Comments sections of various websites are filled with people who have dim, insulting, or downright horrific views on Islam, largely because the religion itself is riven with just enough differences to make it super hard to generalize it. But what’s going on with Sunnis and Shi’a and what in the hell is an Alawite? Let’s make this Super.
Categorize religion correctly before you go any further
The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a later comer than the idea of gods, spirits, and other things we typically associate with religion. Ancient peoples prior to Christianity did not give religion the same kind of utter reverence demanded from religion today. Sure, cults were important, and people were plenty superstitious, but there’s a fine line between the old cults and what we would consider a religion.
Julius Caesar openly manipulated the Roman state cults to make himself more politically powerful. Alexander the Great made himself a god and apparently actually believed it. History’s had its fair-share of meglomaniacs, so in and of itself leaders making themselves gods isn’t so shocking. What is shocking, from a modern person’s perspective, is that they got away with it. (“If Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god,” said a Spartan Damis when Sparta debated that motion, a position that didn’t get him exiled, crucified, or murdered one bit).
That our ancient forebears gave little more than two shits about their gods is obvious from how often they changed it to suit their tastes and perspectives and how little that bothered the common man. Religious wars were nonsense; racist wars, sure, absolutely, but to fight to convince other people your god was the only god? Pure idiocy.
Even Judaism fell into this category. There might be only one God, but he was for the Jewish tribe alone. No need to fight any wars beyond pure survival there.
Until Christianity came along, grabbed hold of the Roman Empire, and changed the rules
The Roman government despised Christianity for a while there, but not for particularly holy reasons. Since the Roman emperor was a god on Earth, any religion claiming otherwise undermined state authority. Had Christianity done what so many other cults did and make room for Caesar, they’d have been less often fed to the lions.
But Christianity introduced a new concept, one directly influenced by the Roman state itself – absolutism. Caesar was a god on Earth who could do as he liked. Christianity posited that there was an authority higher than that – God Himself who’d sent Jesus to redeem mankind. No pagan religion had ever claimed to be a catch-all for the species.
Thus a new rule was born: God might be in Heaven, but He’s appointed a church to deal with things on Earth. Everything that said church did was right; anything done to it was wrong. Crystal clear morality for the common illiterate.
The Roman state struggled against Christianity for the longest time, but eventually realized that within the religion was a powerful tool for its survival. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – and the Roman state under Constantine grabbed Christianity and turned it into just another arm of the government, complete with publicly paid priests and legally-sanctioned holy songs.
Nearby geopolitical rival Persia, hosting a different cult, the Zoroastrians, experienced a similar change of outlook. States that could combine the holier-than-thou attitude of a single absolutist religion could wield incredible powers. Everything one did for the government was not just good for the state but good for the soul.
Soldiers would fight harder, taxes would be paid more regularly, and fewer would think of killing the God-appointed leader, than ever before. Damned skippy it was a fine idea, and Persia and Rome both rushed to grab control of their suddenly uber-important religions. Key to that was ensuring that the state religion was the only one with any real power, with anyone breaking the party line being hunted down and wiped out in whatever methods were fashionable.
And Islam was not born in a vacuum
Do remember this is not a religious website, and so religions get treated as historical entities as opposed to The Truth. From that perspective, Islam owes a lot to the codifying and standardizing practices of nearby Persia and Rome. Early Muslim rulers, including Mohammed himself, borrowed an awful lot of practices from these two powers. (A fantastic book on this process is In the Shadow of the Sword, which details what influences played into the formation of early Islam).
When Muslim armies swamped the decaying Roman and Persian empires, they wisely understood they were outnumbered by the locals, and the best way to ensure compliance was to simply be less horrible than the previous governments. The practice of standardizing a religion might sound scientific, but in reality in means stabbing people, putting out their eyes, setting both books and heretics on fire, and other nasty things you’re tempted to do when you come across people who just can’t see why your God is an awesome God. The early Muslims merely had to back off taxes and executions to make themselves far more palatable to their conquered peoples, who were allowed to keep their religions.
These early rules were set hard and fast and remain unchallenged to this day. Christians and Jews are special peoples when it comes to Islamic law and are treated just the same as they were in the Golden Age of Islamic rule. (Zoroastrians, however, weren’t so well treated).
As the demographic balance switched from a Muslim minority to a majority, Muslim leaders began to adopt the aggressive religious standardizing practices of the dead Roman and Persian empires. Since the early rules had been set saying to leave the Christians and Jews alone, the victims were either pagans left out of the Qu’ran, or anyone dumb enough to think religion likes innovation.
How do you get a Shi’a from a Sunni? Well, it begins with a pointless argument amongst the elites
The barest bones tale of Islams two biggest sects, Shi’ism and Sunnism, boils down to an argument amongst early Muslim elites, the newly powerful leaders of the briefly united Muslim empire, over who should lead. Sunnism was markedly more democratic than Shi’ism, favoring elites chosen because of their leadership qualities and expertise in the religion. Shi’ism favored choosing someone from Mohammed’s family, as one did in those days when choosing new rulers.
In the Sunni case, elites argued they should continue to pass on power as they did under the tribes – from one strong, wise man to another. In the Shi’a case, it was about passing on power like the Romans and Persians did, from father to son, in order to ensure everyone understood very clearly and early on how power was transferred and who was eligible.
