written in the Koran (Qur'an) and the Hadith or other traditions. This division erupted into bloodshed when the grandson of Mohammed, Hussein (no relation to the present Saddam), was defeated in battle in the year 680 and his brother Hasan was reportedly murdered not long after. Since then, the Shiites have believed that a Mahdi (meaning "one who is guided") will return to restore God's order of things, with various divinely guided Imams ("leaders") taking his place in the meantime. In contrast, the Sunnis have long maintained that the only true Mahdi is Isa or Jesus — a belief that no doubt comes as a great surprise to most Christians!
Arguments as to who are the genuine Imams has greatly divided the Shiites down through history, giving rise to many radical religious and political movements. In many ways, Shiism can be seen as a kind of messianic movement within Islam, just as Christianity began as a messianic movement within Judaism. The main difference in this comparison is that where Christians far outnumber Jews in the world, Sunnis far outnumber Shiites in the world of Islam, except in two places — Iran which is practically 100% Shiite, and Iraq, where Shiites are almost 60% of the population.
This basic division within Islam, as well as all the subdivisions within these two major groups, are barely noted in the usual "World Religions 101" level of textbooks. Nor did the basic textbooks pay much attention to the rise of "Wahabism" — what might be called a kind "Sunni Fundamentalism" — that has turned out to be, in the form of Al-Qaida, to be just as lethal as Shiism's famed Hashshashim or "Assassins". The only thing that the textbooks seemed to get right was the overall Muslim belief that the religious and political order should be one and the same. Unfortunately, all this has come much too late as a sobering lesson to those who hope to promote democracy in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.
The only upside to all of this violence may be that the Muslim world will now finally learn the lesson, just as the Christian world did, that fanaticism of any sort — be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or in the Far East, Hindu or Buddhist) — is a disaster for human society, and that differences in opinion have to be peacefully accommodated by a much clearer wall of separation between government and religion.
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