A ride through the emotional quagmire
Lesley Hazelton in her book ‘After the Prophet’ remarkably captures the epic formulation of events that eventually led to the Sunni-Shia split. The rift that so deeply engraves the Muslim psyche today may have had its roots in the disagreement over who should succeed the Prophet (PBUH), but its shoots stretched far and wide, ripping the very fabric of the Muslim community just 26 years after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). Whether the Prophet (PBUH) deliberately did not name a successor, or that he didn’t consider it important, will always remain a mystery. Perhaps it was an extreme wisdom on his part to not name a successor in order to avoid turning the leadership of Islam into a hereditary monarchy. Leadership was not property that could be inherited. But within the chaos that ensued over who would lead the Muslims now, the Meccans and the Medinans debated intensively against each other over where the successor should come from. The Meccans argued that since they were the first to convert to Islam, and there cannot be more than two leaders, the successor has to be from Quraish to maintain the political unity of the Muslim community intact. The Medians felt left out.
Muslims today, especially the Sunnis, find it hard to accept that two of the closest people to the Prophet (PBUH) could stand in opposition, so much so as to raise armies against each other. How could Aisha and Ali, the wife and son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH), respectively, could ever hate each other so much? Was the hatred of Aisha towards Ali solely because of his unwillingness to punish the murderers of Othman, a man she herself once criticized? Surely that wasn’t the case. As Hazleton explains, when Ayesha was alleged to have an affair with a young man named Safwan, Ali (RA) had indirectly told the Prophet (PBUH) to let go of her as there are many other women available. Such an abrupt advice to her husband would never be forgotten by her. However, Hazelton wanders too quickly off her point by claiming that Ali’s deep devotion to Khadija, who was his mother-in-law, provoked Ayesha’s jealousy too as she already knew that Khadija was the favorite wife of Prophet (PBUH). She fails to draw any connection here, as it is obvious that a person would revere his mother-in-law more than the other wives of the Prophet (PBUH).
Hazelton explains how the attack on the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, Iraq in 2006 was an attack on the hope and identity of the Shia because that place is where the twelfth Imam – Imam Mahdi, is supposed to return with Hussein on one side and Jesus on the other, and rescue the believers out of their agony. She talks about how when Ali (RA) came in power, he refused to take the title of the Caliph, the repute of which he believed to have been damaged by the rule of Othman, and instead called himself ‘Ameer-ul-Mumineen’- the leader of the righteous. After Hussein, all the Shia Imams gave up political leadership in favor of the spiritual one, and refused to mix politics with religion.
Despite her crisp narratives of the episodes following the Sunni-Shia split brimming with sensational details, she only asks for all the more reason to take her less seriously by using highly inappropriate language to characterize some figures highly revered by Muslims all around the world. Calling Ayesha the ‘maiden in distress’, and someone always vying for the Prophet’s attention amongst the wives and even competing against the Prophet’s daughter Fatima for the love and care of the Prophet (PBUH), only seems to irk an average Muslim reader when such propositions are given without any evidence. It seems perhaps that Hazelton is given to mind-reading, drawing massive conclusions out of ambiguous details of literature. She presents certain thoughts of those closest to the Prophet (PBUH) as indisputable facts, forgetting there is no way of proving what was really in one’s mind. Her heavy reliance on Shia sources of history only makes the narrative biased, but still a worthwhile read given that the world does not have a dearth of literature biased towards the Sunnis.
She illustrates how the current fiasco in the Middle-East cannot be understood without first comprehending the Sunni-Shia rift. Just like Ali (RA) endeavoured against Muawiya, today the Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia compete for political control of the Islamic world. And this power struggle has taken the most ghastly of faces in the countries of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She talks about how Ali and his sons were betrayed by their own people and were ‘disinherited’ of the earth. It is the same disinheritance that the Shia mourn today since the re-enactment of the political map of the Middle-East that led to Sunni ascendency and Shia downfall. When the Western powers imposed Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator over a majority Shia population, trouble was inevitable. The U.S. is also guilty of supporting the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia who have since then struggled to keep the power away from the Shia.
