I wanted to flag this piece in the Washington Post from a week and a half ago because I think it’s important to pound against the notion that Islamic sectarianism is all you need to know to explain the current situation in the Middle East. It’s written by Nick Danforth, a grad student at Georgetown, and takes the long historical view of things, which I like, to argue that the Sunni-Shiʿa dynamic over the centuries has mostly been one of peaceful co-existence, which if you know anything about Islamic history you know to be correct.
Consider, for example, the ninth-century Abbasid Dynasty (based in modern-day Iraq), celebrated for cultural contributions such as “The Arabian Nights” and the number zero. Historical accounts treat the dynasty as the most famous Sunni caliphate in Islamic history. But when the first Abbasid caliph seized power, he was challenging another Sunni dynasty, the Umayyads. In doing so, his propaganda championed a Shiite belief — that Islam’s leadership belonged to those, like him, who were more closely related to Muhammad. Thus, the noted scholar Bernard Lewis declared the Abbasids’ victory over the Umayyads a “resounding success” for Shiism, adding that at this point, Shiite doctrines “differed to no great extent from those of Sunni Islam.”
But after claiming the Shiite mantle in revolt, the Abbasids defended Sunni orthodoxy against Shiite groups rising in revolt against them. And when, a century later, the Abbasid caliphate fell to a Shiite dynasty called the Buyyids, the revolutionaries were perfectly content to keep a line of Sunni caliphs in power as their figureheads.
(It’s actually two centuries later — the Abbasids took power in 750, and the Buyids seized Baghdad and placed the Abbasid caliphate under their “protection” in 945 — but the point is still accurate.)
After the shaking out period early when “Shiʿism” (or “Alidism,” as it’s sometimes termed in its formative decades) really meant “political opposition to the caliphate,” discord between the sects really calmed down a fair amount. Continue reading