The ancient loathing between Sunnis and Shi'ites is threatening to tear apart the Muslim world

By  John R Bradley 

The bitter, bloody feud between the two branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, has gone on for centuries and now this vicious sectarian strife is exploding again in Bahrain, threatening to cause an even greater conflict in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The implications of the worsening hostility for the world are nightmarish, for the entire region could soon be gripped by turmoil, bloodshed and economic meltdown. What was naively seen a few weeks ago as a fight between freedom and autocracy could descend into an epic clash between two Muslim ideologies, the savagery made all the worse by their long history of enmity.
The roots of the hostility between Sunni and Shia lie not in profound theological differences, but in the political intrigues that took place in the Muslim world in the 7th Century. When the Prophet Mohamed died in AD 632, the question of the succession to his leadership was dominated by family rivalries and disputes.
Essentially, there were four candidates to succeed as ‘caliph’, or leader, and one group in particular, which went on to form the Shi’ites, strongly favoured the claims of Ali, the grandson of Mohamed. Even the name, Shi’ite, derives from ‘party of Ali’. But three times in succession, Ali was passed over as each of the other candidates was chosen before him.
The opposition to Ali deepened the sense of anger among his supporters. Eventually, in this climate of tribal factionalism, Ali became the fourth caliph, though the indignation of his followers was provoked when he was then brutally assassinated.
The tribal feuding in the post-Mohamed era reached its climax at the Battle of Karbala in AD 680. This is really the key moment in the creation of the Shi’ite movement, the point at which the fissure was permanently established.
At the battle, Ali’s grandson, Hussein, was killed and, in the aftermath of his death, he came to be regarded by the Shi’ites as a martyr. The split between the Shi’ites and the opposing faction which took on the name Sunni, or ‘tradition’, has existed ever since that battle, causing endless sectarian trouble across the Middle East and the Arab world.The division soon acquired the trappings of theology. In turn, this has worsened the bigotry and hatred.
For example, fundamentalist Sunnis regard the Shi’ites as heretical because they say the worship of Ali and Hussein contradicts the Muslim belief that Mohamed was the last Prophet. However, most Shi’ites would dispute this, arguing that they revere Ali and Hussein, but do not worship them like they do Mohamed.