Any kind of sectarianism is toxic but badly informed sectarianism is the nastiest and most harmful. This poisonous sectarianism is found in ill-informed Shi‘is who diminish and have people believe that at the roots of Islamic disharmony is ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab who for all intents and purposes strong-armed Abu Bakr into becoming the khalifah. Then Abu Bakr returned the favor by appointing ‘Umar as the second successor to the Prophet (pbuh). Thus, at the source of Islamic division there is a “‘Umar vs. ‘Ali” syndrome. Another version of this Shi‘i interpretation of history bunches the three khulafa’ (Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman) into a bloc of teammates that virtually stole the leadership of the Muslims from Imam ‘Ali. This account of mis-history pits “khulafa’” against Imams. And the rest, as they say, is history.
We have to reiterate for those who read their history through layers of emotional spasms that we Muslims who honor the khilafah of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman hold Imam ‘Ali to have been the most qualified person to lead the Muslims but that does not mean that other lesser-than-him qualified committed Muslims are illegitimate when they [Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman] are “elected” via the Muhajireen and Ansar popular will to lead the Muslims.
So, let us step out of the hackneyed Sunni-Shi‘i insular rift with probing minds and look at the larger picture which predates al-Jamal, Siffin, and Karbala’. [I advise some of my Sunni brothers to brush up on the history of these “Islamic civil wars”.]
The wars of Riddah [denouncing and renouncing Islam] were dealt with more decisively by Abu Bakr as leader than would have been the case had Imam ‘Ali been the leader at that ummah-threatening time period. Not because Abu Bakr was more qualified as an individual than Imam ‘Ali but because Abu Bakr was more qualified as a social/putative person than Imam ‘Ali—given the strongly latent tribal, ancestral, cultural, nationalist and separatist characteristics and tendencies outside the Muhajireen and Ansar concerted Islamic-Muhammadi socio-spirit in Arabia.
When the internal strife of a pan-Arabian Riddah was successfully quelled by the Muhajireen and Ansar led by Abu Bakr, he made good on channeling the inherent Arabian primitive penchant for raiding beyond Madinah (that is to say, the use of necessary physical force within an Islamic strategy to liberate contiguous communities and countries). Along these lines Abu Bakr dispatched Khalid ibn al-Walid to al-Hira [near al-Kufa in ‘Iraq]. The central foreign policy of Islamic decision-making turned out to be a popular military mobilization in the direction of both ‘Iraq and Syria.
This meant that the Islamic struggle for truth and justice was going to spar with the two hemispheric power blocs of that era: Persia and Byzantium. These were two antagonists that were “full of themselves”; i.e. showing off their arrogance of power, patsy proxies, lavish wealth and multi-material military resources—that spread as far as the eye could see. But what meets the soul was pathetic human conditions and soul-searching societies because of oppressive kings, extravagant elites, religious dissension, and a struggle for power internally and externally.
Contrast that with the binding spirit of Islam with its Muhammadi momentum and Madinian movement. The ascetic life-style and the frugal everyday life of individuals who were now on an Islamic emancipation mission unto the nations of the world turned out to be a paradigm shift in the geopolitical sense of the word. Most of the Islamic victories against the Byzantines and Persians took place when ‘Umar was head of state. These included Persia, Palestine, greater Syria, and Egypt. The two losers were the Persian Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium.
At this point one can just see in the mind’s eye how the ruling classes, the wealthy classes, and the religious classes in both Byzantium and Persia felt towards the Islamic victory over their imperial armed forces. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar were considered enemy number one by the informed rulers of Persia and Byzantium—just as they are considered enemy number one by misinformed fanatic Shi‘is today. What a coincidence—or is it—that prominent Byzantium and royal Persia find an echo chamber in the fanatic speeches of today’s sectarian Shi‘is? The difference between the two is that the stately Persians and royal Byzantines classify as top secret their animosity towards Islamic successors to the Prophet (pbuh) while Shi‘i fanatics broadcast their animosity towards the successors of the Prophet (pbuh) via their satellite stations and in their hate speeches emanating mostly in imperialist America and colonialist Europe.
