What the Shia Is Going On?

Anyone who seriously thinks Israel holds the key to peace in the Middle East either doesn’t know history or believes in prophecy. Imagine for a moment a tomorrow with no Israeli state and new apartments for all Palestinians who have lived for nearly three generations in semi self-imposed exile elsewhere. Does Iraq become a stable democracy? Does Assad relinquish complete control in Syria and make way for a transitional government based on mutual consent? Does Iran proclaim its love for the West, declare that it is content to rely on its oil fields for its energy needs and abandon the pursuit of highly enriched uranium? Does Saudi Arabia stop funding various terrorist groups and governments now that Jerusalem is completely out of the reach of the Jews? Do Yemenis lay down their arms and dance in the streets in an Islamic celebration of victory? I think not.

Muhammad’s Islam was never merely a personal religion, a question of conscience. It was also a mandate that Islam be the political authority over the Arab peoples first and ultimately the world. It is this fervor that spread Islam under the edge of the sword so effectively in its debut century. [1] Muhammad ruled as the prophet of his religion, the general of his armies, and the head of his state. In him was vested total authority over all aspects of life. This authority underwent successful transitions of power three times after his death in 632 AD. But the third caliph proved unpopular.

‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third rightly guided caliph (from the Arabic khalifah, successor), was assassinated 656 AD by Egyptians unhappy with his governance – in particular his lavish expenditures and rampant nepotism – and perhaps incensed at his compilation of an “official” Quran at the expense of alternate readings.[2] This set up a crisis of succession that sparked the First Fitnah, or Muslim civil war. Contending for the post of caliph were Muawiyya, the governor of Syria, and Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Muawiyya was the ultimate victor in the conflict in 661 AD. The Muslims who acknowledged his leadership became what we know today as Sunnis, who make up roughly 85% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Those who followed Ali were known as the shi’atu Ali, the party or partisans of Ali. We know them today as Shias.

Westerners have long been insensitive to the realities of this division in Islam. From Crusaders to Colonials to the current power brokers in the District of Columbia, all have been blinded in part by a conception of the nation state, wherein a territorial base and a relatively homogenous ethnicity define identity and political affiliation. For centuries, this was not so for Muslims in the Middle East and surrounding areas. Their prime identity was in Islam and its subsequent divisions into its Sunni and Shia factions. For most of that history, the Sunnis have held the upper hand and the Shias have lived in subjugation. The primary exception of this rule has been Persia, home of the Safavid dynasty from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and roughly what we refer to as Iran today.

Persian history is ancient, but modern Iran – like the rest of the region – was shaped in the forges of the two great World Wars. Through various machinations, Britain and the United States placed the Pahlavi family in power over Persia from 1925 until 1979. After a coup carried out with the help of the CIA placed him securely back on the throne, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled his country even more harshly and pulled them ever so strongly toward Westernization. This exacerbated and inflamed the Islamic passions of the Shia majority, who deposed him in the Islamic Revolution under the guidance of the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. One doesn’t need American Embassy hostages to know that Iran is no fan of the United States.

For the first time in centuries, Shias had their own country where they were clearly in charge. And they were committed to changing the fortunes of their coreligionists in the region. This set the stage for the carnage that persists in the Middle East today. Iran was a major oil producing country. That it now was in the hands of Shias allied with Soviet Union was frightening to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. What to do? What else but fund the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein in an eight-year war that killed nearly a million combatants, Iran suffering the greater losses.

Iraq is a majority Shia country. But Saddam and his regime were Sunnis. He kept the Shias in line, as well as anyone else who opposed him, by any means necessary.  After the First Gulf War and the return of sovereignty to Kuwait, a mostly Shia country, Shias in Iraq rose up to defy Saddam sure that the United States would support their efforts. We did not. They were suppressed, brutally. When we ultimately removed Saddam from power and helped institute a “democratic” government, the vote flowed toward majority rule. Shias came to power. One doesn’t need a burning Bagdad to know that Iraqi Shias are no fans of the United States.

