After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam

329 Pages · 2017 · 1.24 MB · English

  • After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam


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    Jerusalem, Jerusalem: A Memoir of War and Peace, Passion and


    Where Mountains Roar: A Personal Report from the Sinai Desert

    Israeli Women: The Reality Behind the Myths Contents

    Note on Usage and Spelling

    Map: The Middle East in the Late Seventh Century



    P O

    ART NE



    P T

    ART WO



    P T






    Sources Note on

    Usage and Spelling

    Throughout this book, I have used (cid:633)rst names for major

    (cid:633)gures rather than full names, in order to avoid the

    “Russian novel e(cid:643)ect,” where English readers su(cid:643)er the

    confusion of multiple unfamiliar names. Thus, for

    instance, I have used Ali instead of Ali ibn Abu Talib,

    Aisha instead of Aisha bint Abu Bakr, Omar instead of

    Omar ibn al-Khattab, and so on. I have used fuller names

    only where there is a risk of confusion; thus, the son of

    the (cid:633)rst Caliph, Abu Bakr, is referred to as Muhammad

    Abu Bakr, itself abbreviated from Muhammad ibn Abu


    I have used the spelling “Quran” instead of the more

    familiar English rendering “Koran” for the sake of both

    accuracy and consistency, and in order to respect the

    di(cid:643)erence between the Arabic letters qaf and kaf.

    Otherwise, wherever possible, I have used more familiar

    English spellings for the names of major (cid:633)gures

    (Othman, for instance, instead of Uthman or Uttman, and Omar instead of Umar) and have purposely omitted

    diacritical marks, using Shia rather than Shi’a, Ibn Saad

    instead of Ibn Sa’d, Muawiya instead of Mu’awiya,

    Quran instead of Qur’an. Prologue

    T . I after the blast, the


    millions of pilgrims were rooted to the spot. Everyone

    knew what had happened, yet none seemed able to

    acknowledge it, as though it were too much for the mind

    to process. And then as their ears began to recover, the

    screaming began.

    They ran, panicked, out of the square and into the

    alleys leading to the gold-domed mosque. Ran from the

    smoke and the debris, from the blood and shattered glass,

    the severed limbs and battered bodies. They sought

    security in small, enclosed spaces, a security obliterated

    by the next blast, and then the next, and the next.

    There were nine explosions in all, thirty minutes of

    car bombs, suicide bombs, grenades, and mortar (cid:633)re.

    Then there was just the terrible stench of burned (cid:635)esh

    and singed dust, and the shrieking of ambulance sirens.

    It was midmorning on March 4, 2004—the tenth of

    Muharram in the Muslim calendar, the day known as

    Ashura. The city of Karbala was packed with Shia

    pilgrims, many of whom had journeyed on foot the (cid:633)fty miles from Baghdad. They carried huge banners

    billowing above their heads as they chanted and beat

    their chests in ritualized mourning for the Prince of

    Martyrs, Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, who was

    killed in this very place. Yet there was an air of

    celebration too. The mass pilgrimage had been banned

    for years; this was the (cid:633)rst time since the fall of the

    Saddam regime that they had been able to mourn

    proudly and openly, and their mourning was an

    expression of newfound freedom. But now, in a horrible

    reverse mirror of the past, they too had been transformed

    into martyrs.

    The Ashura Massacre, they would call it—the (cid:633)rst

    major sign of the civil war to come. And on everyone’s

    lips, the question, How had it come to this?

    The Sunni extremist group Al Qaida in Iraq had

    calculated the attack with particularly cruel precision.

    When and where it took place were as shocking as the

    many hundreds of dead and wounded. Ashura is the

    most solemn date in the Shia calendar—the equivalent

    of Yom Kippur or Easter Sunday—and the name of

    Karbala speaks of what happened on this day, in this

    place, in the year 680. It is a combination of two words

    in Arabic: karab, meaning destruction or devastation,

    and bala, meaning tribulation or distress.

    Muhammad had been dead not (cid:633)fty years when his

    closest male descendants were massacred here and the women of his family taken captive and chained. As word

    of the massacre spread, the whole of the Muslim world at

    the time, from the borders of India in the east to Algeria

    in the west, was in shock, and the question they asked

    then was the same one that would be asked fourteen

    centuries later: How had it come to this?

    What happened at Karbala in the seventh century is

    the foundation story of the Sunni-Shia split. Told in

    vivid and intimate detail in the earliest Islamic histories,

    it is known to all Sunnis throughout the Middle East and

    all but engraved on the heart of every Shia. It has not

    just endured but gathered emotive force to become an

    ever-widening spiral in which past and present, faith

    and politics, personal identity and national redemption

    are inextricably intertwined.

    “Every day is Ashura,” the Shia say, “and every place

    is Karbala.” And on March 4, 2004, the message was

    reiterated with terrifying literalness. The Karbala story is

    indeed one without end, still unfolding throughout the

    Muslim world, and most bloodily of all in Iraq, the cradle

    of Shia Islam.

    This is how it happened, and why it is still happening.

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