RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We've heard again and again that Shia Muslims dominate two key countries in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Iran. We've heard that but it's not clear to many Americans who the Shia are and what they believe. And it's becoming essential to know. Just for starters, the division between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq is at the heart of much of that country's violence.
So today we begin a weeklong series named after one of the holiest figures in Shia Islam; it's called The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics.
Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.
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MIKE SHUSTER: It's not known precisely how many of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are Shia. The Shia are a minority, comprising between 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim population, certainly fewer than 200 million all told. The Shia are concentrated in Iran and in southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India as well.
Although the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split were violent, over the centuries Shiites and Sunnis have lived peacefully together for long periods of time. That appears to be giving way to a new period of spreading conflict in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni, says Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, author of "Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran."
Mr. DANIEL BRUMBERG (Author, "Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran"): There's definitely an emerging struggle between Sunni and Shia to define not only the pattern of local politics, but also the relationship between the Islamic world and the West.
SHUSTER: That struggle is most violent and dangerous now in Iraq. But it is a struggle that could spread to many Arab nations in the Middle East, and to Iran, which is Persian.
One other factor about the Shiites bears mentioning, according to Yitzhak Nakash, author of the "The Shi'is of Iraq."
Mr. YITZHAK NAKASH (Author, "The Shi'is of Iraq"): Shiites constitute 80 percent of the native population of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.
SHUSTER: Where there is oil in Iran, Shiites predominate. Where there is oil in Iraq, they do as well. And in the oil-rich areas of eastern Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are concentrated too.
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The original split between Sunnis and Shia occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632. Augustus Norton is author of "Hezbollah: A Short History."
Mr. AUGUSTUS NORTON (Author, "Hezbollah: A Short History): There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession. That is to say, who is the rightful successor to the prophet.
SHUSTER: Most of the prophet Muhammad's followers wanted the community of Muslims to determine who would lead after him. A smaller group thought that someone from his family should take up the prophet's mantle. They favored Ali, who was married to Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah.
Gregory Gause is professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont.
Professor GREGORY GAUSE (University of Vermont): Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet. And thus they were the partisans of Ali.
Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split.
SHUSTER: The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be 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 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, notes Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."
Professor VALI NASR (Author, "The Shia Revival"): Ali's second son, Hussein, who is buried in the Shrine of Karbala in today's Iraq rejected the rule of the caliph at the time, stood up to the caliph's very large Army on a battlefield. And he and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. All of whom were massacred.
Mr. NORTON: Hussein was decapitated; his body was left on the battlefield at Karbala.
SHUSTER: Again, Augustus Norton. The year was 680.
Mr. NORTON: And his head was carried in tribute to the Sunni ruler of the day, who is based in Damascus.
SHUSTER: These are the original and still highly emotive episodes of Shia history, stories that Shiite clerics tell and retell down to this day.
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SHUSTER: At the Boratha Mosque in Baghdad, a cleric recites a poem for Ali. We still love you, Ali, and we will call your name until we die.
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SHUSTER: While in Iran, mourners lament the death of Hussein. It is the symbolism of Hussein's death that holds so much spiritual power for Shiites, says Vali Nasr.
Prof. NASR: An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force, becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration.
SHUSTER: The Shia call their leaders imam - Ali being the first, Hussein the third. They commemorate Hussein's death every year in a public ritual of self-flagellation and mourning known as Ashura.
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SHUSTER: The significance of the imams is one of the fundamental differences that separate the two branches of Islam. The Imams have taken on a spiritual significance that no clerics in Sunni Islam enjoy, says Gregory Gause.
Prof. GAUSE: Some of the Sunnis believe that some of the Shia are actually attributing almost divine qualities to the imams, and this is a great sin because it is associating human beings with the divinity. And if there's one thing that's central to Islamic teaching, it's the oneness of God.
SHUSTER: This difference is especially powerful when it comes to the story of the Twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam. Again, Vali Nasr.
Prof. NASR: In the 10th century, the 12th Shia Imam went into occultation. Shiites believe God took him into hiding, and he will come back at the end of time. He is known as the Mahdi, or the messiah. So in many ways, the Shiites - much like Jews or Christians - are looking for the coming of the Messiah.
SHUSTER: Those who believe in the Hidden Imam are known as Twelver Shiites. They comprise the majority of Shiites in the world today, notes Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic."
Dr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic"): The belief in the Hidden Imam is a core of Shiism, similar to belief in resurrection in Catholicism.
SHUSTER: These events occurred in the first three centuries after Muhammad's death. Over the next centuries, Islam clashed with the European crusaders, with the Mongol conquerors from Central Asia and spread further by the Ottoman Turks.
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SHUSTER: By the year 1500, Persia was a seat of Sunni Islamic learning. But all that was about to change with the arrival of Azeri conquerors. They established a dynasty in Persia - modern day Iran - and made it Shiite, says Gregory Gause.
Prof. GAUSE: That dynasty actually came out of what's now eastern Turkey, and they were a Turkic dynasty - kind of one of the leftovers of the Mongol invasions that had disrupted the Middle East for a couple of centuries. The Safavid dynasty made it its political project to convert Iran into a Shia country.
SHUSTER: Now the geography of Shiite Islam was largely established, and would prevail in to the 20th century. There were periods of conflict and periods of peace. But the split remained, and would - in the second half of the 20th century - turn out to be one of the most important factors in the upheavals that have ravaged the Middle East. Again, Ray Takeyh.
Dr. TAKEYH: Why has there been such a prolonged and protracted disagreement and tension between these two sects? Well, it has to do with political power.
SHUSTER: In the 20th century, that meant a complex political dynamic involving Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Persians, colonizers and colonized, oil and the involvement of the superpowers.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Our series continues tomorrow when we'll hear the story of a Shiite cleric taking control of a nation in Iran's Islamic revolution. For an overview of this series and a history of the Shia-Sunni split, just go to npr.org.