Saudi Arabia shares a border with Iraq and Iran is just a narrow gulf away. It is the second highest producer of crude oil on the planet, topped only by Russia. Yes, that’s right, Russia. The United States chugs behind in third place, but burns more than it can pump. Russia’s position at the top of the heap in production can be attributed to the vision and commitment of one man, Vladimir Putin. But before he came on the stage, Saudi Arabia was king and nearly brought the US to its knees during the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But oil isn’t its only claim to fame. It is also the most influential power base of Sunni Islam; in particular Wahhabi Suniism. To Arabia and the Saudi family belong Medina and Mecca, undoubtedly the holiest sites in all of Islam – an Islam that Shias see themselves as the rightful leaders of.

Despite the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early seventies and Saudi Arabia’s desire to see Israel lose, the Saudis were acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities to their more populous and Shia neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Causing further discomfort was the knowledge that their oil fields were in the region where their Shia minority was the majority. Their need for security outweighed their religious reservations and made them open to Nixon’s petrodollar deal sent in the hands of Henry Kissinger.  In 1974, Kissinger brokered the deal that would keep the Saud family in power and the American dollar the dominant world currency to the present day.

The US commitment was fourfold: we would provide military protection for Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, we would sell the Saudis any weapons they needed (and ultimately, any they wanted), we would guarantee them protection from any other Middle Eastern country, and we would make sure the House of Saud remained in power. In return, the Saudis would sell oil in US dollars only and they would invest their surplus profits in US Treasuries. Regardless of any other sentiments in the region, this alliance more than any other has determined our foreign policy in the Middle East until now.[3]

If you were a prince in the house of Saud looking at how the US has fared in the region in the past fifteen years, you would have to be scratching your head and watching your back. After punishing Iran and holding her at bay for years with our attack dog Saddam, we removed him from power and allowed the Shias to rise to power. And then we mostly vacated the premises and left a vacuum that Iran is gleefully filling. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels – who are a politically fractured group but primarily Sunni – receive encouragement from the US in their attempted oust of Assad, whose Alawite Shia family has been ruling the country with an iron fist for decades, but no intervention serious enough to definitely remove him from power. ISIS is brutal and thuggish, you might think to yourself, but at least they are committed Sunnis killing Shias with as much vigor as they cut off Christian heads. Staring at the long barrel of Iran, where would you put your money?

Yemen may be proof that Saudi Arabia is done with paying to watch us bleed. The successful Shia uprising on their southern flank has them amassing their own troops on the border and flying sorties with their own aircraft. The US is supplying support in the form of refueling planes and signal intelligence; but thus far, no precious American blood. How far will Saudi Arabia go to secure their Sunni hegemony in Dar al Islam against the ascendancy of the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran? Should they decide that rubles may spend just as well as dollars, particularly if Russia should back off of their patronage of Iran, the move would mark the end of the United States reign as a superpower.

[1] A simple note, dear reader, to inform you that there won’t be many more in this post. The subject is vast and I’ve opted for a wide-angle overview. The facts are there for the confirming should one desire to delve deeper.
[2] The original writings of the Quran, sometimes scribbled on palm bark or hastily painted on rocks as Muhammad declared another prophecy, is a story in its own right and worthy of investigation by the curious.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 53.

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Crusaders and Jihadis: The False Equivalence

President Obama touched off a firestorm of condemnation from the political right and Christian conservatives for remarks he made during his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015. The offending comment? “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”[1]

One is free to take umbrage at the President’s admonition for humility in light of the excesses of the past. But to argue against the historicity of his statement simply betrays ignorance of the facts. Crusaders did push east and pillaged under the banner of the cross. Slavery and institutionalized racism were justified through the warped usage of Scripture. Historical facts aren’t the problem with the President’s rhetorical device. The problem is its perpetuation of the false equivalence of radical Islam with Crusading Christianity; be the crusaders Knights Templar or knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

This false equivalence is commonplace in secular appeals to tolerance, perhaps because true secular humanists believe that people of any faith are radicalized to some extent and are thus equally unreasonable. But as much as some might wish it so, all faiths do not fit into the same level playing field. In the maintenance of diplomatic relations (after all, Saudi Arabia is the current guarantor of the value of America’s monetary system) and a politically correct society, it makes sense that the President would trot out the societal sins of supposedly Christian nations as an appeal for understanding in the face of the brutality that is the Islamic State[2] and by extension Dar-al-Islam.[3]

Humanity is brutal. History – modern history in particular – teaches us this.[4] That people of faith commit brutalities should not be surprising to anyone. But for a true comparison of the faiths in question, Christianity and Islam, one should first examine the lives of their founders and only then take stock of their followers to determine which expressions of belief are aberrant and which are faithful. It is with this intent that I humbly present the following comparison of Jesus of Nazareth and Abu al-Qasim Muhammad.

