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Professor Natana DeLong-Bas Traces Origins of Religious Tensions in the Middle East

Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas presented a lecture titled “Dealing with the Religious Other Within—Sunni-Shia Dynamics in the Islamic Tradition” as part of a series of lectures hosted by the School of Theology and Ministry on Thursday. 

DeLong-Bas is an associate professor of the practice in the Department of Theology, as well as in the Islamic Civilizations and Societies Department. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Bibliographies Online: Islamist Studies. 

The lecture focused on the historic divide between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, outlining how each group came to exist in the power struggle that commenced after Mohammad’s death.

“These identities actually did not exist during Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime; neither are they mentioned in the Quran," DeLong-Bas reminded the audience.

Rather, Sunni and Shia identities were formed and solidified over 200 years of power struggles and secession debates within the Muslim community.

After the Prophet Mohammad’s death, the community was not sure it would survive. The usual path of succession was through male heirs, but all three of Mohammad’s sons had died in childhood. His daughters had married into different powerful families, who each attempted to claim a role in the faith. 

Before the introduction of Islam, tribes believed that alliances died when the leaders who negotiated that alliance also died. In that case, “Mohammad’s death threatened the very fabric of the community,” according to DeLong-Bas.

The community had to address three important questions if it wanted to survive: Who would the next leader be and how would they be picked? Who would serve as religious leaders and in what capacity? And what was the role of the descendants of Mohammad?

“Nothing was guaranteed to anyone. There was really no clear cut, easy choice as to who the logical candidate to take over would be,” DeLong-Bas said. 

The sect that would come to be known as Sunni decided on Abu Bakr as the consensus candidate. His supporters stressed his early conversion to Islam, his connection to Mohammad as his father-in-law, and his continued protection of Mohammad at the risk of his own life as reasons for choosing him as a leader.

Abu Bakr chose the term Caliph, which means “successor.” He made no claims to be a prophet or a messenger, respecting the fact that Mohammad was the “seal of the prophets.” 

The Shia, however, supported a different candidate: Ali, the male cousin of Mohammad who was a close companion on Mohammad and had also saved the Prophet’s life from an assassination attempt. 

Ali eventually became the fourth caliph after the third Caliph Uthman was assassinated, providing an opportunity to reconcile the two sects separated by questions of succession.

The Uthman Caliphate had been controversial, following tradition in appointing family to positions of power, but violating Quranic teachings that mandated appointments based on merit. However, the family wanted justice, and demanded Ali’s priority be finding the assassin. The people in general, however, were unconcerned, forcing Ali to choose between the wishes of the Uthman family and the people. 

Ali attempted to use arbitration to settle the dispute, but his solution did not satisfy either group, leading to the Kharijites (“those who go out”) to split and become their own sect of Islam, challenging Ali’s leadership. 

The leadership challenge was led by another of Muhammad’s cousins, Zaynab, and supported by Aisha, Mohammad’s favorite wife. It culminated in the Battle of the Camel, where Zaynab was killed and Aisha disgraced.

“Ali, himself, stayed in power until he was assassinated by a Kharijite in 661—what a mess,” DeLong-Bas explained.

But the differences between Sunni and Shia are not exclusive to arguments over succession. Shia Muslims also believe in the power of the Imam, who is a direct male descendant of Mohammad who is divinely inspired and infallible in his interpretation of the Quran.

Leadership questions continued to plague and still plague both the Sunni and Shia sects. DeLong-Bas summarized that “the challenges that exist are, and were, very real.”

“We also have to remember that conflicts occur in specific geopolitical and economic contexts,  and are driven as much by claims to power, politics, as they are by doctrine, which would be religion,” said DeLong-Bas.

The divide between the Sunni and Shia sects can lead to religious conflict, but there are political forces that divide and create as much tension as religious divisions. Erasing the differences between Sunni and Shia will not end the conflict in the Middle East. 

“Differences are real and we need to acknowledge them, but we also have to hold the reality that differences do not have to serve as permanent barriers, boundaries, or reasons for hatred and violent conflict,” said DeLong-Bas.

DeLong-Bas elaborated on the creative ways differences can be used to create dialogue in response to an audience question.

An audience member asked, “do you think as time goes on there is beginning to become a sense more of I am an Egyptian, I am an Iranian, adding another potential layer of source to the conflict?”

“[Borders] tend to imply that whatever outside is scary and something we should be afraid of and we should not reach out towards,” DeLong-Bas responded.

“Perhaps the boundaries that we really ought to be thinking the most are the boundaries we are allowing to be placed on our own lives,” DeLong-Bas ended the lecture.   

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