The Sunni-Shia Controversy
The most critical problem
that faced the young Islamic community revolved around the rightful
successor to the office of caliph. Uthman, the third caliph, had
encountered opposition during and after his election to the caliphate.
Ali ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law
(by virtue of his marrying the Prophet's only surviving child,
Fatima), had been the other contender.
Ali's pietism was disquieting to certain vested-interest groups,
who perceived the more conservative Uthman as more likely to continue
the policies of the previous caliph, Umar. Discontent increased,
as did Ali's formal opposition to Uthman based on religious grounds.
Ali claimed that innovations had been introduced that were not
consonant with Quranic directives. Economics was the key factor
for most of the members of the opposition, but this, too, acquired
As a result of the rapid military expansion of the Islamic movement,
financial troubles beset Uthman. Many beduins had offered themselves
for military service in Iraq and in Egypt. Their abstemious and
hard life contrasted with the leisured life of Arabs in the Hijaz
(the western part of the Arabian Peninsula), who were enjoying
the benefits of conquest. When these volunteer soldiers questioned
the allocation of lands and the distribution of revenues and pensions,
they found a ready spokesman in Ali.
Groups of malcontents eventually left Iraq and Egypt to seek
redress at Medina in the Hijaz. Uthman promised reforms, but on
their return journey the rebels intercepted a message to the governor
of Egypt commanding that they be punished. In response, the rebels
besieged Uthman in his home in Medina, eventually slaying him.
Uthman's slayer was a Muslim and a son of the first caliph, Abu
Bakr. The Muslim world was shaken. Ali, who had not taken part
in the siege, was chosen caliph.
Two opponents of Ali enlisted Aisha, a widow of the Prophet Muhammad,
to join them in accusing Ali and demanding retribution for Uthman's
death. When the three went to Iraq to seek support for their cause,
Ali's forces engaged theirs near Basra. Aisha's two companions
were killed, and Ali was clearly victorious. Muawiyah, a kinsman
of Uthman and the governor of Syria, then refused to recognize
Ali, and he demanded the right to avenge his relative's death.
In what was perhaps the most important battle fought between Muslims,
Ali's forces met Muawiyah's at the Plain of Siffin near the largest
bend of the Euphrates River. Muawiyah's forces, seeing that they
were losing, proposed arbitration. Accordingly, two arbitrators
were chosen to decide whether Uthman's death had been deserved.
Such a decision would give his slayer status as an executioner
rather than as a murderer and would remove the claims of Uthman's
relatives. When the arbitrators decided against Ali, he protested
that the verdict was not in accordance with sharia (Islamic law)
and declared his intention to resume the battle.
Ali's decision, however, came too late for the more extreme of
his followers. Citing the Quranic injunction to fight rebels until
they obey, these followers insisted that Ali was morally wrong
to submit to arbitration. In doing so, they claimed, he bowed
to the judgment of men--as opposed to the judgment of God that
would have been revealed by the outcome of the battle. These dissenters,
known as Kharajites (from the verb kharaja--to go out),
withdrew from battle, an action that had far-reaching political
effects on the Islamic community in the centuries ahead. Before
resuming his dispute with Muawiyah, Ali appealed to the Kharajites;
when they rejected the appeal, he massacred many of them. Furious
at his treatment of pious Muslims, most of Ali's forces deserted
him. He was forced to return to Al Kufah--about 150 kilometers
south of Baghdad--and to await developments within the Islamic
A number of Islamic leaders met at Adruh in present-day Jordan,
and the same two arbitrators from Siffin devised a solution to
the succession problem. At last it was announced that neither
Ali nor Muawiyah should be caliph; Abd Allah, a son of Umar, was
proposed. The meeting terminated in confusion, however, and no
final decision was reached. Both Ali and Muawiyah bided their
time in their separate governorships: Muawiyah, who had been declared
caliph by some of his supporters, in newly conquered Egypt, and
Ali, in Iraq. Muawiyah fomented discontent among those only partially
committed to Ali. While praying in a mosque at Al Kufah, Ali was
murdered by a Kharajite in 661. The ambitious Muawiyah induced
Ali's eldest son, Hasan, to renounce his claim to the caliphate.
