"Why is there such a strong Sunni/Shia divide?We can say the same thing about other apparently-religious conflicts, such as the Protestant-Catholic divide in northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland. But Alexander probes more deeply:
"I know the Comparative Religion 101 answer. The early Muslims were debating who was the rightful caliph. Some of them said Abu Bakr, others said Ali, and the dispute has been going on ever since. On the other hand, that was fourteen hundred years ago, both candidates are long dead, and there’s no more caliphate. You’d think maybe they’d let the matter rest.
"Sure, the two groups have slightly different hadith and schools of jurisprudence, but how many Muslims even know which school of jurisprudence they’re supposed to be following? It seems like a pretty minor thing to have centuries of animus over."
"Nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements – these are all really different, but they also have some deep similarities.It doesn't take much to generate a sense of tribal camaraderie. I've previously remarked about the benefits of membership of the International Marxist Group in my early twenties: a shared culture of mostly-fun activities .. and guaranteed weekend parties.
"They’re all groups of people. They all combine comradery within the group with a tendency to dislike other groups of the same type. They all tend to have a stated purpose, like electing a candidate or worshipping a deity, but also serve a very important role as impromptu social clubs whose members mostly interact with one another instead of outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports, and have the same philosophical beliefs as other members of the group – even when there are only tenuous links or no links at all to the stated purpose.
"They all tend to develop sort of legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of the groups’ founders and past champions. And they all tend to inspire something like patriotism, where people are proud of their group membership and express that pride through conspicuous use of group symbols, group songs, et cetera. For better or worse, the standard way to refer to this category of thing is “tribe”."
Scott Alexander applies this insight to the Shia-Sunni conflict:
"I know very little about early Islam and am relying on sources that might be biased, so don’t declare a fatwa against me if I turn out to be wrong, but it looks like from the beginning there were big pre-existing differences between proto-Shia and proto-Sunni. A lot of Ali’s earliest supporters were original Muslims who had known Mohammed personally, and a lot of Abu Bakr’s earliest supporters were later Muslims high up in the Meccan/Medinan political establishment who’d converted only after it became convenient to do so.Like I said, it's a long essay which, with the comments, covers atheism, evangelical christianity, rationalism, science-fiction and video gaming subcultures, and cultural appropriation (some good points about that).
"It’s really easy to imagine cultural, social, and personality differences between these two groups. Probably members in each group already knew one another pretty well, and already had ill feelings towards members of the other, without necessarily being able to draw the group borders clearly or put their exact differences into words. Maybe it was “those goody-goodies who are always going on about how close to Mohammed they were but have no practical governing ability” versus “those sellouts who don’t really believe in Islam and just want to keep playing their political games”.
Then came the rallying flag: a political disagreement over the succession. One group called themselves “the party of Ali”, whose Arabic translation “Shiatu Ali” eventually ended up as just “Shia”. The other group won and called itself “the traditional orthodox group”, in Arabic “Sunni”.
"Instead of a vague sense of “I wonder whether that guy there is one of those goody-goodies always talking about Mohammed, or whether he’s a practical type interested in good governance”, people could just ask “Are you for Abu Bakr or Ali?” and later “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Also at some point, I’m not exactly sure how, most of the Sunni ended up in Arabia and most of the Shia ended up in Iraq and Iran, after which I think some pre-existing Iraqi/Iranian vs. Arab cultural differences got absorbed into the Sunni/Shia mix too.
"Then came development. Both groups developed elaborate mythologies lionizing their founders. The Sunni got the history of the “rightly-guided caliphs”, the Shia exaggerated the first few imams to legendary proportions. They developed grievances against each other; according to Shia history, the Sunnis killed eleven of their twelve leaders, with the twelfth escaping only when God directly plucked him out of the world to serve as a future Messiah.
"They developed different schools of hadith interpretation and jurisprudence and debated the differences ad nauseum with each other for hundreds of years. A lot of Shia theology is in Farsi; Sunni theology is entirely in Arabic. Sunni clergy usually dress in white; Shia clergy usually dress in black and green. Not all of these were deliberately done in opposition to one another; most were just a consequence of the two camps being walled off from one another and so allowed to develop cultures independently.
"Obviously the split hasn’t dissolved yet, but it’s worth looking at similar splits that have. Catholicism vs. Protestantism is still a going concern in a few places like Ireland, but it’s nowhere near the total wars of the 17th century [...]."
Alexander's take home message?
"My title for this post is also my preferred summary: the ideology is not the movement. Or, more jargonishly – the rallying flag is not the tribe. People are just trying to find a tribe for themselves and keep it intact. This often involves defending an ideology they might not be tempted to defend for any other reason. This doesn’t make them bad, and it may not even necessarily mean their tribe deserves to go extinct. I’m reluctant to say for sure whether I think it’s okay to maintain a tribe based on a faulty ideology, but I think it’s at least important to understand that these people are in a crappy situation with no good choices, and they deserve some pity.Read the whole thing there.
"Some vital aspects of modern society – freedom of speech, freedom of criticism, access to multiple viewpoints, the existence of entryist tribes with explicit goals of invading and destroying competing tribes as problematic, and the overwhelming pressure to dissolve into the Generic Identity Of Modern Secular Consumerism – make maintaining tribal identities really hard these days. I think some of the most interesting sociological questions revolve around whether there are any ways around the practical and moral difficulties with tribalism, what social phenomena are explicable as the struggle of tribes to maintain themselves in the face of pressure, and whether tribalism continues to be a worthwhile or even a possible project at all."