The Prophet’s Curse: Islam’s Ancient Divide Fuels Middle East Conflicts
They began as a cry for freedom in the Middle East, but the Arab rebellions have become increasingly characterized by an ancient sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. SPIEGEL examines how the power struggle between the two groups is sparking new fears along old frontlines.
In the countries that follow the Muslim faith, the lines between past and present often blur, making it seem as though the past is not over, and certainly not forgiven. Indeed, the past can come terribly alive here, and it can turn terribly deadly, again and again, every day.
When representatives from around the world convened in the Iranian capital of Tehran last Thursday for the start of a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an annual meeting of 120 nations that view themselves as not aligned for or against any major powers, the focus was suddenly on 1,300-year-old battles, murders and power struggles. The host was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Shiite. Next to him on the dais was Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni.
Morsi began his opening address with a mention of the Prophet Muhammad, but then continued: “May Allah’s blessing be upon our masters Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.”
Iranian media immediately took the statement as a provocation. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were Muhammad’s successors after the Prophet’s death in 632. Sunni Muslims venerate them as the first caliphs — but Shiite Muslims consider them usurpers and traitors to the faith, hated figures whose very names should not be spoken. Muhammad’s true successor, Shiites say, was Ali, their first imam, who later fought against the other three before being murdered.