Few events have transformed the course of human history more swiftly and profoundly than the expansion of early Islam.
In brief however, Islam's shism began in A.D. 632, immediately after the Prophet Muhammad died without naming a successor as leader of the new Muslim flock. Some of his followers believed the role of Caliph, or viceroy of God, should be passed down Muhammad's bloodline, starting with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. But the majority backed the Prophet's friend Abu Bakr, who duly became Caliph. The effects of electing 'Abu Bakr over 'Ali were felt in other ways that would contribute to the emergence of squabbling divisions within Islam. Ali thus would eventually become the fourth Caliph before being murdered in A.D. 661 by a heretic near Kufa, now in Iraq. The succession was once again disputed, and this time it led to a formal split. The majority backed the claim of Mu'awiyah, Governor of Syria, and his son Yazid. Ali's supporters, who would eventually be known collectively as Shi'at Ali, or partisans of Ali, agitated for his son Hussein. When the two sides met on a battlefield near modern Karbala on Oct. 10, 680, Hussein was killed and decapitated. But rather than nipping the Shi'ite movement in the bud, his death gave it a martyr. The annual mourning of Hussein's death, known as Ashura, is the most poignant and spectacular of Shi'ite ceremonies: the faithful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with swords and whips.
Those loyal to Mu'awiyah and his successors as Caliph would eventually be known as Sunnis, meaning followers of the Sunnah, or Way, of the Prophet. Since the Caliph was often the political head of the Islamic empire as well as its religious leader, imperial patronage helped make Sunni Islam the dominant sect. Today about 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. But Shi'ism would always attract some of those who felt oppressed by the empire. Shi'ites continued to venerate the Imams, or the descendants of the Prophet, until the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi (the Guided One), who disappeared in the 9th century at the location of the Samarra shrine in Iraq. Mainstream Shi'ites believe that al-Mahdi is mystically hidden and will emerge on an unspecified date to usher in a reign of justice.
Shi'ites soon formed the majority in the areas that would become the modern states of Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. There are also significant Shi'ite minorities in other Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan. Crucially, Shi'ites outnumber Sunnis in the Middle East's major oil-producing regions--not only Iran and Iraq but also eastern Saudi Arabia. But outside Iran, Sunnis have historically had a lock on political power, even where Shi'ites have the numerical advantage. (The one place where the opposite holds true is modern Syria, which is mostly Sunni but since 1970 has been ruled by a small Shi'ite subsect known as the Alawites.) Sunni rulers maintained their monopoly on power by excluding Shi'ites from the military and bureaucracy; for much of Islamic history, a ruling Sunni élite treated Shi'ites as an underclass, limited to manual labor and denied a fair share of state resources.
Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad tolerated and sometimes contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala as the most important centers of Shi'ite learning. Shi'ite ayatullahs, as long as they refrained from open defiance of the ruling élite, could run seminaries and collect tithes from their followers. The shrines of Shi'ite Imams in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Khadamiya were allowed to become magnets for pilgrimage.
Sectarian relations worsened in the 16th century. By then the seat of Sunni power had moved to Istanbul. When the Turkish Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi'ite Safavids of Persia, the Arabs caught in between were sometimes obliged to take sides. Sectarian suspicions planted then have never fully subsided, and Sunni Arabs still pejoratively label Shi'ites as "Persians" or "Safavis." The Ottomans eventually won control of the Arab territories and cemented Sunni dominance.
In 1979, Khomeini after returning from Exile, joined the movement that exploded in the streets of Iran, which aimed at overthrowing the Shah of Iran. After the Shah fled, Khomeini took power as a result of Iranian revolutionary students seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran, making hostages of the diplomats that were there. It was this coup and power struggle that eventually ended up in the hands of a new Shiite government in Iran, that emboldened the Shia across the entire Islamic World. This would be the first sign of activism within Shiism that continues to this day.
Shortly thereafter, the word of Khomeini’s revolution spread to Lebanon, where Israel had ousted the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) where it was mounting Guerrilla attacks against Israel. After ousting the PLO from Lebanon, a new radical islamic group was created known as Hezbollah.
