After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam

Author: Lesley Hazelton

“Every day is Ashuraprophet,” the Shia say, “and every place is Karbala.” The story of the schism within Islam is the story of the incredibly turbulent beginnings of the youngest Abrahamic religion. It is also a familiar story – one of power struggles and familial disputes. Muhammad (PBUH) died without specifying who should lead the caliphate or how that individual should be chosen, and because Islam is based on the words of the Quran and Muhammad’s teachings/actions (the Sunna) there will never be a “doctrinal/correct” answer to that question. The closest Islam has come to agreeing on succession is that the first four caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali – were the only “rightly guided caliphs” or Rashidun.

The first three caliphs oversaw the initial spread of Islam. Abu Bakr led the Wars of Ridda, or Wars of Apostasy which violently crushed resistance to the spread of Islam. Omar, a trusted commander during these wars, called himself the Commander of the Faithful and took control of Syria and Iraq. Uthman, a scholar and ruthless leader, expanded the empire even further and compiled the first Quran; he was stabbed to death by an angry mob while reading one of his Qurans. The diagram below outlines the key relationships at the heart of Islam.


The contest between Sunni and Shia centers around the figure of Ali. During these early years of Islam, the followers of Ali or Shiat Ali believed that Muhammad had always favored Ali as the next caliph. Sunnis believe Muhammad died with his head on Aisha’s breast; Shia believe it was on Ali’s. For the Sunni, the community (the Islamic Shura) had the responsibility of choosing the caliph; the Shia believed only the Ahl al Bayt, the Prophet’s sacred family, should lead Islam. Ali is the only leader (besides Muhammad) that both Sunni and Shia acknowledge because he was both the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin and he was selected by a shura of the Prophet’s companions.

At this point, it would seem that Sunni and Shia should have come together under the leadership of Ali. However, this is where family bitterness and jealousy stepped in. Ali and Muhammad’s most favored and youngest wife, Aisha, had been at odds ever since Ali failed to defend her honor following the “Affair of the Necklace.” As the story goes, a few years after her marriage to Muhammad, Aisha had ventured into the desert alone to retrieve a precious necklace (a gift from Muhammad) that she had dropped during the caravan’s movement. She lost her way and was eventually escorted back to the caravan by another man, prompting all kinds of rumors. Aisha never forgave him and was also possibly jealous of Muhammad’s obvious dedication to Ali. When Ali took over as Caliph, she led an unsuccessful rebellion against him.

Ali faced several other rebellions during this time of fitna, or unraveling of society’s fabric. He moved the capital of the Muslim world from Mecca to Kufa, Iraq, and further expanded the reach of Islam to Persians, Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds – all those considered “rabble” and “bedouins.” With this move, Arabia would not be the center of Islamic power until the Saud family united with Wahhabis in the 18th century. During this uncertain time, the Khariji, the first Islamic extremists, declared Ali an apostate attacked his forces in Kufa. Although this initial assault was unsuccessful, during a later attack, a Kharaji managed to slice kill Ali with a poisoned sword. He was buried at Najaf and became the first Imam of Shia Islam.

Ali’s death split the community of Islam, but it was his son Hussein’s tragic and brutal death that ensured this split would be irreconcilable. The two caliphs following Ali – Muawiya and Yazid – were ruthless and oppressed large portions of the Islamic community. Hussein, at the call of the oppressed in Kufa, set out from Mecca with 72 armed men, to take on the whole of Yazid’s army and reclaim the caliphate for the Ahl al Bayt. Hussein’s journey, ultimately a suicide mission, became the Passion story of Shiism. His small army only made it as far as Karbala where they were encircled by 4000 of Yazid’s warriors and cut off from all food and water. Yazid’s men killed Hussein’s oldest son Ali Akbar with a sword and his three month old son was shot through by an arrow. On the eve of the tenth and final day of the siege (Ashura) Hussein declared “we belong to God, and to God we shall return” and donned a white shroud. The next morning, each warrior went out one-by-one to meet his death. Hussein was last; he rode out on his white horse until he was struck with multiple arrows, swords, and knives and finally trampled into the dust. His head was paraded on a lance. The women and children were put in chains and marched back to Kufa. On the fortieth day after Ashura (Arbain) Yazid gave the women, girls, and Hussein’s surviving son his assurance of protection and had them escorted back to Medina. The elements of this horrific story are played out in detail each year in Shia culture and serve as constant reinforcement of the oppression and the debasement of Ali’s followers.

According to the Shia, the tragedy continued as each successive grandchild of Ali (remember, one of Hussein’s sons survived the attack at Karbala) was poisoned, except for the last, the 12th Imam whose face and identify remains hidden to this day. All of these Imams – the rightful leaders of Islam according to the Shia – were buried in gold-domed shrines in Iraq and Iran – Najaf, Karbala, Khadhimiya, Mashad, and the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra. According to Shia belief, the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, was born in Samarra and on
of violence and subjugation that has its roots in the very beginning of Islam. The 2006 attack by Al Qaeda in Iraq on the Al-Askari shrine was an attack on the Mahdi, the core of Shia hope and identity. It was an attack not just on the history of the Shia, but on the possibility of their future as well.

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