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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq, few Americans had thought much about the split within Islam - between Sunnis and Shia.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

But over the past four years, the fortunes of Shiite Muslims have changed dramatically. Shia have assumed political control of Iraq. And Iran - a Shiite nation - has challenged the West over its nuclear program.

BRAND: Beginning Monday on NPR's MORNING EDITION, you'll hear a five part series on Shiism from NPR's Mike Shuster. It's called The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics. And Mike is with me now in the studio for a preview. Hi, Mike.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, remind us. What are the origins of the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam?

SHUSTER: Well, it goes all the way back to the beginning of Islam. The death of Muhammad, the prophet, in 632, and the issue was who would succeed Muhammad and continue with the growth of the Muslim community, the small Muslim community at that time in Arabia. And there were some among the Muslims who wanted the community to decide who would succeed him. And there were others, a minority, who wanted someone from his family to become the successor to Muhammad and take up his mantle. And they in particular wanted Ali.

Ali was his cousin and his son-in-law. Ali had married his daughter Fatima. The partisans of Ali, who were later to become known as the Shia, which means the party or the partisans of Ali, didn't win, and the community chose another to succeed Mohammed, and he was called the caliph. Eventually Ali actually was chosen caliph. He became the fourth caliph.

But during these early years after the death of Mohammed, there was a lot of violence among the Muslims. The caliphs after Mohammed were killed. Ali was involved in violence and he was eventually killed. And after that there was this - the split grew and grew and grew. In particular it became very emotional and powerful, with the second son of Ali, who was named Hussein, and who put together a small army, because this had really become warfare among the early Muslims.

And Hussein was killed on the battlefield near what is present day Karbala in Iraq. He was decapitated. And this really cemented the minority, the Shia, and their branch of Islam. And it comes down to today, where they mourn Ali. They mourn Hussein every year. And these stories are what really divide Sunni and Shia.

BRAND: And so this history of violence between the two, has it gone on unabated over the centuries, or have they ever reconciled?

SHUSTER: No, there has never been a reunification of Islam, but it hasn't been all violent. There are periods of peace, long periods of peace, and long periods - and certain periods of violence. When we get to Persia in the early 1500s, Persia - present day Iran - was in fact a Sunni center of learning. But conquerors from the what is now present day Turkey, who spoke the Azari language, took control of Persia in the early 1500s. And their leaders established a dynasty called the Safavid dynasty, and they wanted to bring Shiism to Persia. And it was then that Persia became Shiite and it's why Iran is Shiite today.

BRAND: Well, talking about today, Iran is Shiite. Iran is a very powerful country now. How has that affected the prospects of the Shia?

SHUSTER: Very much so. We didn't really fully understand this when it happened. But in 1978 and '79 there was a revolution that swept away the shah of Iran. And it was led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shiite firebrand ayatollah, who had a new idea about the relationship of politics and the Shiite branch of Islam. And he managed to lead this revolution and Iran adopted the model of a Shiite state, an Islamic revolution, an Islamic state. And that has - that essentially put Shiite politics front and center in the Middle East. But of course the Iranians are Persian. They're not Arabs. And it wasn't until the war in Iraq that led to the Shiite government where an Arab government had become Shiite as well.

BRAND: Well, talk about it in the larger sense, for the larger Arab and Muslim world. How does this ascendancy affect other countries?

SHUSTER: There are those who believe that this is really beginning to split the wider Middle East and that it could ultimately present a challenge even to the Sunni leaders in the states outside of Iraq, the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. So that's what we have to look at.

NPR's Mike Shuster, thank you.

SHUSTER: You're welcome.

BRAND: Mike's series, The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics, begins Monday. It runs all next week on MORNING EDITION.

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