The year 2015 was filled with violence and bloodshed in the Middle East. The New Year does not promise much better. On 2 January, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed at least 47 people in a single day. Even for a place like Saudi Arabia — where, unlike most other places in the world, executions have been increasing — 47 executions in one day is extraordinary.
Mass executions are always signs of danger ahead, but the fact that Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr was one of those killed is particularly ominous. Sheikh al Nimr was a Shiite religious leader who lived in Al Awamiyyah in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Al Awamiyyah is home to a significant Shiite minority and it is near Bahrain, where Saudi troops have successfully helped the Sunni regime put down demonstrations of its majority, though disenfranchised, Shiite population.
Sheikh al Nimr was a leader of Shiite protest movements in the area that called for equal rights for Shiites in a Saudi Arabia ruled by Sunnis of the Wahhabi movement. While harsh in his critique of both Sunni and Shiite rulers, and while indicating that Shiites might secede from Saudi Arabia, Sheikh al Nimr during protests in 2011-2012 called for “the roar of the word” and not violence.
His death, therefore, has caused outrage in the Shiite world and has resulted in Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, predicted divine retribution for the execution.
Once again people are asking about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The divide began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. From the outset Muslims disagreed — often violently — as to who should succeed him. Those who believed the successor (Arabic khalifa, Caliph) should be chosen by an election are Sunnis; those who believed it should be one of the direct descendants of the prophet are Shiites.
While the two groups hold a great deal in common — e.g. the creed, daily prayers, alms giving, fasting and Ramadan and the Hajj to Mecca — the outlook of each has increasingly diverged.
Shiite Muslims revere the imams, the descendants of the prophet. Different groups of Shiites revere different numbers of imams — mostly seven or twelve — but the largest group by far forms “Twelver Islam,” the official religion of Iran. Centuries of persecution have promoted a deep sense of martyrdom in Shiite Islam. Most Shiites believe that all of the imams were somehow murdered by their enemies and revere their burial places along with those of other holy people. This is tantamount to apostasy for Sunni Muslims, especially the Wahhabi. Shiite Islam has developed deep mystical and philosophical roots. The religious structure of Shiite Islam with people holding titles such as Grand Ayatollah, Ayatollah, Hujjatulislam, etc., reflects a long tradition of theological and philosophical learning.
Sunnis, on the other hand, tend to be more austere in their approach to Islam. While there are four schools of jurisprudence and centers of learning such as Al Azhar in Egypt, the structure is much looser and there is really little or no hierarchy. Thinkers such as Al Ghazali (1058-1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) still exert a powerful influence over many Sunnis. While these thinkers could in no way be considered anti-intellectual, they were very much against speculative religious thought. In the 20th century, the thought of Ibn Taymiyya has enjoyed a revival on several different but related fronts. The official form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabi by many and Salafi by most Saudis, relies heavily on Ibn Taymiyya and the Hanbali School of Islam.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian member of the Islamic Brotherhood, further developed — some would say deformed — and radicalized some of the Salafi and neo-Hanbali strains that had been developing in Saudi Arabia, which was nevertheless often strongly opposed to Qutb. ISIS carries the trajectory of these developments even further — some would say, to their logical conclusions.
Competition between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been continuous throughout history, with Sunni Muslims usually having the upper hand. Sunni empires have struggled with Shiite empires over the centuries, without significantly changing the ratio of approximately 85 percent Sunnis to 15 percent Shiites in the world.
As Sunnis and Shiites developed in different directions, the 20th century witnessed several important events. Ibn Saud (1875-1953), a fervent Wahhabi Sunni, took over Arabia after World War I and renamed it Saudi Arabia — the only country in the world named after a family. With the discovery of huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia became incredibly wealthy and influential. Saudi Arabia used its resources to propagate its particular brand of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world.
Iran, on the other hand, was a powerful center of Shiite Islam. Under the shah and his government’s close ties to the British and the United States, Iran seemed to be moving toward a Western-oriented modernization. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, however, set Iran on a radically different course. The now Islamic Republic of Iran also sought to spread its self-described revolutionary form of Islam to other parts of the Islamic world. Conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia moved beyond the theological to include the geo-political.
As in most religious conflicts, outsiders can rarely grasp the issues involved or even see the differences between the two groups. Thus for the non-Muslim the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are difficult to see (Muslims have similar problems with Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans). However, for Muslims those differences are deep, very real and also connected with differing political agenda.
Recently there has been some hope that all the parties in the Middle East might work together, at least temporarily, to end the unprecedented chaos and destruction. Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in discussions with other world powers about possible solutions in the region. Whether the execution of Sheik al Nimr will bring that incipient détente to an end is not yet clear.
One thing, however, is for certain: the death of Sheikh al Nimr will not help the progress towards peace and stability in the Middle East.