Islamic history

Alawais and their place in the Islamic world, part 2: Separation

Separation and Shia origins

It would be difficult to continue this particular history without reference to the dislocation between the Shia branch of Islam and that of the Sunni. The last entry explained briefly, the often strained relationship between orthodox Shiism and the Alawai faith and how the latter is often referred to as ”extreme” or ”Ghulat” (exaggeration), due to differentiated religious practices. Before discussing these differences it is useful to give an account of the origins of the Shia faith and the position of Alī ibn Abī Tālib.

It appears, that the dispute as to who would succeed the Prophet Mohammed is the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the Shia, Sunni split. Following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 the Rashidan Khalifa continued under the leadership of Abu Bakr, friend and father-in-law to the Prophet Mohammed. His reign was short-lived due to his death in 634 but according to Karen Armstrong he was an innovative leader whose main interest was to unify Arabia under the Ummah, a conceptual word for nation in Arabic, which refers specifically to a nation united by Islam.

He sought to transform some of the political alliances in the region into a commitment to Islam and was said to be a tough but fair ruler. Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab, who pursued an expansionist policy as he and his followers defeated both the Byzantine and Persian empires. Though the ultimate aim was to unite people under the Ummah, the conquering of those territories was a pragmatic move owing to the power vacuum, which existed in the region.

The two empires were exhausted after many wars with each other and Persia’s agriculture was devastated by flooding. Many of the Christians in Syria and North Africa resented the authoritarian rule of Byzantium and Greek orthodoxy and did not oppose Arabic rule. Once peace was established, the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian populations were recognised as adhering to the book and monotheism, consequently they were not forced to convert to Islam. They were nevertheless expected to pay a tax for immunity from attack, as protected citizens or dhimmis.

Islamic State began a similar practice in Iraq last year as some Christians there were required to pay extra taxes for protection. The situation was rather different under Umar ibn al-Khattab as the Muslim soldiers didn’t seize the land. Instead it was left in the hands of the farmers to cultivate, though they paid rent to the state. Things were to change drastically, when Umar ibn al-Khattab was murdered in 644 and Uthman ibn Affan became the 3rd Rashidan Khalif.

The death of Umar and disaffection with his successor gave way to the Shia, Sunni split as Ali ibn Abi Talib was elected Khalif, when Uthman was assassinated by a group fo Arab soldiers. In short Uthman ibn Affan led the Arabic people into further wars but according to Karen Armstrong his soldiers were disgruntled as there were less rewards and more hardship involved with these conquests and they didn’t feel they received their just deserts.

Uthman tended to reward his own Umayyad kin, with the more prestigious government positions and was accused of nepotism. After his death a five year civil war and the first fitnah ensued, supposedly because Ali, who was plainly pulled in two directions, refused to punish the perpetrators of Uthman’s murder. The battle of the Camel was fought in Basra, now in South Iraq and bordering on Iran and was won by Ali’s army; the dissent had truly began. In my view there are a few flaws in the notion, that this all arose out of a failing to punish Uthman’s assassins.

Aisha, wife of the prophet Mohammed and daughter of Abu Bakr was a main protagonist and is said to have witnessed the battle from her camel, thus its name. Abu Bakr himself is said to have converted Uthman to Islam. The ties between the two families are plain and Uthman had been accused of nepotism because he favoured his own. What is obvious too are the ideological differences between the two factions in relation to empire building and religious doctrine.

More about that next time as I’m off on holiday for a week.



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