A just-so story about the profound—often fatally so—differences between the two chief divisions of Islam.
The Sunni-Shia divide is wider than the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Its origins, writes Middle East journalist Hazleton (Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 2007, etc.), lie in the unfortunate fact that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was mortal. At 63 years of age, after many battles and grievous wounds, he died of fever. “It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons,” writes Hazleton. He did not, however, and a rift soon divided the Islamic world. Who would succeed him? Some believed that the job should fall to the family of his favorite wife, Aisha, others to his son-in-law, Ali. The argument, on a scholarly front, took on angels-on-pinheads dimensions, as imams pondered whether Muhammad, had he chosen Ali, would have ushered in a “form of hereditary monarchy.” Many asserted that Muhammad intended some sort of democracy, or at least meritocracy, in the governance of Islam. All the disputations came to a head with the assassination of Ali, who had claimed the caliphate, and subsequent Battle of Karbala, in Iraq, where Ali’s son Hussein was killed. The supporters of Ali, or Shiat Ali, thereafter were ever more a minority party within the larger sphere of Islam, though dominant in countries such as Iran and, at times, Iraq. This story is well known to readers with any background at all in Islam, for whom the book will be superfluous. However, given that few Western readers, it seems, have much of that background, Hazleton’s storytelling approach to the schism will be welcome. She writes fluidly, sometimes in prose reminiscent of Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta: “The air was dense and moist instead of bracingly dry, the blue of the sky pale with humidity. They had followed Aisha only to find themselves out of place, disoriented.”
A literate, evenhanded account of a long-ago religious conflict that continues to play out—and shape history—today.