Introduction to Middle East Sectarian Wars

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

The actual religious requirements of Islam are quite simple, but no religion can lead society down a common path to worldly happiness or to the here-after heavens when the religious are at war with themselves.

Today, the most rigid religious Islamic states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran could be on the brink of an all-out war. Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been waging daily air attacks on Iran-backed Yemeni Huthi rebels’ targets for some time. The perception in the Sunni-Arab World today is that Shiite Iran is meddling in the affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, interfering militarily and spreading its tentacles via proxies like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, and al-Huthis in Yemen. The Yemen civil war or the wars in Syria and Iraq or any war between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not just new conflicts like other confrontations that pop up suddenly in the headlines, only to fade into the background after a short time.

The bloody wars that are now raging in Yemen, in Syria and Iraq, where tens of thousands are being killed and millions are displaced, actually began 1383 years ago when the Prophet Muhammad died. Islam was divided within itself, three of the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet as the leaders of Islam were murdered, two by fellow Muslims. The Muslim World was split into many groups including the rivals Sunni and Shi’a, over the interpretation of the Islamic tradition and the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims called it the Big Strife ‘al-fitna al-kubra’. In the beginning, the doctrinal differences between the Sunni and Shi’a were of minor importance, far less than those that divided the rival churches in Christendom.

The Shi’a maintained that the caliphate should be hereditary in the line of the Prophet Muhammad, and the more generally accepted view of the Sunni Muslims was that the caliphate was elective, and any members of the Prophet tribe, Quraysh, was eligible. The 680 AD massacre of Karbala sped the transformation of the Shi’a from a political party to religious sects. Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and many of his family and supporters including his six-month-old son were killed by the forces of Umayyad caliph. Well known Shi’a sects are the Twelvers, the Zaidiyyas and the Ismaelis. The Shi’a sense of martyrdom and persecution has been reinforced by their long experience through the centuries as minority groups under Sunni rulers whom they regarded as usurpers. Their mystical emotional force and appeal to the oppressed masses gained them large numbers of dedicated adherents. The Shi’as were not always the oppressed. Their ruling dynasties became dominant power in many Islamic countries including the Fatimid in Egypt, the Safavid in Iran, Iraq and Central Asia, and the Zaidis in Yemen.

Today, deep divisions persist not only among Shi’a, but also among Sunnis. Sunni scholars to this day study and debate fatwa rulings based on the Quran and the words and deeds of the Prophet. The problem is that what is authentic for some is a matter of dispute for others. There are the Sufis, the Wahhabis, the fundamentalists, the jihadists, and the moderates.

Vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s citizens follow a strict Sunni Islamic tradition where the religious leaders enforce the Wahhabi school of thought and sway over every aspect of Saudi life; and the majority of Iranians under the ruling Mullahs theocracy follow the “Shi’a Twelver” Islamic order as the official religion of the state.

Unlike many other Arab regimes, the Saudi ruling family never promised democracy nor ordered elections to claim legitimacy. Instead of the ballot box, the Saudis claim that Allah (God) gives them the legitimacy they need to govern by imposing pure Islamic tradition in their Kingdom. They insist that people in Arabia, home of Islam’s two holiest sites, should practice the tradition which the Prophet Muhammad had established when he received the revelation.

Almost three hundred years ago, Muhammad al Saud, an Arab tribal leader from Najd, allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab, a fundamentalist Islamic scholar, to conquer and unite the Arabian Peninsula using religion to trump the opposing tribes. Al Saud and his religious partner established the first Saudi State in 1745 and imposed Abdel-Wahhab (Wahhabi) version of Islam on its people. The two allies and their descendents ruled parts of Arabia off-and-on ever since. By 1927, the present Saudi Arabia State was established by King Abdul Aziz bin al Saud, the father of the current king. Six of King Abdul Aziz forty-four sons have succeeded him since his death in 1953.

