Sunnis and Shi'a: A Political History
“While Sunnis and Shi'a: A Political History is not for the casual student of Islam and Middle Eastern history and politics, for the dedicated regional student who wants to examine the politics of the current conflicts in the region it provides a wealth of insight.”
The divisions between the Sunni and Shi’a blocs of Islam can be challenging for non-Muslims to comprehend at times. But as the ongoing crises in the Middle East have demonstrated, understanding the political as well as the theological and ideological differences is key to deciphering current events in this volatile part of the world.
This new book by Laurence Louër, translated from the original French, offers an in-depth look at the often convoluted mix of politics and religion that has driven the Muslim world since the seventh century. The book jumps right in as the author assumes the reader has at least a basic knowledge of Muslim history and theology.
This volume emphasizes the political differences between the sects, beginning with the original schism in Islam over the rightful succession to Mohammed and the legitimacy of a hereditary caliphate. The author weaves a deep and sophisticated analysis through the first half of the book, guiding the reader through the evolution of Islamic political thought and its interactions with different schools of Islamic theology and jurisprudence for both the Sunnis and Shi’as.
After the first half of the book sets the stage by focusing on the political divergences between the two sects, the second half then presents a series of country studies on the political interactions between the Sunni and Shi’a populations within those countries and the subsequent effects on the governance and stability of not only that country but it’s surrounding neighbors and the region as a whole. The author has chosen some of the most strategically vital and unstable countries in the region: Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
All of these countries have experienced internal strife that have impacted not only the security and stability of the region, but world events. Not unexpectedly, the fact that many of these countries have significant Shi’a minorities ruled by Sunni majorities is examined as the primary cause of instability. However, Iraq and Iran are Shi’a majority countries, so naturally the author contrasts the treatment of Sunni minorities at the hands of Shi’a dominated governments. Bahrain represents an outlier where a Sunni minority dynasty rules over a Shi’a majority, which actually required the timely intervention of Saudi military forces in 2011 to quell Shi’a protests. In all of these countries, the author examines the role of groups such as the Sunni dominated Muslim Brotherhood, Shi’a organizations like Hezbollah, and other groups typically formed by the minority or political dissenters to provide some means or resistance to what they consider an oppressive majority.
The author also presents a cogent analysis of the on-going “cold war” between the Saudis and Iranians for military, political, and theological dominance in the region. Although religious differences are a contributing factor, the author notes that perhaps more significant are basic political and economic differences between the two countries, leading to the recent military clashes in the Persian Gulf.
The second half of the book is the definite payoff for persisting through the sometimes meticulous history and theory of the first. Each of the countries examined has a long history of Sunni-Shi’a animosity and the background and analysis by the author provides a better understanding of current events.
While Sunnis and Shi'a: A Political History is not for the casual student of Islam and Middle Eastern history and politics, for the dedicated regional student who wants to examine the politics of the current conflicts in the region it provides a wealth of insight.