THE PERPETUAL CONFLICT
Muslims have difficulty reconciling the two major groups (Sunnis and Shi’ites) that fall under the Islamic faith today. There is a prevailing conflict between these two sects that is embedded within Islam because of history and interpretation of the Qur’an. Overall, Islam consists of about 90% Sunnis and 10% Shi’ites, with minor groups as the Ibadi scattered throughout the faith. The conflict between the two major groups has existed for centuries. The present ISIS movement in the Middle East is composed primarily of Sunnis. The atrocities of this movement have embarrassed most Muslims to the point that where we live in Africa, Muslims do not even want to talk about the matter. They do not because they have for so long assumed that if the whole world were Islamic, then there would be peace on earth among all men. But the reality is that embedded within Islam is conflict between the different sects that will never be resolved. The Muslim’s argument that there will be peace once the whole world becomes Islam is simply a fantasy in view of the present conflict between Islamic sects within those nations that are totally Islam. If peace cannot be realized from within totally Islamic nations today, then certainly Muslims must not think that the rest of the world would have peace if the world was Islam.
Add to this that there is a continued conflict within Islamic societies between moderate Muslims and fundamentalist radicals. In the Islamic conflicts of the Middle East, by far more deaths result from Muslim against Muslim than Muslim against those of other faiths. Boko Haram of northeastern Nigeria, after the example of their radical brothers in the Middle East, attack other Muslims. In this carnage, men, women and children are ruthlessly murdered in the name of Allah. In fact, the BCC reported that in 2014 an average of 5,000 people were murdered every month throughout the world by Islamic radicals. Most of those who were killed were Muslims. As long as there are Muslims who seek to modernize their interpretation of the Qur’an according to the reality of a developed world, then there will always be mortal conflict between the moderate Muslim and the fundamental Islamic radical. And since the radical Islamist in underdeveloped countries is intimidated by the developed world, he will always use his religion as an excuse to lash out at the rich infidel in order to justify his poverty.
This conflict will never be resolved because in those Middle East countries where everyone is Muslim, there is a deadly war going on between the Shi’ites and Sunnis. The result of the differences between the radicals of both groups will always be power struggles to determine who will be in control. The radicals of the two groups have little tolerance for one another when it comes to determining who is going to be in control of the state, and subsequently, the riches of the society. This contention between the two sects began soon after the death of Muhammad, and will continue indefinitely into the future.
Muhammad was born around 570. He grew up in Mecca of western Arabia. In 622 he revealed his beliefs, assuming that he had received “word” as divine revelation from Allah. He asserted this claim to those of his Arab tribal group, who eventually accepted him as a prophet of God. All went well during his lifetime in presenting a united front to his believers. But when he died, things changed. Division within the ranks of the followers began ten years after his death in 632 and continue unto this day.
The problem was that Muhammad did not name a successor as the leader of the new Islamic ideology. Subsequently, one group of followers believed that the role of the caliph (the viceroy of Allah), should come from the bloodline of Muhammad. This bloodline should extend through the lineage of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, who was named Ali ibn Bi Talib. But the majority of his followers believed that Muhammad’s religious heritage and leadership should be passed down through the lineage of his friend, Abu Bakr, who had no bloodline connection to Muhammad.
Shortly after the death of Muhammad, Bakr became caliph, though Ali would eventually become the fourth caliph before he was murdered in 661. Upon the death of Ali, the successor of Muhammad was again debated among Muslims. This dispute eventually led to a formal division between Muslims that exists to this day. The majority of the division backed Mu’awiyah, the governor of Syria, and his son, Yazid. This group is today known as the Sunnis.
The minority group followed the succession of Ali through his son, Hussein. This group was collectively known as Shi’at Ali, meaning those who are aligned with Ali. This group is known today as the Shi’ites, or Shia. When these two divisions of Islam eventually met on a battlefield near Karbala on October 10, 680, Hussein was killed and decapitated.
Through the Sunnis’ conquest of the Shi’ites at Karbala, the Sunnis sought to terminate the “apostate” Shi’ites. But the contrary happened. The murder of Hussein gave the Shi’ites a martyr, and thus, upon the martyrdom of Hussein, the followers of Hussein eventually consolidated Shi’ite Muslims as a distinctive sect of Islam. The death of Hussein eventually became the most celebrated annual occasion of the Shi’ites because he was revered as one who stood up against the oppression of the Sunni sect.
