This is an interesting email I received from one of my students a few years ago. I am sharing this with you because I felt you may find it beneficial and thoughtful. . .
“I have some questions from last Monday’s Islam 101 class.
1) What is a caliph, exactly? I wrote down that it is a successor or steward of an prophet, and that it is a political office that maintains religious (something)…
2) What are the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and how do these differences play into the politics and unrest in the Middle East?”
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful:
1) Caliph comes from the Arabic word Khalifah which means steward or successor. It is the political leader who is expected to uphold Islamic Ethics in governing.
2) As for Sunni-Shia split, it started as a political difference regarding who should lead the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death.
On the occasion of the farewell pilgrimage, Allah declared that He had completed the religion for the Muslims. If the caliphate were to be a religious issue, Allah or the Holy Prophet would have given instructions on the point. The very fact that the Holy Quran as well as the Sunnah are silent in the matter of caliphate shows that the matter is explicitly political and not religious in character. This is the majority view (Sunni).
The minority view (Shia) did not actually develop religious context except after Ali and his two sons died almost 50 years after the Prophet died. There was a lot of nostalgia and regret about the situation of the Muslim empire and specifically the immorality of its leaders. So this minority began the idea that Ali was usurped from his rightful place as first Khalifah and his sons and descendants deprived of their God-given right to rule. Their justification for this was the immorality of the current rulers and the argument that the bloodline of Ali is “purer” and “more noble” and therefore would be more pious rulers.
This rift has unfortunately increased over the centuries especially as the faction that called for the right of Ali’s bloodline be reinstated was severely repressed due to their calls for overthrowing the established leadership and install the “correct” leadership.
The Abbasid dynasty actually did this; there was a coup, and the family of Abbas (uncle of Ali and Muhammad) came to power. Unfortunately, they saw the Pro-Ali Faction as being too unruly and seditious, so they also cracked down on this movement and persecuted them.
This began the general feeling of victimization and disenfranchisement that characterizes the Shia sect. So Shias throughout history have always felt they were never given their rights. As the centuries passed, this feeling solidified into this perpetual grievance against the rest of the Muslim world. There were several times in history when Shias organized and actually held political power for some time. The Fatimids in Egypt, the Savavids in Persia, and now the country of Iran.
Anyway, in modern times, when the Ottoman empire collapsed, its territory was carved up into arbitrary nation-states by the Allies after WWI. These states totally ignored the ethnic and religious history of the indigenous peoples. The most blatant example of this is (surprise) Iraq. What used to be three different autonomous provinces under Ottoman rule now had Kurds, Arab Sunnis, and Arab Shias suddenly forced to work together as one country. Saddam Hussain (a secular Sunni Arab) used strong-man policies to keep the country in line. Many times when Kurds or Shias would try to assert their political identities, they were brutally suppressed. This lead to the resentment that lead up to the 2003 Iraq Civil War. It also fed the historical victimization and disenfranchisement of the Shias and Kurds.
Fast forward several years, and now Saddam is dead, the Shias are in control, the Kurds have their fiercely guarded autonomy, and the Sunnis have very little to show. The west of Iraq is unlike the East or the North: it has little urban development and practically no oil reserves. So the Sunnis feel they have been cheated and want to get what they used to have and punish those they feel took away their wealth and way of life. That is the vengeance that motivates groups like ISIS.
So as I said in class yesterday, the issue is political and land-based at its root. Religion is used only to justify their vengeance.