You then had the first fitna, or time of conflict, where the two parties went their separate ways. Over time, elites in both groups did what was natural and started competing viewpoints about the world. Underpinning both was the assumption that they were absolutely, utterly right – a notion they’d inherited from the Romans and Persians.
And therein lies the kernal of religious conflict
Absolutism as once embodied by Caesar has been resurrected by various Islamist parties. They would never admit it, but they owe a lot to the those empires their forebearers conquered. Islamist parties of all stripes favor absolutism, believing they have the Truth, and seek to spread that Truth as much as possible. In doing so, they’re behaving in the exact same fashion as the Eastern Romans and Persians did as they struggled against one another just on the eve of the coming of Islam.
Modern Middle Eastern sectarianism has its roots in the wars fought by the Ottoman Turks and Savafid Persians and how those two governments were able to rule their people
This is where the Geopolitics of Sectarianism kicks in and gets super-duper. Both empires competed for supremacy in the Muslim world from around 1500 until about 1750, when the Ottomans and Persians became more threatened by other neighbors than by one another and the wars cooled down.
The Safavid dynasty had an advantage the Ottomans did not – they ruled over a natural nation-state, Persia, and so could exercise authority on a deeper level than the Ottomans as they did what all states of that time did: attempted to standardize religion as a tool to be used by the government. Thus today’s Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a, the chosen voice of the Safavids, as are territories closest to the former Safavid military frontiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Ottomans had a more complicated and delicate task. Like the original Muslim conquerors, they couldn’t afford to antagonize too many minorities within their empire, and so embarked on measured tolerance in places that allowed sects to survive and thrive. Thus the Ottomans sheltered the Druze, Shi’a, Sarmatians, Christians of various stripes, and others as they tried to slowly and carefully make Sunni Islam standard amongst their Turkish peoples. Arabs and Europeans were more left alone for fear of revolt; hence why Ottoman Europe today is not Sunni the way Safavid Iran is Shi’a.
As a result, Turkish territories – like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – are far more diverse. It’s not because the Turks were happy about that. It’s because if the Turks pushed too hard, they suffered revolts. From 1700 onwards, the Turks were increasingly unable to balance both the forces they’d conquered with the neighbors advancing on their borders.
So that’s how the where of the Shi’a/Sunni divide got started, but why then are they going at one another now?
Within modern Abrahamic religions, thanks to Persian and Roman influence, there exists a strand of absolutism that demands obedience and complete control. This strand gets stronger or weaker depending on the strength of the local government. When the government of an area can’t solve social, political, or economic problems using secular and scientific methods, people naturally turn to the one other thing claiming to have All The Answers. This strengthens the absolutists, who use their power to try to grab as much power as they can while they can.
Most of the governments set up in the Middle East were, with few exceptions, incredibly weak when Europeans left. Within them was the legacy of Ottoman rule; diverse communities with little to unite them except their supposed shared Arabness. Ottoman rule did not attempt to unite these places into nations, but rather to divide them against one another by tolerating and encouraging differences.
Briefly, Arab nationalism sought to be the panacea to solve the region’s ills, but repeated defeats at the hands of Israel, the United States, and one another have buried that notion under heaps of bodies. Already weak governments have wobbled more and more, and some, as we’ve seen, have finally fallen.
Iran’s been a special case; having never been formally colonized, it’s not suffered the same cultural hangover. Nevertheless, it’s borrowed heavily from the imperial playbook of powers long gone.
While leaders have used the sectarian card to save themselves
As the Romans and Persians learned eons ago, a state with a single religion has higher morale, greater loyalty, and can be counted to do the horrible things necessary to save a leader in crisis. Most modern Middle Eastern rulers know this and have acted accordingly. Doubling-down on a sectarian identity is the difference between victory and defeat. It’s also a clean litmus test of loyalty; what’s yer name there, boy? Omar? Sounds like a filthy Sunni ta me. Betta change that ta Ali.
King Khalifa of Bahrain has made it clear he’s a Sunni and his enemies Shi’a; Assad is fighting a dirty war as a Shi’a Alawite, his enemies jihadi Sunnis. Iraq’s ongoing election is sectarian fighting by other means; few secular, pan-Iraqi parties will emerge with much. Iran’s meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is strictly sectarian; they break the rule for Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but only because the only thing that can still sort of unite Shi’a and Sunni elites is attacking Israel. Even that card has worn thin; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are prepared to do a deal with an Israel that withdraws from the West Bank.
The long story short (too late!): to stick around, elites will use all the cultural leverage they have left
Demands for democracy were inevitable once enough people were born in the Middle East. Monarchies and dictatorships are too personality-focused to respond to the demands of tens of millions of people. Old empires got away with their rule partially because of lower populations, which made problems easier to solve. But a 90+ million state like Egypt needs power devolved in many places to run well. Yet dictators, by their nature, don’t share.
And that goes for all elites, from tribal sheikhs to old clerics, whose roles are threatened by modernization and democracy. To survive, they will throw every switch they have left. Tribalism and its many sins accelerates the damage; sectarianism becomes another aspect of tribal elites jockeying for scraps as their country burns itself hollow.
Invariably, this energy will exhaust itself and the Middle East’s elites will have used up all the religious capital they have. They will then be discarded and replaced by elites who can offer better futures. But so long as they are around, they will play by old Constantinople’s rules, and the region will bleed accordingly.