Jesus of Nazareth was a monotheist his entire life. He was born into a Jewish family[5] and publically taught the Shema, “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord.”[6] Muhammad was born into the family of the Banu Hashim, a branch of the powerful Quraysh, which was the ruling tribe of Mecca that was responsible for guarding Mecca’s most sacred shrine, the Ka’bah.[7] At this time, the shrine was a center of Arabian pagan worship and pilgrimage[8] and contained 360 idols, of which Allah was one.[9] This part of Muhammad’s background is critical to understanding his development of Islam later in life.

According to the Gospel records, Jesus had an encounter with the devil in the early days of his ministry. The recorded response he had to the devil’s various temptations was “It is written.” Thus, by continual appeals to the Jewish holy writ, Jesus triumphed over the devil’s temptations.[10] Muhammad’s interaction with the devil had a different outcome. In order to conciliate the Quraysh who were hesitant to embrace his newly proclaimed monotheism, Muhammad spoke what have become known as the “Satanic verses” in which he allowed for the Arabian gods al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat to be intercessory spirits with Allah. He later recanted this declaration with verses that implied that Satan had cast the words into his previous recitation.[11]

In one of the many encounters that Jesus had with the religious establishment of his day, a woman who had been captured in the act of adultery was brought before him for judgment. The Law of Moses commanded stoning as the punishment for adultery and they wanted to know what Jesus would do. In a response worthy of Solomon, Jesus declared “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, all the accusers left. “Did no one condemn you?” Jesus asked the woman. “No one, Lord,” she said. “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”[12] Muhammad’s encounters with adulterous women went a bit differently. In one of them, a woman from Ghamid came to him, confessed to adultery, and asked for purification. When Muhammad learned that she was pregnant, he mercifully allowed her to give birth and raise the child until it was weaned. Thereupon, he ordered the woman buried alive up to her chest and then stoned to death.[13]

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”[14] Jesus backed up these words with dramatic actions as we shall see later. Muhammad ordered the assassination of Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf because Al-Ashraf had “hurt Allah and His Apostle.”[15] The nature of the hurt? Ka’b had written poetic verses which were critical of Muhammad and decried the outcomes of the Battle of Badr.[16]

Jesus counseled against divorce, declaring that its cause was unforgiveness in the human heart.[17] Muhammad arranged the marriage of Zaynab bint Jahsh to his adopted son. After they divorced, Muhammad took her as his wife.[18] His action was sanctified through revelations in the Qur’an.[19]

All conical records portray Jesus as celibate throughout his life and a bachelor at the time of his execution.[20] Additionally, his concern for and estimation of children are well documented.[21] Muhammad became betrothed to his third wife, Aisha, when she was six years old. The marriage was consummated, in Aisha’s words, when she was nine.[22]

On the night of his arrest, Jesus made it clear that he went willingly. When he asked the mob that invaded the garden who they were looking for, they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I am he,” he said and they all lurched backward and fell to the ground.[23] Jesus then offered himself up for arrest and requested that his disciples be let go. But Peter would have none of it. He drew his sword and cut the right ear off Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Jesus told Peter to put the sword away and then healed Malchus’s ear.[24] Muhammad had no reservations with regard to the use of the sword. He commanded the beheading of unbelievers met in battle.[25] He also killed prisoners of war. One such instance occurred after the Battle of the Trench in Medina. Muhammad ordered the slaughter of all the males of the Jewish tribe known as the Banu Qurayza who had confronted his forces in battle.[26] All the males, estimates range from 600 to 900, were led to the city square and beheaded. Their women and children were sold into slavery. [27] One he kept for himself as a concubine.[28]

In his testimony before Pontius Pilate, Jesus made it clear that he had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. In answer to Pilate’s question if Jesus was King of the Jews, he replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”[29] A quote from a former professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University, Mark A. Gabriel, offers a good contrast:

“With Allah by their side, Muhammad and his army set their sights on conquering the world. This is the Muhammad that the Islamic radical is emulating. Muhammad personally led his army into twenty-six battles, and they were very successful. The motley group that began in a desolate city in the desert subdued the cities of Arabia one by one until, right before his death, Muhammad had total control of the entire Arabian Peninsula.”[30]

Most Muslims are not Jihadis and most Christians are not Crusaders or cross burners. But in light of the teachings and histories of Muhammad and Jesus, which adherents of these faiths exhibit faithfulness to the example of their founders?