The Sunnis were loyal to Mu’awiyah and his successors. They eventually became the majority sect of all Muslims and were known for their oppression of all other sects of Islam. The word “Sunni” means those who follow Sunnah, or the Way of the prophet. The Sunnis assumed the belief and practice that the caliph was a political leader, as well as the religious leader of the people. This belief eventually made the Sunnis the dominant sect among all Muslims, comprising the greater percentage of all Muslims today.
But in opposition to Sunni beliefs and practices, Shi’ite teaching appeals to those Muslims who always feel the oppression of the Sunnis. Their religious leaders are the imams who seek to be the spiritual descendants of Muhammad. Through the leadership of their spiritual leaders, Shi’ites seek to maintain the spirit of Islam, and at the same time, the imams seek to lead Muslims to refuse the oppression of the Sunnis.
The 12th imam of the Shi’ites, Muhammad al-Mahdi, supposedly disappeared in the ninth century at the Samarra Shrine in Iraq. Most Shi’ites believe that Muhammad al-Mahdi was mysteriously hidden until a time when he will be revealed at an undetermined date. When he does reappear, it is assumed that he will restore a reign of justice throughout the world by promoting the beliefs of the Shi’ites.
Though the Sunnis and Shi’ites had minor conflicts with one another for centuries, it seems that in the unstable political atmosphere of the Middle East today, their differences have been accentuated and clearly revealed to the rest of the world. Their former tolerance of one another involved intermarriage and business. However, intervention by the West to deliver the Islamic countries from either Sunni or Shi’ite dictators ignited old differences between the two sects. The opportunity was presented for struggle as to who was going to dominate the government of the supposedly liberated state and claim the riches of oil money. And because there seems to be no deep spirit of compromise among fundamental Islamists on either side of the conflict, too many fathers, mothers, sons and daughters have been and will be murdered by opposing sects. There seems to be no light at the end of this quagmire of religious strife to allow a restoration of peace in those Arabic nations where there is competition for power and oil riches by Sunnis and Shi’ites.
There is thus a perpetual Middle East conflict within Islam that will continue in the years to come. The conflict is not for a religious victory of either sect, but for the right to govern those Middle East nations that are predominately Muslim. Sunnis and Shi’ites disagree over some matters of interpretation of the Qur’an, but they agree on the fundamentals. They agree on the requirements of faith and prayer, the infallibility of the Qur’an, and the veneration of the prophet Muhammad. And where we have witnessed great conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’ites, there is no evidence that one group is trying to convert the other to their particular historical lineage of spiritual leaders or brand of Qur’anic interpretations. They are simply in competition with one another in order to determine who will be victorious in any conflict.
The rise of Islamist movements as ISIS is different. The ISIS movement illustrates a conflict within Islam to restore a radical interpretation of the Qur’an in order to create an Islamic state. All opposition to such movements as ISIS are given three options: (1) convert to the mandates of radical Islam and join in the restoration of a true Islamic state, (2) flee the territory that is claimed by the radicals, or (3) die. Because of these mandates by the ISIS movement, all forms of Christianity in ISIS controlled territory is now being eradicated. Church buildings that have been in existence for centuries are being emptied as those of Christian faith flee ISIS controlled territory. All Muslims who would disagree and not convert to the ISIS definition of Islam are killed.
What is so glaringly hypocritical about the ISIS movement—and all similar Islamic movements with a similar ideology—is that the money to continue their movement would disappear if they were eventually victorious in their final goal. Revenue from the sale of oil to the imperialistic and infidel enemies is needed to pay their soldiers and to run their vehicles to fight their battles. But if they succeed in their victory over the infidel, all this would disappear with the disappearance of the infidels. If they would by chance win the war against the infidel, then there would be no one to buy their oil in order to run their state. There would be no more infidel banks to rob and no rich infidel people to kidnap for ransom. The money would be gone and the people would be returned to camels and the sands of the Arabian desert. It is like the horror of a Mad Max movie.
We wonder if radical Islamists think about these things? The truth still stands that any oppressive government regime is impossible to continue over any length of time, especially those radical Islamic movements whose leadership has deceived the people into believing that there is freedom and peace through bondage and oppression.
The best way for the protestant world to understand the division that exists among the many sects of Islam is to compare Islam with the protestant world of denominationalism. There are numerous denominations (sects) that fall under the label “protestant.” All differ, having different names and being identified by various interpretations of the Bible in reference to their teaching. Islam is in like manner divided from within itself. As the protestant from a particular denomination of the protestant world would say that he is a “Christian,” the Muslim would say he is a Muslim in reference to his allegiance to a particular sect of Islam. A Muslim still regards himself to be a Muslim, regardless of the particular denomination of Islam with which he is aligned.
