Seattle author Lesley Hazleton's "After the Prophet" is a cogent explanation of the historical split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, an enmity which has driven much of the recent history of the Middle East. Hazleton reads Monday at Seattle's University United Methodist Church.

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Around 85 percent of Muslims worldwide adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, while 15 percent are Shia. The Shia, however, are concentrated in Iran, Iraq and other key territories around the Persian Gulf; the enmity between the two groups has driven much of the recent history of the Middle East — history in which the United States, like it or not, is now deeply enmeshed.

But most Americans know little more about the Sunni-Shia split than they did 30 years ago, when the Iranian Revolution — deriving much of its imagery and moral force from the Shia version of history — toppled the Shah and created an Islamic republic.

Trying to understand, say, the continuing strife in Iraq without a basic knowledge of what divides Sunni from Shia is like trying to understand the troubles in Northern Ireland without knowing about Catholics and Protestants.

Lesley Hazleton’s fascinating new book, “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam” (Doubleday, 230 pp., $26.95) vividly narrates the ancient arguments and horrific series of attacks and reprisals that continue to resonate today. Hazleton, a veteran journalist and Seattle-based author on Middle Eastern affairs, not only recounts the facts behind the split but also expertly uses centuries-old accounts to convey the depth of emotional and spiritual associations bundled within a simple word like “Karbala.”

At root, the split resulted from a succession crisis. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, died in A.D. 632 without leaving any sons and without making clear who he wanted to lead the faithful after him. A leading contender was his cousin and son-in-law Ali, but disputes within the new faith’s inner circle prevented Ali from becoming Muhammad’s heir (or caliph, from the Arabic for “successor”) for nearly three decades.

Shia Muslims believe Ali, as Muhammad’s nearest male kin, was the rightful ruler all along, and his descendants likewise were the only legitimate heads of the Islamic empire; “Shia,” in fact, derives from the Arabic for “followers of Ali.”

The decades of off-and-on battling between the partisans and opponents of Ali and his sons, Hassan and Hussein, drove a permanent wedge between the two sides. The Shia ended up with deep resentment against the Sunni caliphs, who in turned viewed them as little more than sore losers.

Hazleton deftly uses original sources, many based on contemporaneous or nearly so oral accounts, to give life and breath to figures familiar to every Muslim but unknown to most non-Muslims. Aisha, Muhammad’s youngest wife and a fascinating and controversial character in her own right, played a key role in opposing Ali — at one point even leading troops against him in battle.

Although Hazleton’s prose is lively and engaging — occasionally verging on melodramatic — readers unfamiliar with the history of Islam may get lost in all the similar-sounding names. A family tree would have helped, especially since the key conflicts were between people related by blood, marriage or both. A short account of how Islam had spread under Muhammad might have made subsequent events clearer.

And while Hazleton is careful to include competing interpretations of key events, she gives rather more emphasis to the Shia version, if only to explain why they felt (and continue to feel) such a sense of disinheritance and grievance toward the Sunni majority.

For example, she states, during her account of the shura or conference at which Muhammad’s successor was chosen, that all else being equal, “by the principle of nasb (noble lineage), Ali should have been the successor.” But all else was not equal: Ali’s (and Muhammad’s) clan was relatively weak, and Ali himself was not present, having chosen to keep vigil over Muhammad’s body. “Ali was above all a man of faith; he would stay with the body, in the faith that the Medinans would support him,” she writes. “It would not be the last time he would suffer from misplaced faith in others.”

Nonetheless, anyone seeking to understand today’s Middle East — from what drives Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to why the bombing of Iraq’s Askariya Mosque in 2006 reignited Sunni-Shia fighting — can learn from this book. That includes U.S. policymakers, who learned far too late that, as Hazelton writes, “anyone so rash as to think it possible to intervene in the Sunni-Shia split and come away unscathed is at best indulging in wishful thinking.”

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.