Throughout its 1,400 year history, Islam has been marked by internal violence and bloody factionalism. What is happening today in Egypt and Syria and other Islamic nations is just the most recent manifestation of this deadly phenomenon.
Muhammad, who is the model human being for Muslims, carried out acts of violence (including mass beheadings) against his foes, while the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia began shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, when his followers had a dispute over his successor.
A minority of his followers (today’s Shiites) wanted his cousin and son-in-law Ali to become the next leader, thereby keeping the succession within the family, but the majority (today’s Sunnis) favored a different leader as the first caliph.
“Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, but not before violent conflict broke out. Two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. War erupted when Ali became caliph, and he too was killed in fighting in the year 661 near the town of Kufa, now in present-day Iraq.
“The violence and war split the small community of Muslims into two branches that would never reunite.
“The war continued with Ali’s son, Hussein, leading the Shia. ‘Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time,’ says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. ‘He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.’
Hussein was beheaded and his head brought as tribute to the Sunni caliph (then in Damascus), and the memory of Hussein’s death continues to fuel the fires of Shiite passion to this day, including the passion for martyrdom.
In recent weeks, Sunni Muslims were killing Shiite Muslims in Egypt – according to reports, dragging them out of their houses and slaughtering them – while Shias and Sunnis have been killing each other in Syria for months now.
In Iraq, many of the suicide bombings involve Muslims blowing up other Muslims, while the terribly costly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s was, among other things, a clash between Shiites (Iran) and Sunnis (Iraq).
Does anyone detect a pattern here?
It is true that all major religions have had their “civil wars,” but in the first 300 years of Christianity, how many Church leaders in one group were killed by Church leaders in another group? How many were massacred? Decapitated? (Approximately zero.)
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.