The myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia war

The ‘Sunni-Shia conflict’ narrative is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst, suggests author.

In Bahrain (circa March 2011), both Shia and Sunni opposition leaders come together, holding a sign reading "No Sunni, No Shia: One unified nation." [AP]

During the period of European rule over Rwanda, the Belgian colonial administrators of the territory accomplished an extraordinary feat in their subjugation of the local population – the deliberate manufacture of new ethnic divisions.

By formulating ethnic categorisations based on subjective judgments of Rwandans’ height and skin colour, the Belgians sought to keep the Rwandan people at odds with one another and subservient to them. Entirely fabricated histories and genealogies were concocted for the “Hutu” and “Tutsi” peoples, although these terms themselves had been taken from the dustbin of Rwandan history and had had little effective meaning for hundreds of years.

This strategy of divide-and-conquer eventually resulted in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, a bloodbath which shocked the conscience of the world and claimed the lives of roughly 800,000 people. Hutus and Tutsis, themselves only recently fabricated identities, had come to believe in a false narrative in which they had been in opposition to one another since the dawn of time.

Today it is increasingly common to hear talk of the existence of a “1,400 Year War” between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In this narrative, the sectarian violence of today is simply the continuation of an ancient religious conflict rooted in events which transpired in the 7th century. While some Muslims themselves have recently bought into this worldview, it would suffice to say that such beliefs represent not only a misreading of history but a complete and utter fabrication of it. While there are distinct theological differences between Sunnis and Shias, the claim that these two groups have been in a perpetual state of war and animosity throughout their existence is an absurd falsehood.

The conflict now brewing between certain Sunni and Shia political factions in the Middle East today has little or nothing to do with religious differences and everything to do with modern identity politics. Just as in Rwanda, Western powers and their local allies have sought to exacerbate these false divisions in order to perpetuate conflict and maintain a Middle East which is at once thoroughly divided and incapable of asserting itself.

False continuities

Analyses of the roots of sectarian conflict in the Middle East tend to look at the historical schism between Sunnis and Shias as the original driving factor behind present-day tensions. In this reading of events, the 680AD Battle of Karbala in which the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (who are particularly revered by Shia Muslims) were killed was merely the first battle in a long and continuous sectarian conflict which today is being played out in Syria, Lebanon and other countries throughout the Middle East.

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As described by the Saudi writer Abdullah Hamiddadin, this explanation of contemporary events is as absurd as explaining modern tensions between Turkey and the EU as being rooted in the ancient conflict between King Charles and the Empress of Byzantium. Positing that present-day political rivalries can be explained by examining ninth-century conflicts between European powers is transparent nonsense. However, the same logic is readily applied to conflicts within the Muslim world.

Indeed, while modern political factions often make reference to theological differences, the usage of symbolism and rhetoric which draws upon the distant past (a tactic employed by political opportunists around the world) is very different than the existence of an actual continuity between ancient history and the present. However, thanks to the efforts of well-funded religious demagogues – themselves either ignorant of history or cynical manipulators of it – this patently ridiculous explanation of world events is gaining some purchase even among Muslims themselves.

Remembering history in the Middle East

For those who would seek to shamelessly fabricate a historical narrative in order to serve their venal political interests, it is worth restating some basic realities about the nature of sectarian relationships in the Middle East. While over a millennium of cohabitation the various religious communities of the region have experienced identifiable ups-and-downs in their relations, the overall narrative between them is vastly more of pluralism, tolerance and accommodation than of hard-wired conflict and animosity.

For centuries, Sunnis and Shias (as well as Christians, Jews and other religious groups) have lived closely intertwined with one another to a degree without parallel elsewhere in the world. Even where they have exerted power through distinct political structures, the argument that this has equated to conflict does not stand up to even a cursory analysis. While the Sunni Ottoman Empire and Shia Safavid Empire experienced their share of conflict, they also lived peaceably alongside one another for hundreds of years, even considering it shameful to engage in conflict with one another as Muslim powers.

