By: Farhad Hassan
The title of Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam is more telling than it appears at first sight. It is history, but more than that it is a tale, a saga of unparalleled magnitude—an epic story indeed—glamorized all that much by Hazleton’s skillful storytelling, both simple and brilliant in its character.
Herein, perhaps, lies its caveat too. It is a historically accurate story, the events as they unfolded, the humans as they lived—granted so divine a character in most Muslim stories of similar character—are faithfully, humanly depicted. However, it is a story; a narrative, an attempt, albeit a remarkable one, to find a loose thread that would solve the mystery of the skein—knotted first from the threads of the threadbare fabric of Muslim society as it was ripped apart—that now had been haunting it for centuries. For those very reasons, it seems to have developed its own heroes and villains, dictated more by particular perspectives than by any amount of objectivity, at times compelling the author to include qualifications of an incomplete knowledge. At other times, not even those.
Beginning with the Iraqi Ashura Bombings of 2004 in Karbala—that killed 180 and wounded more than 500—and ending with a similar bombing in 2006, Hazleton seems to outline the raison d’être of the book through these, its historical purpose: connecting the past with the present and making an effort to understand both, the past through the present, the present with the help of the past. If that was, indeed, the purpose, Hazleton achieved it magnificently, in a relatively brief book too. She connects the dots from the past to future, all over the Middle East of the past, and that of the present; and, finally, for the comprehensive effect, even hauls the drawing pencil to connect the lines to West, and its careless interventions in recent times—leading as they did to the exacerbation of the situation all over Middle East.
Saddled between these two present day tale of atrocities is the misadventure, a phase of trials and tribulations, so to speak—a Karbala itself (Karbala is supposed to mean “a land of trials and tribulations” as Hazleton mentions and as Shias believe)—that really begins with the death of the Prophet but its roots can be traced to events years before that too. The issue sprang up around the Prophet’s reluctance to pick a successor, resulting in the struggle for political power that began hours after his death. It would soon turn into a permanent divide between the two main factions of Muslim thought—the Shia and the Sunni.
The beginning of the book also establishes Aisha bint Abu Bakr as one of the main figures of the story, along with Ali ibn Abi Talib, almost as two Jungian archetypes. This also reveals one, perhaps the only, glaring flaw in the book, that of Hazleton’s futile and, perhaps, pointless efforts to understand the feelings, thoughts, and motives of people, Aisha in particular. Perhaps getting carried away by the force of her own narrative, she dwells on them at length, even though there is, really, no way of actually knowing them.
The story follows the events as Abu Bakr was “elected” caliph—the “successor”—an event that marks the beginning of disinheritance of Ali. However, Ali was not only sidelined that time, but twice after that too. And when, finally, he was able accede to the caliphate in 656, his claim remained contested even while he was assassinated five years later by a Khariji—a Rejectionist, what Hazleton called the first of Muslim fundamentalists—and his death was, perhaps, the final blow to the already shaky Muslim unity.
The book follows the split as Muslims face-off with each other, leading to assassinations, massacres and civil wars, making each other’s blood halal (permitted) for themselves for political purposes—as do the contemporary extremists, in the same spirit, we are reminded by Hazleton.
Even as we appreciate the facts, the events and the humans depicted directly from some of the most authoritative sources of Muslim history—particularly the History of Al-Tabari—and enjoy Hazleton’s glamorized narrative with a pinch of salt, one message doesn’t fail to hit us: led as it has to countless atrocities over centuries, Muslims should, finally, learn to take the political character of the split with a pinch of salt too.
Farhad Hassan Hashmi is a legal apprentice and a bibliophile who believes in the power of words, mind, caffeine and sandwiches