The competition between differing sects of Islam is about political dominance of one group over another, particularly with the two major groups of the Sunnis and Shi’ites. The division is accentuated by a particular groups’ interpretation and application of the Qur’an. Both Sunnis and Shi’ites seek political domination over the people in those nations where Islam is the dominant faith. However, what binds the two groups together is not necessarily the fact that they all claim to be Muslims, but the fact that both groups have a common historical background (heritage) and religious authority, the Qur’an.
The Shi’ites consider themselves to be the oppressed and the Sunnis are considered by the Shi’ites to be the oppressors. In this conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors, the two sects are drawn together into a mutual conflict whenever one particular group is in the majority. If a particular sect enjoys the majority, then there seems to be peace as long as the minority group is allowed to maintain their particular religious heritage, and yet submit to the governance of the dominant sect. But in those countries of the Middle East where there is national upheaval, then the two groups are in competition with one another as to who will eventually rule the country.
The irony is in the fact that the conflict between the two groups is what draws them together. When either group feels that they are under the threat of being “christianized,” then both are united as Muslims against the threat. When one group eventually succeeds in becoming the dominant group in a Middle Eastern country, then the losers of the conflict must submit, and thus, relinquish to the authority of the majority group, or at least to the sect that controls the military muscle. If they do not submit, as in the case of Shi’ites in the ISIS controlled areas that are primarily Sunni, then they must be killed.
The countries that form the majority of Shi’ites today would be Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. However, scattered throughout these countries are also Sunnis. There are also a number of Shi’ites in the minority in countries as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan that are predominately Sunni. But historically, the Sunnis have had the upper hand in political power, even in those countries where Shi’ites have had the numerical advantage.
Syria is primarily Sunni, but has been ruled by a Shi’ite minority known as the Alawites. The minority Shi’ites have maintained their power in Syria by marginalizing the majority Sunnis of the country in the military and government. Assad, the present president of Syria, is Alawite. The rebels of the country are primarily Sunni. The present problem is that the Sunnis feel that it is now their time in history that they should rule the country. And since the West has backed some of the Sunni rebels, the Shi’ites, who are backed by Iranian Shi’ites, now view the West to be on the side of the Sunnis. Now you can understand why the Iranians are somewhat suspicious of the West in their negotiations with Iran over nuclear power. And one can better understand why the Shi’ite majority of Iran seek nuclear power in order to intimidate the oppressing Sunnis that they not even think about asserting power over a Shi’ite Iran.
To western thinking, the conflict embedded within Islam is often confusing. We must simply keep in mind that in the Middle East, the sectarian conflict is more than a conflict over different religious beliefs among Muslims. It is a struggle for state control by one of the sects of Islam in order to gain riches through oil, bank robbery, extortion and the sale of opium. It is about who controls the government and all the wealth of the country. And since both Sunnis and Shi’ites have been inherently competitive (hostile) toward one another for centuries, depending on who was in control of the state, the present upheaval in the Arab world has heightened their hostilities toward one another. This conflict between these two sects of Islam, therefore, will continue indefinitely in the Islamic nations of the Middle East since the two groups will always exist within any particular Middle East nation.
All this conflict can actually be blamed on the leaders of radical Islamists. Muhammad established Islam as a religion of faith and state, and thus, when it comes to competition between sects within the Islamic faith, it turns into confrontation (war) as to who is going to rule the state. This did not exist during the lifetime of Muhammad. The historical irony is in the fact that what Muhammad established to bring unity among Arabs has actually condemned them to perpetual conflict and division. As outsiders looking on, we see in this conflict evidence that such a faith cannot be from one God who would promote unity. Man-made religions always promote division because they always reflect in their faith a distorted understanding of who their god is. And even as Christianity in its early beginnings, there is always division over loyalty to particular leaders when men seek to follow men rather than Christ (See 1 Co 1:12).
We can never become a brotherhood of believers until we all agree upon a common “dictionary” that we will use to define God. It is for this reason that there will never be a common understanding of God by Christians and Muslims. Each group has its own “dictionary.” And, each group claims that their dictionary has been given directly from God. Therefore, when in discussions with Muslims concerning faith, quoting scriptures out of the Bible is often to no avail. What converts Muslims is the love of the God in which Christians believe that is manifested in the life of the Christian. Jesus said something about this in John 13:34,35.
