Book 19; Continent: Africa, Asia

After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam by Lesley Hazleton

  • 256 pages (Notes and Acknowledgments begin page 211)
  • Let calls go to voicemail while you are in the 7th century desert.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims after watching the news. Call it a mental block if you like, but I just couldn’t keep straight the defining two branches of Islam that shape so much of what happens in the Middle East. Consequently, a major goal for my History Reading Challenge project has been to fill this gap.

I struggled for much of this year to find a book I could stick with. Look in Amazon for history books about the Middle East or the Muslim faith, and one will get either books written about the Gulf War with a political message or books with a religious imperative. Politics is the enemy of clear-eyed history, and I have no plans to convert, so most of the offering there frustrated me. As 2013 went on, I had begun to despair of finding a book that would tell me what I wanted to know without pushing an agenda.

If indeed Hazleton has a theme to develop for the reader, it is that Sunni and Shia are more alike than different. Most crucially, both revere the Mohammad and his message of unity within the Islamic community of faith. Unfortunately, over the centuries, who exactly is under the tent of Islam has come into question. It is forbidden for one Muslim to shed the blood of another—unless it isn’t because some matter of faith has made that person’s blood halal (“allowed”). Even so, bloodshed is the work of a relatively small number of extremists, Hazleton reminds us. Western focus on oil-producing regions has perhaps given many people who watch the evening news the impression that the two populations are of similar size. Worldwide, Shia Muslims are distinctly in the minority; however, among Middle Eastern populations, Sunni and Shia numbers are more equal, and conflicts, especially violent ones, are more visible to the Western eye.

Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet fills in a lot of gaps if you are a non-Muslim who grew up in a Western culture (i.e., me). He begins before the Prophet’s passing to introduce the figures who went on to shape much of present-day Islam: Ali, the first to take up the Prophet’s message; Aisha, the fiery youngest of the Prophet’s wives; plus a host of primary relatives and cousins who became warriors, caliphs and legends in their own right. It is their interactions in the decades following Mohammad’s death that gave rise to many of the central ideas and holy days in the faith and, sadly for the Muslim faithful, the schism between Shia and Sunni. Hazleton describes the key events from both Sunni and Shia perspectives.

Although Hazleton does dip into some events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he mentions them only to connect them to ideas from centuries earlier. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 gets only a few paragraphs, for example. I didn’t mind: I’ve already read one book this year about the hostage crisis (The Houseguests by Mark Lijek), and I can find others. Hazleton has his own opinions about contemporary events in the Middle East, but, for the most part, he spares us and sticks to the generations immediately following Muhammad himself.

Hazleton draws upon renowned Sunni scholar al-Tabari as the gold standard for the narrative he crafts. This historian from the 9th and early 10 th centuries collected accounts and legends from multiple points of view, making his volumes so balanced as to be respected by Shia and Sunni alike. In Hazleton’s own work, he is careful to point out places in the historic record where Sunni and Shia traditions diverge. The result is a clearer picture for the Western reader of how Shia and Sunni are related and where they have had their split. But using al-Tabari’s collected work has another benefit for the reader: the strong oral tradition in Muslim history makes for wonderfully vivid storytelling, which Hazleton captures instead of drifting into the endless sidebars of academic materials. Although a large number of other sources inform the book, the style really blossoms from this oral narrative tradition and multiple interpretations of critical events.

In the course of writing this review, I initially stalled out before 600 words (most of my posts run 800 to 1000 words). Writing about a religious topic for a broad, secular audience is tougher than I realized before I tried to do it myself—and I have said relatively little any one could take issue with. That’s why it has taken me so long to post this review, despite finishing the book nearly two weeks ago. I can’t imagine writing more than 200 pages about some matter of faith and then holding it up for the criticisms of every angry soul who surfs into it on Amazon. Hazleton has done it, however, and his effort has allowed me to finally accomplish one of my major goals for the year.

Photo credit: harveypekar84 / Foter / CC BY-NC

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One thought on “Book 19; Continent: Africa, Asia

  1. Pingback: Book 8; Continent: Asia | History Reading Challenge

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