But Hazelton cannot avoid the temptation of resorting to poets as repositories of history, when it comes to vilifying notable figures like Aisha, but only contradicts herself a few pages later when she herself explains the purpose of poets in ancient times; to incite the sentiments of a people and make war with each other. Certainly poets then cannot be treated as historians, unless of course they serve one’s purpose. She talks about how Omar wanted to keep Islam purely a property of the Arabs, whereas Othman wanted the Islamic mantle to be in the hands of the Umayyads who had always been the aristocrats of Mecca and enjoyed political authority. Ali was the only one who wanted to unite the Islamic world. The Persians, Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds who had once become second-class citizens under the rule of the first three caliphs would now be treated as equals.
However, the need for bringing the Shia narrative to the mainstream could not be emphasized more in the wake of recent Shia massacres and so this book seems to brief the Western public how deeply entrenched the theology of the Shias is with their politics today. The book does need to be credited for being the first narrative of its kind for the English-speaking public, delving deep down in the stories of individual characters instead of just concentrating on hard facts, as is the tendency of most Islamic History books. But perhaps that is its biggest weakness too; it is a story after all, open to interpretation and subjectivity.
‘Assassination creates an instant hero of its target. Any past sins are not just forgiven but utterly forgotten. Every word is reinterpreted in the light of sudden loss, and every policy once though mistaken now seems the only right course of action.’
‘Yet it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later the center of Islamic power would move out of Arabia, and nowhere more naturally than to Iraq. The fertile lowlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, together with the rich grazing steppes of the Jazeera steppes to the north, had traditionally been the true heartland of the Middle-East.’
Excerpt No. 3:
‘As the centuries passed, Muslim power would center in Iraq, in Syria, in Persia, in Egypt, in India, in Spain, in Turkey, anywhere but Arabia, which became increasingly cut off, saved from reverting back to its pre-Islamic isolation only by the pull of annual hajj pilgrimage. Arabia would not exercise political power again for more than a thousand years, until the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect emerged from the central highlands in the eighteenth century to carry out violent raids against Shia shrines in Iraq and even against the holy places of Mecca and Medina.’
Excerpt No. 4:
‘It may be tempting to imagine that if the Bush administration had known the power of the Karbala story, American troops would never have been ordered anywhere with a hundred miles of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala… As with Yazid in the seventh century, so with George Bush in the twenty-first, history is often made by the heedless.’
Excerpt No. 5:
‘Where the Sunnis would see Muhammad’s choice of Abu Bakr as his companion on the hijra – the emigration to Medina – as proof that he intended Abu Bakr as his successor, for instance, the Shia would see his declaration at Ghadir Khumm as proof of his designation of Ali.’
Except No. 6:
‘The seeds of division had been sown. Muhammad’s wives, fathers-in-law, sons-in-law, cousins, daughters, aides, closest companions – everyone would be drawn into it as the seeds took root.’
Excerpt No. 7:
‘If you were a believer in fate, you might think that Ali was destined never to Caliph, and that when he finally did accept the caliphate twenty-five years after Muhammad’s death, he was provoking fate and thus the tragedy that would follow.’
Excerpt No. 8:
‘The Mahdi will reveal himself again only on the Day of Judgment, when he will return to herald a new era of peace, justice, and victory over evil. The day and month of his return are known: the tenth of Muharram, the very day on which Hussein was killed at Karbala. But the year remains unknown. And precisely because it is unknown, it is always imminent, and never more so than in times of turmoil.’
Excerpt No. 9:
‘Messianic fervor also helped fuel the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when Iranian troops at the front woke many nights to see a shrouded figure on a white horse blessing them. Who else could it be, it was said, but the Mahdi himself? In the event, the mysterious figures turned out to be professional actors sent to create exactly that impression, but nobody could ever be sure if they appeared as a sincere homage or in cynical manipulation of popular faith.’
Excerpt No. 10:
‘The Karbala story has endured and strengthened not least because it reaches deep into questions of morality – of idealism versus pragmatism, purity versus compromise. Its DNA is the very stuff that tests both politics and faith and animates the vast and often terrifying arena in which the two intersect.’
After the Prophet
Author: Lesley Hazleton
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 239; Price: Rs1,350
The writer is a status quo critic by habit and a marketing scientist by profession. She tweets @mehreen_omer