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Why should we act contrary to the good pleasure of God? Why should we be as ferocious animals, constantly shedding blood, pillaging and destroying? Because we belong to one race or family of humankind, why should we consider all others bad and inferior, deserving of death, pillage and invasion — people of darkness, worthy of hatred and detestation by God? Why does man show forth such attitude and actions toward his fellowman? We see that God is kind to all. Just as He loves us, He loves all others; just as He provides for us, He provides for the rest. He nurtures and trains all with equal solicitude. …Why then should we despise or detest His creatures because this one is a Jew, another a Buddhist or Zoroastrian and so on? This is ignorance, for the oneness of humanity as servants of God is an assured and certain fact. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 269.
The entire Middle East, during the past few decades, has begun to experience a significant break with the past. Instead of the old communist vs. capitalist proxy battles between rivals or a geopolitical reality largely controlled by outside forces and superpower foreign policy dictates, the Middle East’s oil, long-lasting conflicts and growing youth movements have driven rapid and even revolutionary change in its nations, societies and governments.
The war in Syria exemplifies that new reality in some ways, but sadly has reversed progress in others. That brutal conflict has revived the centuries-old Shia-Sunni “sectarian divide” across the Middle East, amplifying traditional religious divisions and once again making the region into a global flashpoint. Now, without much in the way of intervention from the West to stop it, the conflict has spilled over the Syrian border into Iraq, threatening to spread across and further destabilize the entire area.
We hear the phrase “sectarian divide” in the news constantly, but what does it really mean? Many people in the West, and a large percentage of those who don’t live in Muslim societies and cultures, tend to think of Islam as monolithic, and of its followers as members of a more-or-less unified Faith. But the severe sectarian divide in Islam, far from just an internal issue for Muslims, has now become one of the primary strategic concerns of the world’s nations—which means we all need to understand its causes and its effects.
Islam’s sectarian divide started fairly soon after the death of its Prophet. By 900 AD, a couple of centuries after Muhammad’s passing, at least two prominent divisions of Islam had emerged and solidified: Sunni and Shia. Today, some expert commentators believe that Shia-Sunni conflicts—which have waxed and waned for centuries in the Middle East—will once again come to represent the primary challenge facing the world in the region. So let’s take a look at the problem.
First, some simple facts: the Sunnis make up the largest percentage of the world’s billion and a half Muslims, with the Shias a distant second. In 2009, the Pew Research Center conducted a comprehensive demographic study called Mapping the Global Muslim Population, which estimated between 87-90% of the world’s Muslims identify themselves as Sunni. Out of the total Muslim population, the study estimated, 10-13% identify as Shia Muslims. The study found that between 68% and 80% of all Shia Muslims live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.
Many Westerners, unfamiliar with Islam, don’t understand the differences between these two groups. Originally, much of the difference had to do with the question of Muhammad’s successor.
Of course, Islam began with the Prophet Muhammad, who united the barbarous and warring tribal factions of the Arabian Peninsula and ushered in a prosperous, educated civilization during the same period when Europe suffered through its dark Middle Ages. Replete with universities, robust trade with other societies, scientific discoveries and a wide-ranging cultural efflorescence, Islamic progress between the 8th and 13th Centuries positively influenced the entire world.
When Muhammad died, Sunnis came to believe that Muhammad did not specifically appoint anyone to lead the Muslim community. After his death, the Sunnis believe, a group of Muhammad’s most faithful followers elected Abu Bakr Siddique, Muhammad’s close friend and father-in-law, as the first leader of Islam, known as the caliph.
The Shia branch of Islam (which some Sunnis consider illegitimate) believes that Muhammad’s family, especially his descendants known as Imams, had the right to rule and guide Islam after his passing. Shias believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, became the first of these Imams, as the rightful successor to Muhammad.
For those with a Judeo-Christian heritage, you could compare this split to the Catholic/Protestant division that took place in the Middle Ages, and which resulted in hundreds of years of political intrigue, sectarian hatred and warfare. This sectarian divide, still present and prominent in many places like Ireland and Serbia today, set Christians against other Christians and fractured the Western world’s political and religious unity for centuries.
Both President Obama of the United States and President Rouhani of Iran have recently asked Iraq’s head of state Nouri al-Maliki to work across the “sectarian divide,” urging further attempts to build alliances with the Sunnis and the Kurds in his nation. Unfortunately, that has not happened so far. Instead of attempting to bring together the ethnic and religious factions in Iraq, Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has called up the Shiite militia and tasked them with fighting the largely Sunni ISIL forces. As a result, the sectarian divide seems to be widening rather than narrowing.
The Baha’i teachings have very specific, clear principles on sectarian divides, and in this short series of essays we’ll explore them and learn what solutions Baha’u’llah brought to the world for their resolution.