Furthermore, despite seething protestations to the contrary from zealots of all types, “sects” have hardly been separately self-contained entities over history. Shia and Sunni Muslim scholars have long engaged in dialogue and influenced the religious thought of one another for centuries, blurring the already largely superficial distinctions between the two communities. As a legacy of this, today the greatest seat of learning in Sunni Islam also teaches Shia theology as an integrated school of thought.

Modern Dark Ages

The contrast between this history and the unconscionably brutal wars of religion which for centuries ravaged Europe could not be starker. When describing tensions between factions in the Middle East today, Western analysts (and increasingly, many Muslims) tend to view events through a historical lens which is derived from a distinctly Western experience of intractable religious conflict. Indeed, far from being ancient history, Europe’s dark obsession with religious hatred reached its nadir mere decades ago in the form of the Holocaust – perhaps the ultimate religious “pogrom” against the long-oppressed Jewish population of the continent.

For every sectarian terrorist group or militia, there are countless ordinary Shia and Sunni Muslims around the world who have risked their lives to protect their co-religionists.

In recent decades however this dynamic has been largely reversed. Europe has taken great strides in enshrining tolerance, while the Middle East’s once unrivalled religious pluralism has degraded to the point where even co-religionists of marginally-different sects are now often violently at odds with one another. European leaders now regularly lecture their counterparts in the Middle East on the need to protect the rights of minorities; something which may be tolerable today but which would have been thought unconscionable throughout most of history.

While contemporary Muslim societies have regressed to the point where Europeans can now claim moral authority to lecture them on religious diversity, looking at history it should be noted that the periods of greatest religious tolerance within Islam have historically corresponded with the peaks of political power among Muslim empires. The lesson contained herein is something which modern leaders and religious figures – many of whom are disdainful at best towards minorities – ignore at their great peril.

A dangerous myth

Those who ignorantly claim that progress can be attained through the enforcement of strict ideological purity should take heed of the past and resist the temptation towards religious chauvinism. The conflict which some claim exists today between Sunni and Shia Muslims is a product of very recent global events; blowback from the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the petro-dollar fuelled global rise of Wahhabi reactionaries. It is decidedly not the continuation of any “1,400 year war” between Sunnis and Shias but is driven instead by the very modern phenomena of identity politics. Factions on both sides have created false histories for their own political benefit and have manufactured symbols and rituals which draw upon ancient history but are in fact entirely modern creations. Furthermore, Western military powers have sought to amplify these divisions to generate internecine conflicts within Muslim societies and engineer a bloodbath which will be to their own benefit.

While neoconservatives practically salivate in anticipation of Muslims committing mass-fratricide against one another, away from the political sphere ordinary people continue to live with the deeply engrained sense of tolerance that has traditionally characterised the once-global civilisation of Islam. For every sectarian terrorist group or militia, there are countless ordinary Shia and Sunni Muslims around the world who have risked their lives to protect their co-religionists as well as the religious minorities within their societies. For every story which discards the nuances of todays’ conflicts and casts them as part of a narrative of spiralling sectarian violence, there are others which point resolutely in the opposite direction. In the words of an 80-year old Pakistani farmer, a man older than his own country: “I’ve witnessed this Shia-Sunni brotherhood from my childhood, you can say from the day I was born.”

In Rwanda a people who came to believe a false history about themselves ended up being driven towards madness and self-destruction. Today, the Rwandan government has done away with the artificial colonial categorisations of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and has formally recognised all Rwandan citizens as being of one ethnicity. Similarly, it is incumbent upon Muslims to reject crude myths about a 1,400 year sectarian war between themselves and to recognise the dangerous folly of such beliefs.

Indeed, the simple truth is that if such a war existed Sunnis and Shias would not have been intermarrying and living in the same neighbourhoods up to the 21st century. Furthermore, were they truly enemies, millions of people of both sects would have stopped peacefully converging on the annual Hajj pilgrimage many centuries ago. If Islam is to continue as a constructive social phenomenon it is important that these traditional relationships and ways of life are not destroyed by modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths.


Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain