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The talk begins by covering the decades following the death of the Prophet Muhammad which ended with civil war engulfing the Muslim community. This crucial historical background is necessary to understand how Muslims became divided between those who found guidance in the recollections of the Prophet’s Companions, and those who sought it through the Prophet’s family and descendants. In time, these two groups developed into what we now call Sunnis and Shi’is. The two groups were not always confrontational towards each other. They also overlapped and cross-fertilised.
In the sixteenth century, Iran (hitherto a majority Sunni country) was converted to Twelver Shi’ism by its Safavid rulers. For a while, sectarian feeling was a factor in the hostilities between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, but the sting was taken out of this in the eighteenth century.
From the nineteenth century onwards Sunnis and Shi’is were generally allies against the political, economic and cultural invasion of the West. Islamic unity across the sects became increasingly urgent, while nationalism made sectarian differences less important. Yet the divide never went away. It exploded from the 1970s onwards after the oil price boom and the Islamic revolution in Iran.
As Wahhabi and Salafi preaching against Shi’is spread, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran used communities as proxies in their struggle for hegemony. Simultaneously, sectarian politics became entrenched in Iraq after 2003, whilst a Salafi jihad in Syria demonised the Shi’i Alawi minority from which the president and many of his henchmen came.
But all is not lost. The dangers of sectarian politics have become clear. People power movements that have taken to the streets in many Middle Eastern cities in 2011 and on a number of subsequent occasions recognise this. The future need not be bleak.
John McHugo is an honorary senior fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. He was an Islamic Studies researcher at Oxford and the American University in Cairo, and then spent 25 years as an international lawyer involved with the Middle East. In 2007, he retired from law to research and write about Islam and the Arab world. He has written three books, A Concise History of the Arabs, Syria: A Recent History, and now A Concise History of Sunni and Shi’is (Georgetown University Press).
He has also published numerous articles on the Middle East, including on James Sanua, the Jewish Egyptian nationalist and satirist, and on the link between the League of Nations Mandates in Syria, Palestine and Iraq as well as today’s toxic sectarianism. He has also published on international law topics relevant to the Middle East.
The contribution of John’s scholarship was acknowledged by the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University in Scotland, which appointed him a Senior Fellow in 2015.