[1] President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast”,  hereafter cited as RPNPB, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast, (accessed February 6, 2015).
[2] It has been the policy of the White House to refer to the group as ISIL and the President maintained this preference in his comments. Using ISIL instead of ISIS or some other designation is more diplomatic nuance which the author believes is ill advised whatever its motivation.
[3] Dar-al-Islam, “the house of Islam”; i.e., the Islamic world.
[4] Even as I write this, it is reported that ISIS has beheaded 20 Coptic Christians as a warning to “crusaders.” Updated to 21 the next day. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/02/15/video-purports-to-show-isis-militants-beheading-christian-hostages/, (accessed February 15, 2015). I cannot but help to wonder if they are somehow trying to resonate with the President’s recent remarks.
[5] Matt 1:18-25; Luke 2:4-7. All Biblical references are to the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
[6] Mark 12:28-30; Deut 6:4-5
[7] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Muhammad”, Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/396226/Muhammad, (accessed February 8, 2015).
[8] “Ka’bah”, Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/309173/Kabah, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[9] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, © 2000, 2002 by Karen Armstrong, p.11, https://archive.org/stream/IslamAShortHistoryKarenArmstrong/Islam-A-Short-History-Karen-Armstrong#page/n49/mode/2up, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[10] Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
[11] Silas, “Muhammad and the Satanic Verses”, http://www.answering-islam.org/Responses/Saifullah/sverses.htm, (accessed February 8, 2015). I have endeavored to restrict citations regarding Muhammad to accepted authoritative sources and Islamic sources. Answering Islam is not an Islamic site. But the author of the article did such a fantastic job documenting the evidence for the Satanic verses that I felt no need to replicate them.
[12] John 8:2-11 New American Standard Bible
[13] From the Hadith Shaih Muslim, Book 17, Number 4206, http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/hadith/muslim/017-smt.php, (accessed February 14, 2015).
[14] Matt 5:44
[15] From the Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Book 59, Number 369, http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/hadith/bukhari/059-sbt.php, (accessed February 15, 2015). In sending the assassins, Muhammad authorized lying and deception to get the job done.
[16] W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, Oxford, 1956, p. 18, https://archive.org/stream/muhammadatmedina029655mbp#page/n39/mode/1up, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[17] Matt 5:31-32; 19:1-9
[18] Muslims cast this incestuous story in their version of a liberating light, i.e. that blood and legal relations shouldn’t be equated. See “Zaynab bint Jahsh”, http://www.islamswomen.com/articles/zaynab_bint_jahsh.php, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[19] Qur’an 33:36-37
[20] The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Old Testament prophetic literature also depicts the Messiah as such.
[21] Matt 19:13-15
[22] From Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Book 58, Number 234-235, http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/hadith/bukhari/058-sbt.php, (accessed February 14, 2015). It is estimated that Muhammad was in his fifties at the time of their marriage. Imagine this scene in most modern Western countries: a middle-aged man dreams of a little girl and falls in love with her picture, marries and has intercourse with her while she is prepubescent. This is the scene that is romanticized in the cited Hadith.
[23] John 18:1-6
[24] John 18:7-11; Luke 22:50-51
[25] Qur’an 47:4
[26] “Muhammad and the Jews of Medina”, http://www.pbs.org/muhammad/ma_jews.shtml, (accessed February 8, 2015).
[27] Richard A. Gabriel, “Muhammad: The Warrior Prophet”, http://www.historynet.com/muhammad-the-warrior-prophet.htm, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[28] “List of Muhammad’s Wives and Concubines”, No. 8, http://wikiislam.net/wiki/List_of_Muhammads_Wives_and_Concubines, (accessed February 15, 2015).
[29] John 18:36 New International Version. Scripturally, Christianity is only a political movement in its eschatology. The King is shown as returning to set up His Kingdom on earth, not his servants taking up the sword to make it so.
[30] Mark A. Gabriel, PhD, Journey Into the Mind of an Islamic Terrorist, (Lake Mary: Frontline 2006), 131.