Sunni insurgents in ISIS propaganda photo, May 2014 (Photo courtesy: ABC news)

It was going to be his final pilgrimage, for he sensed something in his bones. Things happening inside his body told him that it was time to set his affairs in order. He was wracked by frequent debilitating headaches and nausea, which seemed to be steadily getting worse. Those days, even a minor illness of any kind frequently meant the end of the road for someone as old as he was. In any case, in the 7th century, very few lived to be sixty-three.

Medina to Mecca was a two-week trek but he had made it. He had begun his five days of hajj. On his second day, one March AD632 afternoon, he said to the crowds that had gathered to see him at the Kaaba, ” I do not know how long I have or whether I will see you all this time next year…” He felt faint as attacks of nausea overcame him, but he continued to perform all the rituals of the Haj.

Over the next few days, the great Prophet addressed the pilgrims many times. His final public address was at a watering hole called Ghadir Khumm. There, he drew his son-in-law, Ali, to his side and said to all his followers….

‘He of whom I am the mawla (master), of him, Ali is also the mawla. God be the friend of he who is his friend and the enemy of he who is his enemy. I am leaving you not one, but two things. The first of these is the Quran and the second, the ‘ahl-al-bayt’.

This statement meant to some, the Shiat Ali (the followers of Ali), who later formed a sect called the Shias, that the Prophet was anointing Ali as his successor. (None of the Prophet’s sons survived into adulthood, therefore direct hereditary succession was not an option).


A shiite Iraqi holds a banner of revered shiite imam, Hussein, in Baghdad (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

The Prophet’s words however were taken in different ways by others. As with any first-hand accounts of those days, what witnesses heard what they were prepared to hear and not what may have actually been said.

The others, who came to be known as Sunnis, objected to the principle of bloodline succession. They reasoned that it went against the principle of Islam, according to which all are equal in the eyes of God and leaders have to be chosen by consensus from within the community.

They, the Sunnis, argued that the word ‘mawla’ used by the Prophet, may well have meant just ‘a friend’ or ‘patron’ or ‘confident’ and nothing more. Sure, they respected Ali and knew him to be a true believer but that did not mean that he deserved to be the first Caliph.

Umar (Umar ibn al-Khattab), a close companion and also the security chief of the prophet, nominated Abdullah Ibn Abi Quhafa (popularly known as Abu Bakr) to be the first Caliph. A close confidant and trusted friend of the Prophet, Abu Bakr had been one of Mecca’s wealthiest merchants whose caravans ran from Mecca to Damascus, before he became the first person outside the Prophet’s family to embrace Islam. Abu Bakr gave away all his wealth to fund the many pitched battles that he fought, for the cause. Others lent their support to the nomination and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph. In time, the Shias under Ali separated and sectarianism was born.

Shias and Sunnis believe in the same Quranic verses but disagree on the ‘hadiths’. A hadith is the written down account of words that the Prophet spoke or actions that he took or his approvals or criticisms of events that were taking place in his presence. Hadiths are accounts and traditions that are attributed to the Prophet, caliphs and imams but do not find mention in the Quran.

Sunni and Shia hadiths differ because scholars from the two traditions differ in the narratives of what actually transpired. They have separate collections of hadiths whose differences have contributed to the differences in worship practices and jurisprudence (shari’a law). The same Quran being accepted by both, hadiths have hardened the dividing line between the two traditions. It is the petty little nuts and bolts, the hadiths, that seem to them more important. The squabbling is over ‘he said it this way’, ‘no, he said it that way’, never disputing what the Prophet actually dictated.

Today, that dividing line is as hardened as ever. Once again an Islamic nation, with both sects in large numbers, is going up in flames. In Iraq, the top Sunni cleric, the Grand Mufti Abdul Malek al-Saadi has exhorted his flock, the Sunnis to rise and rebel against the Shiite government. In turn, the top Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has called his fellow Shiites to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents. Murder, in the name of the same Allah, is vociferously encouraged by both.

The larger picture, the Quran, which both sects agree upon, to the very last sura, is forgotten. Shias and Sunnis direct so much hate against each other that the most frequently attacked places are their own places of worship, the mosques. Even the Kaaba, the holiest of holy places in Islam, where all sects are supposed to converge in peace, has not been spared the bullets of AK47s and shoulder-fired rocket launchers. In November 1979, 500 Shiite militants occupied the Grand Mosque and slaughtered over 300 hajj pilgrims, wounding 600 others.

In the end, most conflicts are petty, caused by tiny differences of opinion that do not in any way harm the other guy if practiced. The Shia-Sunni divide is a classic example of that.