Friday, February 10, 2006

Happy Ashura! Muslims kill another 22 of themselves

Sunni Muslim extremists were blamed for the suicide bombing of a Shia procession celebrating the festival of Ashura in Hangu in the North West Frontier Province

Ashura marks the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hussein (Husayn), an event that led to the schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
A total of 22 36 Muslims have killed one another so far in Pakistan alone.

Hussein was the grandson of Muhammed, son of Muhammed's daughter Fatima and Muhammed's cousin, Ali. Most Shia regard Hussein as the third Imam, Ali being the first and Hasan, Hussein's older brother, the second. Some Shia sects, however, consider Hussein to be the second Imam and Hasan the first because only they carried the blood of the prophet Muhammed while Ali did not. In any event, Ali was murdered while at prayer in a mosque.

The governor of Syria had been battling Ali over control of the Muslim people since Muhammed's death. After the murder of his father, Hasan stepped in but had to continue fighting the Syrian governor, Muawiyah. The Syrian governor, so the story goes, paid Hasan's wife with gold and the promise of marriage to his son, Yazid, if she would poison Hasan, which she did. Hasan died and she married Yazid on the same day, although other stories say that Muawiyah reneged on the deal. This may be where part of the antagonism towards women in Islam originates. Muawiyah declared his son caliph although many Muslims now recognized Hussein.

The difference between the Shia Imam and the Sunni caliph is that the Shia consider the Imam to be chosen by God and should be a direct descendent of Muhammed. The Imam is both the political and religious leader of Islam. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that the caliph should be chosen as the one best able to protect and promote Islam and exercises political rather than spiritual control. In other words, caliphs are chosen by force.

For the Shia, some sects believe in only 12 Imams and the coming of the 13th signals the end of times, the death of all non-believers and the ascension to heaven of all true believers. I'm not sure where the Sunni stand on this. In any case, this is apparently the dangerous belief of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who believes that the time of the 13th Imam is nigh and wants nuclear weapons to hurry it along.

After the death of Muawiyah, his son Yazid declared himself Caliph and continued to fight Hussein for control. Yazid was much more powerful than Hussein and chased him out of Mecca. Hussein fled towards Kufa, in Iraq, but he never made it. He had only about 70 people with him, mostly family and many women and children. He was caught by Yazim's forces, he and his men were killed and beheaded (sound familiar?) and the women and children were taken as slaves.

His death at the battle of Karbalah is remembered on the holy day of Ashura, usually with bombs, assassinations and widespread murder. The violence will occur wherever there are Shia and Sunni populations living in close proximity and in about equal numbers, like in Pakistan.

Before you start laughing and pointing fingers at the Muslims too much, remember what happens annually when the Orange march through Belfast every July 12. Don't be too smug.

There have been many caliphs but only 12 Imams, according to the Shia. Let me be fair to the Sunni, here. In the Arab tribes, when the leader dies the tribal elders meet in a sura to choose a new leader. That leader does not necessarily have to be the son of the deceased. The elders would opt for strength and wisdom over bloodline. The Sunni insist that this is what Muhammed expected as he was a member in good standing of the Bani Hashem desert tribe.

The Shia say he chose Ali as his successor and all successors must be chosen by their predecessors and be direct descendents of Muhammed. It was over all this Ali / Muawiyah / Hasan/ Hussein / Yazid business that the schism between Sunni and Shia became permanent and they have continued killing one another through today.

To keep things as confusing as possible, there were caliphs and Imams operating simultaneously and in direct opposition to one another. For instance, the first 3 caliphs are not recognized by the Shia. The Shia and Sunni both recognize the 4th caliph, Ali, who was also the 1st Imam, although the Shia consider him to be the first caliph, also. Whew!

Then there were the warring dynasties that fought one another all over North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land, Spain and the Arabian Peninsula for the last 1400 years, or ever since the death of Muhammed. Each claimed to have its own caliph and to have the rightful caliph, Imam, Emir or whatever. In any event, the title caliph became more honorary than effective about 800 years ago. The Ottomans in Turkey tried to revive it for a time but it was finally abolished by Kemal Attaturk and is defunct today.

Today, the Sunni claim to manage their affairs by means of the ulema, a group of Islamic scholars, clerics, and religious specialists in whatever country they can control. The Sunni political leader of the country must be subservient to the ulema, except where he's not, like in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, etc. That's at least the program, even if it doesn't work too well.

The Shia, on the other hand, believe that their Grand Ayatollahs are the spiritual and political leaders of the religion in the countries that they control. This view by the Shia is probably closer to reality in Shia dominated countries than the Sunni ulema in Sunni dominated countries. As an example, if Grand Ayatollah (and Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei of Iran wanted rid of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud would be mah-mooted. And if Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, our great Shia friend in Iraq, said, "Civil war," then civil war it would be. To take this a step further, if and when we go to war with Iran, we had best have al-Sistani or his successors on our side or civil war in Iraq will explode.

The point of all of this is to emphasize that, from its inception in the hearts and minds of the followers of Muhammed through 1400 years of history and up until today, the great caliphate that is so wistfully spoken of by the likes of Hamas and bin Laden was a myth and always has been a myth.

It appears that the only people that Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims hate more than the Americans, the Jews and the Danes are each other. They've just killed twice three times as many of each other over a religious holiday than they have, to date, killed each other over the Muhammed Cartoons.

UPDATE: Death toll now stands at 36. Alahu Akbar!

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