|Ruins of the ancient city of Hatra Source|
First off, let’s address something incredibly important. The difference between Sunnis and Shiites in the region is one of the major causes of its seemingly endless unrest. Most of us, if we’re being honest, couldn’t explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam if we tried, so let’s pause here at the beginning to make some sense of it. The split happened in 632, right after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, and was essentially a disagreement over who should replace him. The majority of his followers believed that they should choose the next Caliph – the spiritual leader of Islam as well as the head of the Islamic Empire. A few, however, believed that the line of succession should follow Muhammad’s family line, and go to his son-in-law, Ali. This group which, not surprisingly, included Ali, called themselves the Shia, and a schism was born. The Sunnis won out, and a new caliph was chosen, but with decades of violence, and the murder of two caliphs, as the result. Ali was eventually chosen as the fourth caliph, but this led to a war in which Ali himself was killed. His son, Hussein, became a martyr for the Shiite cause when he and 72 family members went into battle against the caliph’s much larger army and, again not surprisingly, were all killed. Since then, Hussein’s spiritual significance has been transferred to the Shiite leaders, or Imams. This is one of the biggest sticking points between Sunnis and Shiites, as no leader in Sunni Islam has the same kind of spiritual importance as Shiite Imams. Some Sunnis make the argument that Shiites attribute to their Imams the kind of divine qualities which should be reserved exclusively for God. This is important when we get to the Twelfth Imam, also known as the Hidden Imam, who is for most Shiites a kind of messiah. The Twelfth Imam disappeared in an event now called The Occultation, and so-called Twelver Shiites believe that God took him so that he can return at the end of the world. Although Shiites are a minority – they only make up about 15% of Muslims worldwide – they are the majority in Iraq.
Now that I’ve just jammed 2000 years of history into a paragraph, let’s get back to Iraq. Click through to go with me.