Although it is a Lebanese organization, it has always been closely aligned with Iran and the Iranian IRGC and MOIS, which helped train and organize its members. (See our initial case study)
The ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini broke with the political quiescence characteristic of Shia Islam, in which an indeterminate period of occultation would end with the return of a mahdi who had vanished in AD 874. Appealing to the disinherited, in a calculated echo of Frantz Fanon, Khomeini called for the establishment of an Islamic republic, with a dual system of power in which clerics controlled every lever that mattered, notably through a Guardians Council. Liberals and Marxists who had hoped to exploit Khomeini’s own manipulation of popular enthusiasms were trumped by the master of this game, who in any case had the unique backing of impressive ranges of Iranian society in what was one of the most popular revolutions in world history. Within a year, the new masters had killed not only the three thousand political prisoners Carter was so exercised about, but more people than Savak had murdered in the previous twenty-five years. One of the ways in which the clerics guaranteed their success was to prolong mass hysteria, which they did through the protracted siege of the US embassy in Teheran, in which ‘Death to America’ resounded from the erstwhile island of stability, and then through the martyrs who were mobilized for death in the eight years of total war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. An entire generation of children went to their deaths clutching their plastic keys to paradise. This bloodbath and the regime’s domestic repressions alienated even those few silly Western intellectuals, like Michel Foucault, who had celebrated this tantalizing eruption against a Western rationalism which bored them. It is striking that, among the subjects that anger so many Muslims today, this obliteration of an entire generation is not among them.
The Islamic Revolution was also for export, notwithstanding the fact that 80 per cent of the world’s Muslims were Sunnis. They viewed the Shia as heretics who, in the Persian case, were given to contemptuously racist talk of Arab ‘lizard eaters’. But this was counterbalanced by widespread admiration for Khomenei’s Islamic regime, its hatred of Israel and its ostentatious defiance of the West, as symbolized by Carter’s disastrous attempt to rescue the US embassy hostages. Two immediate manifestations of exporting the Revolution were the creation, by Sunni Palestinian admirers of Khomeini, of a terrorist organization called Islamic Jihad, which presaged the transformation of a conflict about rival nationalisms into one involving religion, and the parallel mobilisation of Lebanon’s Shi’ites through an Iranian surrogate called Party of Allah or Hizbollah, founded in late 1982, a process the Alawite rulers of Syria aided and abetted to extend their domination over their Westernised Lebanese neighbour. Iran sent an estimated US$50 million to US$100 million per annum to Hizbollah, basing hundreds of training personnel in the Bekaa valley, and using Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, its ambassador to Damascus, as co-ordinator of Hizbollah’s campaign of assassination, bombings and kidnappings.
Islamic Jihad struck first. In what came to be regarded as the first use of suicide truck bombing, on 11 November 1982 sheikh Ahmed Qassir blew up the Israeli headquarters in Tyre, killing or wounding 141 people. Then it was Hizbollah’s turn to deal a devastating blow at the US presence in Lebanon. On 18 April 1983 a battered pickup truck, low on its springs due to two thousand pounds of ANFO explosives concealed within, swerved into the exit of the US embassy on Beirut’s seafront, and then exploded as it crashed into the main lobby. Sixty-three people, including seventeen Americans, were killed in a blast that momentarily lifted up the entire building before most of it collapsed in a mountain of dust and rubble. The dead included all six members of the CIA’s Beirut station, as well as Robert Ames, the CIA’s top man on the Middle East and its former liaison with Black September's Au Hassan Salameh.
As part of a concerted effort across the middle east to resist Khomeini’s ideologies by the Sunni, Sunni governments across the middle east reacted denouncing it as a model for their own societies through aggressive campaigns, none more aggressive than Saddam Hussein. In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, toppling the Persians as he referred to them, in an effort to seize Iranian oil fields.This invasion of Iran by Saddam created once more a Deeper divide between the Sunni and Shiites. in Islam.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 following Iraq’s widespread use of chemical weapons. Peace lasted in the middle east for only two years, interrupted by Iraq’s new invasion of Kuwait, bringing the United States in a lasting war in the middle east against Iraq, eventually leading to its invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his arrest, and eventual execution.
Following the invasion of Kuwait, the United States responded with over half a million troops, ousting Iraq’s army from Kuwait. The Shia in Iraq had at this point had enough with Saddam’s regime, rising up against him.
With a brutal response, Saddam quickly squashed the rebellion.
No one came to the Shiites aid in what ended up to be a very brutal campaign waged by Saddam against the Shiites. Not neighboring Saudi Arabia, not the United States, which called for the rebellion. No one assisted the Shiites but neighboring Iran. As a response to the uprising, in 1990, Saddam launched a systematic murder campaign killing ten shiite ayotollahs and their families.
As a result to Saddam’s Iraqi and Arab nationalism, the Shiites of Iraq became more religious and more sectarian in their views, creating forces of Muslim sectarianism ever unseen in the Middle East that was unleashed by the USled invasion of Iraq in 2003. For more on this see also: