Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, by Lesley Hazleton

Deeply Sympathetic, Gripping Page-Turner. Though At Times Overly Melodramatic Narrative.
(Kindle, Amazon, Flipkartmy review on Amazon)
5 stars
This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.

Part 1: The death of the Prophet and the first Caliph (Part 2)
A remarkably lucid, gripping, and evocative account of the origins of the Shia-Sunni split in Islam. The narrative gets overly melodramatic at times, but can be overlooked.

The history of Islam is much more nuanced, and more full of timeless human emotions and failings, and that much more riveting than has been typically caricatured in Western media. Perhaps the need to indulge in simplistic reductionisms has fuelled this black-and-white depictions of entire religions and people. The loss is more than just abstract - the terrible price paid for by the people in the Middle-East and the ghastly costs of Western interventions have been there for all to see.

Among several aspects of Islam, a fundamental one when trying to explain and understand the schisms in the religion, and also the historical underpinnings of a lot of the conflict amongst the nations in the Middle-East, is perhaps the Shia-Sunni divide. This book, short though it is, does a remarkable job of narrating document the origins of the Shia-Sunni split in Islam. It does so in the short space of 250 pages, and is written with much empathy. It seeks to explain, without judging. And that is perhaps a good thing, because there will be ample opportunities for forming opinions; this book should be used to inform.

"What happened at Karbala in the seventh century is the foundation story of the Sunni-Shia split."

But before we can get to Karbala, we have to travel to the place where Muhammad would breathe his last, at the age of sixty-three, most likely from bacterial meningitis. As he lay dying, the question of who would succeed the Prophet was foremost amongst his followers. The closest among Muhammad’s followers was Ali. Ali, not only was "close enough by virtue of being Muhammad’s paternal first cousin and his adoptive son, Muhammad handpicked him to marry Fatima, his eldest daughter" where "the Prophet not only performed the wedding ceremony himself but laid down one condition: the new couple would follow the example of his own marriage to Khadija and be monogamous." Ali and Fatima would give the Prophet "two adored grandsons, Hasan and Hussein." It would Ali "whose name the Shia were to take as their own. They were, and are, the followers of Ali, or in Arabic, Shiat Ali - Shia, for short."

The fact that Muhammad had never clearly and unambiguously designated his successor made things that much more difficult for his followers. That there was a deep-rooted animosity, the result of perhaps a trifling misunderstanding, between his youngest wife, Aisha, and Ali, didn't help either.
"Aisha and Ali, the two people closest of all to Muhammad on a daily basis, had barely been able to speak a civil word to each other for years, even in his presence." 
That the Prophet left behind no son, who could have been seen and accepted by all as his legitimate successor also complicated matters.  "though Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, had given birth to two sons alongside four daughters, both had died in infancy, and though Muhammad had married nine more wives after her death, not one had become pregnant." As the author writes, "Or as Sunni theologians would argue in centuries to come, perhaps this late-life childlessness was the price of revelation." The closest the Prophet had come to designating Ali his successor was when, in 632 CE, he had raised Ali’s "hand high in his own" and said, "of whom I am the master, of him Ali is also the master," ". But never did Muhammad clearly designate Ali, or anyone else, as his formal successor. Maybe he knew the fate that awaited his successors, for on his deathbed, the Prophet,
"with his dying breath, repeat his chilling last words three times: "Oh God, have pity on those who will succeed me.""
Apart from Ali, then, there were Abu Bakr and Omar, who were the Prophet’s in-laws, who were claimants to the Prophet’s legacy, his "khalifa"

The origins of the standoff between Aisha and Ali could be traced to a scandal referred to as "The Affair of the Necklace". Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest wife, had lost a necklace near Medina when returning from an expedition with the Prophet and hundreds of his followes. The necklace had been a gift from the Prophet. In her haste to search and retrieve the necklace, she had not informed the caravan, nor had the caravan noticed her absence, and had proceeded to Medina without her. No one from the caravan came to fetch her, and it was a Medinan named Safwan who "helped her up onto his camel, then led the animal on foot the whole twenty miles to Medina." Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, tongues started wagging in the valley of Medina, and when Muhammad turned to Ali for advice, he got a "peculiarly curt" response,
""There are many women like her," he said. "God has freed you from constraints. She is easily replaced.""
 Now, can you blame Aisha for harbouring a lifelong animosity against Ali? Anyway, to complete the story, Muhammad went into a "prophetic trance" while at Abu Bakr, Aisha’s father’s, house, and uttered words that are "now part of Sura 24 of the Quran", where it was ordained that people slandering a woman would need to produce four witnesses for corroboration.
"Unless there were four witnesses to an illegal sexual act, it said, the accused was blameless, and the false accusers were the ones to be punished. For a wronged woman, there could have been no better outcome, yet the form of it would be cruelly turned around and used by conservative clerics in centuries to come to do the opposite of what Muhammad had originally intended: not to exonerate a woman but to blame her. The wording of his revelation would apply not only when adultery was suspected but also when there had been an accusation of rape. Unless a woman could produce four witnesses to her rape—a virtual impossibility—she would be considered guilty of slander and adultery, and punished accordingly."
There was one more chapter in this particular episode, the twisted consequences of which Islamic women wear to this day.
"The sight of her riding into Medina on Safwan’s camel had branded itself into the collective memory of the oasis, and that was the last thing Muhammad needed. In due course, another Quranic revelation dictated that from now on, his wives were to be protected by a thin muslin curtain from the prying eyes of any men not their kin. And since curtains could work only indoors, they would soon shrink into a kind of minicurtain for outdoors: the veil.

The Revelation of the Curtain clearly applied only to the Prophet’s wives, but this in itself gave the veil high status. Over the next few decades it would be adopted by women of the new Islamic aristocracy—and would eventually be enforced by Islamic fundamentalists convinced that it should apply to all women."
Upon the Prophet’s death, by "noon of that Monday, June 8 in the year 632", started the task of selecting, perhaps electing, his successor. Whether he would come from the Hashimis or the Ummayads in the Quraysh tribe was a thorny one. A "shura", "a traditional intertribal forum", was called for, which was gate-crashed by Abu Bakr and Omar. After more than twenty-four of debates and speeches, when all were at the point of exhaustion, Abu Bakr and Omar made their "closing move", with Abu Bakr proposing Omar as the "new leader of Islam", Omar in turn proposing Othman’s name (an aristocrat from the Umayyad tribe), and Omar, after there had been a fist-fight in which Ibn Obada, the convener of the shura, was beaten unconscious, Omar proposed Abu Bakr as the caliphate. Abu Bakr, the father of the Prophet’s youngest wife, Aisha, a strong-willed and headstrong woman.

Ali was not present at this shura. His "years of dust and thorns" were about to begin.

The Accidental Theologist
After the Prophet by Lesley Hazleton « Knopf Doubleday - Doubleday

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.