This writer who is perceived by many Shi‘is as a Sunni and is seen by many Sunnis as a Shi‘i was “advised” by a Shi‘i brother to concentrate on criticizing the fanatical Sunnis and not the fanatical Shi‘is as I am a Sunni in his eyes. And I agree that only level-minded Sunnis will be able to take on and thwart wild and out-of-control fanatical Sunnis in the same sense that only level-minded Shi‘is will be able to take on and thwart wild and out-of-control fanatical Shi‘is.
His advice would have been on the mark had there been Shi‘is who are themselves critical and disapproving of their own fanatics. It turns out that in the larger Sunni-Shi‘i family of Islam we suffer from a scarcity of an Imam Khomeini who was able to put the lid on Shi‘i hate speech and a scarcity of Muhammad al-Ghazali who, even though lacking the instruments of state power, was able to expose, pounce on, and tackle Sunni prejudice and fanaticism. I am writing these articles because I hear from certain Shi‘i “scholars” statements that trace the whole phenomenon of current takfiri terrorism to the successors of the Prophet (the khulafa’). On the other side of the sectarian divide, I hear Sunni media figures who speak highly of the Umayyad dynasty and say that Mu‘awiyah is unfairly maligned and incorrectly defamed! Both of these accounts are fabrications of sectarian temperaments.
In the thirty years that followed the heavenly departure of our praised Prophet (pbuh), Imam ‘Ali and ‘Umar among the rest of the Muhajireen and Ansar and the rest of the committed Muslims were not living in a political or military vacuum. There were, as is the case today, predator nation-states that were out to defeat Islamic self-determination. The Byzantine Empire was collapsing under its own weight-of-wickedness.
One needs only to look at Europe and the US today to see how such imperial establishments are desperate and beginning to disintegrate. The off-and-on early military conflict with Persia took its toll on Byzantium. The latter was losing in the East to Persia, and to the West it was losing to the Visigoths [an ancient Germanic people who conquered parts of the Roman Empire (Byzantium West). They destroyed Rome in 410 CE and took over parts of Spain and southern France…] in those embattled times, the rise of an Islamic force from the south was a matter of “national security” for a Byzantine Empire on its last legs.
In that setting, we thinking Muslims [thinking Muslims by virtue of our Qur’anically-guided reckoning] should not be trapped in a Sunni-Shi‘i ruse. Therefore, we may sensibly ask ourselves: were the overpowered Byzantines and Persian ruling classes absent-minded or unconcerned about the internecine Islamic warfare at al-Jamal, Siffin, and then Karbala’? Today, that would be like saying the USA, Europe, and Israel are absent-minded or unconcerned about the 1980s war between jingoistic ‘Iraq and Islamic Iran, or about the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or the wars in Syria, Libya, Somalia, etc… in Muslim lands.
The way Shi‘i sectarians speak about Imam ‘Ali, al-Hasan, al-Husein etc… one would think the world was empty of foreign intrigue, “superpower infiltration”, imperial hegemonic designs, etc… And the way Sunni sectarians speak about the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid dynasties one gets the impression that these dynastic ruling classes had no common interest or surreptitious relationships with the royal and imperial powers of that time. That is liking saying Saudi Arabia today has no working or stealthy relations with today’s “superpowers” that are inimical to Islamic self-determination.
Saudi Arabia and other regimes in the Arabian Peninsula presented themselves as supporters, promoters, and sponsors of Islamic movements in the Sunni realm in the past 40 years or so. Now the same Saudi family-regime classifies Islamic movements as terrorists. Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan is as much a ‘khalifah’ as Salman ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. The mental hallucinations of sectarians stand in the way of getting it right.
O you who are committed [to Allah’s helpful power]! Guard yourselves against Allah [His corrective power] and express yourselves with words that are accurate [and correct]… (Al-Ahzab, 70)