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The expectation of Shiite Muslims for the return of the 12th imam can, as we saw in the attack on the great mosque in Mecca on November 20th 1979 (see the previous issue of Dispatch International), make Shiites take on an almost revolutionary, prophetic and idealistic attitude, a sort of desperate overheating that one does not observe with equal zeal among Sunnis. As sunni-vs-shia-noted by the journalist Hazem Saghieh, Shiite Islam contains a more potent glorification of the heroes of Islam and their writings than does Sunni Islam, which for its part tends to have a more pragmatic approach to spreading the message and preserving power.

Certainly there has been extended periods in history when Sunnis and Shiites lived side by side in relatively peaceful circumstances. The time of the Ottoman Empire, for example – which lasted from around 1300 to 1918, and ruled over great parts of the Middle East, the Balkans, Greece and North Africa, at times controlling important locations such as Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca – has been described by some as resembling powerfully clamped lid imposed on the internal Sunni-Shiite conflict. In context, however, one must not forget that even in these times of relative harmony that for several years the Ottoman Empire was at war with the Persian Safavid dynasty, which during the 16th century converted Iran into a powerful Shiite stronghold.

The 18th century brought about an important change in the Islamic world. The Ottoman Empire was weakened and slowly started to crumble, which created opportunities for more radical ideas to surface. The most important movement was created by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He had studied theology and law in Damascus, and represented a strict Sunni Islamic attitude, which demanded a return to the “true Islam”, which according to al-Wahhab had been abandoned. When al-Wahhab contrived to forge an alliance with the clan leader Mohammed ibn Saud, the movement started to grow, and by means of the sword and proselytizing, it eventually managed to rule large parts of the Arabic peninsula. When in 1932 the descendants of Ibn Saud were able to proclaim the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they also brought the Wahhabi ideology to power.

Based on oil money, the Saud royal family and Wahhabism today have a powerful grip on the Sunni Islamic world. Relations with the Shiites have also deteriorated as the influence of Wahhabism increased. The Wahhabi teaching is critical of all other interpretations of Islam, not least the Shiite one. By the more dedicated Wahhabis, Shiites are considered to be a heresy combining pure Islam with the glorification of imams, dead and alive. This fight against what is considered idolatry has expressed itself through the destruction of Shiite tombs and mosques. ”Killing a Shiite infidel increases the chances of a faithful Sunni to enter Paradise”, as John R. Bradley, author of the books ”Saudi Arabia Exposed” and ”Inside Egypt”, squarely puts it, a message that not least Raed Mansour al-Banna believed in when he drove his deadly cargo towards Al-Hillah.

The religious attitude of Shiites towards Sunnis, on the other hand, is more relaxed – one does not consider Sunnis to be “infidels”, and thus there is no spiritual justification for a Shiite to kill a Sunni. The battle of Shiites against Sunnis is more about social factors and the right to practice their own branch of Islam, a battle that can become quite violent, as shown in the examples above.

This essay will continue in the next issue.

 This article is republished with permission from Dispatch International.