Hasan died shortly thereafter, probably of consumption, but the
Shias (see Glossary)
later claimed that he had been poisoned and dubbed him "Lord of
All Martyrs." Ali's unnatural death ensured the future of the
Shia movement--Ali's followers returned to his cause--and quickened
its momentum. With the single exception of the Prophet Muhammad,
no man has had a greater impact on Islamic history. The Shia declaration
of faith is: "There is no God but God; Muhammad is his Prophet
and Ali is the Saint of God."
Subsequently, Muawiyah was declared caliph. Thus began the Umayyad
Dynasty, which had its capital at Damascus. Yazid I, Muawiyah's
son and his successor in 680, was unable to contain the opposition
that his strong father had vigorously quelled. Husayn, Ali's second
son, refused to pay homage and fled to Mecca, where he was asked
to lead the Shias--mostly Iraqis--in a revolt against Yazid I.
Ubayd Allah, governor of Al Kufah, discovered the plot and sent
detachments to dissuade him. At Karbala, in Iraq, Husayn's band
of 200 men and women refused to surrender and finally were cut
down by a force of perhaps 4,000 Umayyad troops. Yazid I received
Husayn's head, and Husayn's death on the tenth of Muharram (October
10, 680) continues to be observed as a day of mourning for all
Shias. Ali's burial place at An Najaf, about 130 kilometers south
of Baghdad, and Husayn's at Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest
of Baghdad, are holy places of pilgrimage for Shias, many of whom
feel that a pilgrimage to both sites is equal to a pilgrimage
to Mecca (see Religious Life , ch. 2).
The importance of these events in the history of Islam cannot
be overemphasized. They created the greatest of the Islamic schisms,
between the party of Ali (the Shiat Ali, known in the West as
Shias or Shiites) and the upholders of Muawiyah (the Ahl as Sunna,
the People of the Sunna--those who follow Muhammad's custom and
example) or the Sunnis (see Glossary). The Sunnis believe they
are the followers of orthodoxy. The ascendancy of the Umayyads
and the events at Karbala, in contrast, led to a Shia Islam which,
although similar to Sunni Islam in its basic tenets, maintains
important doctrinal differences that have had pervasive effects
on the Shia world view. Most notably, Shias have viewed themselves
as the opposition in Islam, the opponents of privilege and power.
They believe that after the death of Ali and the ascension of
the "usurper" Umayyads to the caliphate, Islam took the wrong
path; therefore, obedience to existing temporal authority is not
obligatory. Furthermore, in sacrificing his own life for a just
cause, Husayn became the archetypal role model who inspired generations
of Shias to fight for social equality and for economic justice.
During his caliphate, Ali had made Al Kufah his capital. The
transfer of power to Syria and to its capital at Damascus aroused
envy among Iraqis. The desire to regain preeminence prompted numerous
rebellions in Iraq against Umayyad rule. Consequently, only men
of unusual ability were sent to be governors of Al Basrah and
Al Kufah. One of the most able was Ziyad ibn Abihi, who was initially
governor of Al Basrah and later also of Al Kufah. Ziyad divided
the residents of Al Kufah into four groups (not based on tribal
affiliation) and appointed a leader for each one. He also sent
50,000 beduins to Khorasan (in northeastern Iran), the easternmost
province of the empire, which was within the jurisdiction of Al
Basrah and Al Kufah.
The Iraqis once again became restive when rival claimants for
the Umayyad caliphate waged civil war between 687 and 692. Ibn
Yasuf ath Thaqafi al Hajjaj was sent as provincial governor to
restore order in Iraq in 694. He pacified Iraq and encouraged
both agriculture and education.
Data as of May 1988