Please keep in mind that the former colonial powers of the Middle East region are also partly to be blamed for present conflicts. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was divided up by the European victors of the war and assigned to different sheiks. There was little consideration given to the portions where either Sunnis or Shi’ites resided. The colonial powers in Europe simply sat down at a table with a map of the region, and then started drawing lines—as they did with Africa—concerning which areas of the area would be considered a nation. They then declared the divided segments to be independent “nations,” which concept was somewhat foreign to the nomadic and bedouin people of Arabia.
The present conflicts are an embarrassment to those Muslims who live outside the Arab world, and who, to a great extent, have conformed to democratic political principles and a life of peace and prosperity under democratic systems of governance. It is for this reason that Christians should never judge Islam by what is happening in the Middle East. Though the ideal of the Muslim will always be that the entire world become Islamic, the non-Arab Muslim focuses on those passages of the Qur’an that promote peace among those of differing faiths. As long as Muslims within democratic states submit to the constitutional law of the states, then there will be peace. But we must never forget that the ultimate goal supported by Qur’anic teaching is that the whole world be Islam.
This does not mean that when Muslims are in the majority that they will always seek to implement the sharia law of the Qur’an. However, true Islam would call for the institution of sharia law as the ultimate goal of the Islamic struggle against the infidel. Christianity, on the other hand, does not have a concept of civil law embedded within the teachings of the New Testament that must be implemented in society in order for one to be a Christian. The Qur’an does. Therefore, when Christians are in the majority, there is freedom of religion. The same cannot be said of Islam.
We must not forget that some of those nations that have historically been governed by either Sunnis or Shi’tes have not allowed “Christians” to function within their borders. Saudi Arabia is one of those countries. Christian faith has existed for centuries in countries as Iraq, Iran and Syria, but it is against the law for a Christian to function within the borders of Saudi Arabia. It has only been since the ISIS movement in the countries where Christians have lived for centuries that they have been driven out of ISIS controlled territory. The Sunni Ottoman Empire encompassed those of the Christian faith throughout the Empire during the centuries of its existence. As long as the Sunni Ottoman caliphs had control of government, then peace was maintained between all religious groups of the Empire, including Sunnis and Shi’ites. But when there is a radical interpretation of the Qur’an by radical Islamists, then everyone, including moderate Muslims, are in trouble, for moderate Muslims are always considered to be apostates by Islamists. And so this is the world as it is among the 1.4 billion Muslims that are scattered among the populations of the world, but particularly in the Middle Eastern countries.
It must be added here that the West has a very difficult time understanding why Muslims would be so much in conflict with one another and willing to be a martyr for their particular sect of Islam, or Islam in general. But what the Muslim cannot understand about the West is the willingness of the Western resident to die willingly for his country, but not for his faith. What is confusing to the Muslim, for example, would be an area of the world where there is possible conflict, and yet, the churches that have sent out missionaries to those areas of possible conflict will immediately call their missionaries home upon the sound of the first gun shot. Muslims cannot understand in their wildest imagination why a Western individual would die for his state, but not for his faith. To the Muslim, to simply die for one’s secular state is absurd, since no state will endure human history. Only faith continues long after every state flag has fallen and turned to dust.
The fact that the Western citizen is willing to die only for his state and not his faith has empowered radical Islamists. As the West becomes more antagonistic to faith (nonreligious), the Islamist has convinced himself that he most certainly will prevail over a people who have no religious convictions. As the basically nonreligious Millennial Generation establishes the culture of the West in the coming years, the Islamist is probably right. How can one who fights only for the privilege of a Starbucks’ cappuccino win against one who is willing to die for his god.
In the conflict with ISIS in northern Syria, the ISIS soldiers would walk in front of their tanks in order to take the hit of the missile that was launched against the tank by opposing forces. They sought to protect the tank with their bodies, and thus in martyrdom, be guaranteed heaven. Their victory in the battle was more important than their lives.
But we would remind the envious terrorist who seeks to bring down the “great satan,” that he promotes an ideology of inconsistency. He is like the environmentalist who gets into his vehicle to go down to the local march against the big oil company that is damaging the environment with carbon fuels. But before he can get to the protest march, he has a memory lapse, and thus stops by the local petrol station to fill up his vehicle with some of those environmentally unfriendly carbons fuels against which he is marching in protest.
The envious terrorists who seeks to bring down the materialistic First World has forgotten that he too is driving around in a vehicle built by the West, using a gun that was made by the West, and probably opening a can of food made by a Western manufacture. If he would accomplish his goal of bringing down the West, then he would eventually be roaming through the deserts of Arabia looking for water for both his camel and himself, for all those blessings that came to him from the great satan would have long vanished away. Too much social chaos is produced by people who do not think concerning the consequences of their self-destructive ideologies.