Bahrain in the Light of Sunni-Shia Conflict

 By Saeed Qureshi

The anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain primarily boil down to the centuries-old ideological but bridgeable dissention between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam. The seeds of Shia faith in Islam were sown on the demise of  prophet Muhammad when his successor was to be chosen. The prophet, during his life time, did not appoint a successor or laid down the procedure for choosing a successor after his death.

Since Arab society has a tribal structure, the rivalry for ascendency has been at the root of their coexistence before and after Islam. The prophet belonged to the Banu-Hashim clan of Quraish tribe while the three caliphs who succeeded the prophet were from other tribes. But there was no major discontent or furor over their choice through a limited vote of notables as was the custom being practiced during those times.

But the dissenting voice was that of Hazrat Ali and his loyalists who thought that the succession to the holy prophet should be the inalienable right of the blood relations. Hazrat Ali was the cousin and son -in -law of the prophet and he opposed the choice of the three caliphs on the premise that on various occasions the prophet had indicated that Ali was to be his successor.

Although following the brutal murder of the third caliph of Islam Hazrat Osman, the mantle of caliphate was finally passed on to Hazrat Ali (656 A.D.), but by that time the Muslims in Arab Peninsula and in the Northern regions mainly Iraq and Syria had been divided between those supporting the Hashim clan of Hazrat Ali or the family of prophet and those out of that orbit. The 5 years period of Hazrat Ali’s caliphate ( 656-661) was mostly spent in a civil war between the Omayyad governor of Syria, Amir Muawiyah on one hand and Ali on the other in which hundreds of thousands Muslims died on both the sides.

The massacre of the family of prophet in Karbala near Baghdad by the Omayyad caliph Yazid was the last straw on the camel’s back that finally and irreconcilably divided the Muslim nation into two distinct blocs. There is a great deal of ideological common ground between Sunnis and Shia but by virtue of their various customs and beliefs there are unbridgeable discords that are hard to tide over.

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The cleavage is borne by the very fact that the Sunnis believe in four successors of the prophet, while the Shia discard the first three as illegitimate and only Ali as the legitimate successor of the prophet. Down the ideological road there are numerous denominations and sub sects within the two strident ideological foes.

“The question of true successor to prophet became a cause for division in the ranks of Islam. The Sunnis believe in the principle of elective office. The Shias profess that the true succession to the prophet comes through the prophet’s bloodline and through his cousin and son in law Ali Ibne Talib. The Shias faith is that from the beginning Allah and his prophet had clearly designated Ali as the only legitimate successor and therefore the first three caliphs were not legitimate.” (Mankind’s Search for God)

The Division of Islam between Sunnis and Shia have witnessed in history the mutual sack and pillage by both the groups whenever they got a chance. The Shia being the minority sect (20 percent of the Muslim population around the world) have been mostly persecuted and have remained at the receiving end of the intimidation and brutalities inflicted upon it by the majority sect which do not consider the Shia as Muslims and vice versa. Iraq and Syria, Jordan and Iran have been facing the brunt of the Shia Sunni rivalry all these centuries which is still going on. Millions of Muslims from both sects have died as a result of sectarian hatred and bigotry in these lands.

Even, as late as during Saddam Hussain era, the Shia community had been brutally suppressed. The Shia- Sunni animosity was also rife even after the occupation of Iraq by American forces in 2003. Not only that an insurgency flared up against the occupation armies but there was mutual annihilation and bloody clashes between the adherents of both the sects.

In a broader perspective the Saudi Government professes Sunni faith and the people of Saudi Arabia are predominately Sunnis. On the contrary, Iran’s over 90 percent population practices Shia faith. Thus within the Muslim world there are two stalwart contenders and arch rivals: one heading the Sunnis and the other leading the Shias. Both must remember that the roots of both the sects are the same i.e. Allah and His Prophet (may peace be upon him), the past can not be undone hence instead of living in the conflicts of the past, the road to future must be built. Any let down on future cooperation will benefit none other than the enemies of Islam.

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The conflict between Arab and non- Arabs known as Arabism vs. Ajam dates back to the pre-Islamic eras. The Persians belonging to Ajam had subjugated the Arabs, until the time of the first caliph when the Persian army of emperor Yazd Gard (fire worshipper) was conclusively routed thus ending the Persian suzerainty over Arab lands for ever.

But by interesting twist of events, the Persians embraced the Shia brand of Islam because the spiritual leaders from the family of the prophet took refuge in Iran. Not only that deep-seated ideological feud has been running between the Sunnis Arabs and Iranian Shias but also there have emerged two political blocs each in the form of Saudi Arabia and Iran reviving the old rivalry in the present times. Precisely for these reasons, the Saudi orthodox regime has always supported Israel in comparison to Iran the latter perceived as the biggest and phenomenal threat to Arabs’ hegemony in the Middle East than Israel.

Lately, over the Iran’s nuclear controversy, Saudi king Abdullah called upon the United States to crush the snake’s head by which he meant Iran. In Pakistan this sectarian conflict has always been sharp, frightening and perennially implacable. There is no way under the sun that an ideological  harmony and concord can be brought about between these leading sects whose believers are ever ready to die than shake off their beliefs.

During Saddam’s dictatorship (1979–2003) Shias were brutally persecuted. And since May, 2006 onward, the Sunnis are reported to be mal-treated, discriminated and even tortured by the Iraq’s Shia majority government of Nouri al-Maliki.

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In the sectarian vendettas, thousands of Sunnis and Shias have died in Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. But the pillage and destruction of Baghdad, the cradle of Muslim civilization for seven centuries resulted from the ideological animus between the Sunni caliph Mustaasim and his Shia prime minister Mohammad bin ali Kami. As a result of that rivalry, Out of two million population of Baghdad, 1.5 million were massacred by the Mongols secretly invited by Ali Kami.  All the mausoleums, museums. Institutions of learning and research, big building, mosques and libraries were burned and razed to the ground. Baghdad was turned into a ghost city with river Tigris full of books and the human blood for miles.

Seen in the historical hindsight, the Bahrain uprising against the Khalifah ruling family has sectarian undertones as well. It is utterly impossible for the ruling family to subdue the protestors as the Shia population is 70 per cent to the 30 per cent of the Sunnis population. Moreover, Iran would not let this golden and rare occasion just pass by without producing desirable results that would not only herald political changes in that region but would also bring to  the suppressed Shia population greater leverage and rights. The democratic set up to emerge would be, predictably, in favor of the Shia community because of their predominant majority.

With the dismantling of the dynastic regime, the hold of Saudi Arabi, regional foes of Iran and for that matter of Shias would also weaken or come to an end. Whether such a political change would also be detrimental to the American military presence in Bahrain is yet to be unfolded once the riots and protests successfully subside as happened in Tunisia and Egypt.


The writer is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and a former diplomat writing mostly on International Affairs with specific focus on

 Pakistan and the United State. In Pakistan, he had worked for several years as a senior correspondent for daily “The Muslim” and “Pakistan Observer.”  In 1992 he founded his own English opinion weekly Diplomatic Times and was its Editor and Publisher until 2001 when he moved to the United States.