Wahhabi clerics are not considered holy men like the Shi’a mullahs, but only interpreters and arbiters of the Quran and the Prophet’s life example. They control every aspect of life and consider anyone who makes a moral judgment based on anything other than the Quran, a nonbeliever ‘kaffer.’ Their ‘religious police’ roam the streets of the cities to enforce a traditional rigorous religious life. They enforce codes of behavior and decide among other things what women can wear in public and who can accompany them. Cinemas are banned, concerts are outlawed and even listening to music is forbidden.

The royal family lifestyle, however, is more like the ancient emperors which the Muslims had conquered and less like the Prophet’s way of life in Medina. The first Muslims mistrusted kings and the institutions of kingship. In Quran and in the early Muslim traditions, King occurs only as one of the Devine titles and was treated with utmost respect. But when applied to humans like the tyrannical Pharaoh, it has negative connotations. Al Saud kings live luxurious lifestyles and their family has become infamous around the world for the profligacy of the many playboy princes. The thousands of Saudi princes are increasingly viewed by the rest of Saudi society as burdensome privileged cast.

The Wahhabi doctrine calls for the return to the authentic Islam and remove all the distortion brought about by the mystical Sufi practices in Turkey and the acts of devotion to honor the Shi’a imams in Iran. Wahhabis defined the Ottoman Islam as polytheistic and challenged the legitimacy of their empire, and they considered the Shi’a as members of heretical sect. In 1802, they attacked the southern Iraqi shrine city of Karbala which holds special position in Shi’a Islam. The attack was chillingly brutal, thousands of Shi’a Iraqis were murdered and the shrines were destroyed. Karbala is the place where Hussein ibn Ali was killed by the forces of Umayyad caliph in 680 AD and started the Shi’a movement. He is venerated as the third of twelve infallible imam of Shi’a Islam.

In the sixteenth century, the Shi’ate Safavid dynasty of the Shahs of Iran established a united and powerful state embracing the whole area between the Mediterranean and the approaches to Central Asia and India. Iran since then has become the spiritual center of the Twelver Shi’a Muslims with its revitalized Islamic Persian culture that is different from the Arabs in many essentials.

Four dynasties ruled Iran, the Safavid, the Zand, the Qajars, and the Pahlavi. Once oil was discovered in Iran, the British and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company controlled the Iranian economy and practically ruled the country. In World War II, Reza Shah was forced by the British and the Russians into exile for supporting the Germans in the war, and his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, succeeded him. The US and the UK backed a military coup d’état when the popular charismatic Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry. They deposed the Iranians beloved Mosaddagh and brought back the oil company, the most hated symbol of foreign exploitation. Members of the new middle class became disaffected by the Shah’s policies and the masses of the population saw the Westernization and un-Islamic modernization of the country as the source of all evils. The Iranians revolted, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ran for his life and died shortly in Egypt. The exiled religious leader and politician, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been issuing uncompromising demands for the Shah abdication, returned to Iran in 1979 as a triumphant hero to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. Islam never was a theocracy in the sense of government by priesthood until the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of Khomeini.

When the US overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and elevated the Shi’a in Iraq, it helped extend Iran’s regional influence east and west. Following Ahmadinejad’s election as a president of Iran in January 2006, Iran re-launched its nuclear enrichment program. According to some observers, by the end of 2009, Iran was operating sufficient centrifuges to produce nuclear bomb; it had tested the solid-fuel missile and it had launched a satellite into orbit. That helped Iran to project its influence across the region and highlighted the fragility of the Arab regimes that Washington had counted amongst its traditional allies.

The people of the Middle East are killing each other; there is no transition to democracy in the horizon; Arab regimes and Israel are united against a common enemy, Iran; and the Palestinians’ tragedy is no more of Arab or non-Arab concern.

Can the Middle East people manage the daunting political challenges posed by these sectarian wars waged by undemocratic regimes, where everybody loses except the US military industry?

- Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D. is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to


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