Division of Shiite and Sunni Muslims

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Division of Shiite and Sunni Muslims

From a European perspective, the First Crusade ended successfully with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by forces from western Europe (see "The First Crusade" in Chapter 6). In the decades that followed, the Crusaders, as these fighters were known, remained in control initially of three major Crusader "states" in the region. These states included not only the Kingdom of Jerusalem but also the County of Edessa and the Principality of Antioch.

After the First Crusade most of the Crusaders returned home. Only a few thousand Europeans remained at any time to administer and defend the Crusader states. What may seem puzzling is how so few Europeans could maintain control of the area. In many respects, the Crusader states were like islands surrounded by nations and empires hostile to them. Most of the people in these nations were Muslims, or members of the Islamic faith founded by Muhammad in the seventh century (see "Islam" in Chapter 1). To the north a large portion of Asia Minor was under the control of Muslim Turks, cutting off the land route from Europe. To the east the Muslims controlled Damascus (in Syria), and to the east of Damascus was the Seljuk empire (see "The Arrival of the Seljuk Turks" in Chapter 4). To the southwest, around the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was Muslim Egypt. Furthermore, the Byzantines (the Christians of the East), who felt betrayed by the Latin Christians (Christians of Europe), showed little interest in aiding their cause. And yet the Crusaders remained in control of the Crusader states without facing a major threat until the 1130s.

The Crusaders were able to do so primarily because they encountered little organized opposition. Both within the Crusader states and in the surrounding regions, Muslims were sharply divided by religious and political factions, or subgroups. The Egyptian Muslims hated the Turks while frequently trying to find a way to get along with the Christians. Many Arabs in the region claimed to be allied (on the same side) with the Egyptians. But these Arabs, especially those in rich seaport towns along the coast, were often more interested in retaining power locally than in maintaining allegiance, or loyalty, to a distant monarchy. The Turks, too, were divided, with the Seljuks contending with a rival clan called the Danishmends.

Even the Seljuks, who had seized large portions of the Byzantine Empire, were divided. Factions of the Seljuks were led by warlords who plotted and schemed to gain advantage over one another. These warlords included such figures as Duqaq in Damascus and Kerbogha in the city of Mosul. A third, Ridwan in the city of Aleppo, tried to cooperate with the Franks, earning the hatred of his Arab subjects. These divisions prevented the Arabs from mounting any kind of campaign to drive the Crusaders out of the Middle East. They were too occupied fighting among themselves both for political power and for control of their faith.

The emergence of the Shiite Muslims

The Muslim empire had grown steadily from the seventh through the tenth centuries, after the founding of Islam. Although Islam had many successes and converted many members to the faith, it faced a constant threat from within. The threat extended back almost to the founding of Islam. It arose over the question of who would succeed Muhammad as leader of the faith. When Muhammad died in 632, he left no instructions about who would follow him. An assembly of Muslim leaders in the city of Mecca (in modernday Saudi Arabia), Muhammad's birthplace, chose a man named Abu Bakr as the first caliph, the term used to denote Muhammad's successor. Abu Bakr was one of Muhammad's closest associates and the father of Muhammad's second wife.

Immediately, a group formed that opposed the appointment of Abu Bakr. Members of this group believed that Muhammad's successor had to be a blood descendant from the Prophet, as Muhammad was called. They favored a man named Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, or Ali, who was Muhammad's cousin and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima. This dissident, or rebel, group became known as the Shi'at Ali, or "party of Ali," from which the name Shiite (often spelled Shi'ite) comes.

The Shiites were always a minority sect, or subgroup; by the early twenty-first century they made up perhaps a tenth of Muslims in the region. The main group of Muslims is called Sunni, a name meaning "orthodox." "Sunni" comes from the word Sunna, or "traditions," referring to writings that describe how Muhammad and his close associates dealt with certain issues. Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, tensions continued to divide the Sunnis and the Shiites in the Middle East.

The Umayyad dynasty

What followed was a long period of strife in Islam. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, named as his successor Umar. Abu Bakr and Umar had led an army against the Byzantine Empire and achieved a major victory over Byzantine forces in a battle at the Yarmuk River near the Sea of Galilee in 636. Umar, the second caliph, then seized Jerusalem after a lengthy siege in 638. Umar was murdered in 644 by a non-Muslim, and a power struggle developed among several men he had favored to succeed him. Out of this struggle, a man named Uthman became the third caliph.

Uthman came from a powerful, aristocratic Meccan clan called the Umayyads, so the family that led Islam now was called the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads moved the capital city of Islam from Mecca to Damascus in Syria. Because of Uthman's aristocratic background, Shiite resentment toward him became even greater. In 656 he was murdered by Muslim dissidents who continued to favor Ali, who came from a humbler background.

Ali thus finally became the fourth caliph, but following a civil war that did not resolve any disputes, he was murdered in 661, again by Muslim dissidents. With Ali gone, the Umayyad clan regained control of the faith, ruling the empire from Damascus. Over the following decades the Umayyads conquered most of North Africa, overran much of Spain, and even marched into France, where they were stopped by the French king Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.

The division of Islam, though, was complete. The followers of Ali, the Shiites, condemned the Sunni Umayyads as illegitimate, believing that they were corrupt, or dishonest, and unfaithful to the teachings of the Prophet (Muhammad). The Shiite party reflected a great deal of unrest, particularly the resentment of non-Arab Muslims of the strong influence that Arabs had over the faith. In 680 Ali's youngest son, the Prophet's grandson Hussain ibn Ali (often spelled Hussein or Husayn), led the Shiites in another civil war against the Umayyads. The war ended when he and his family were killed in a historic battle at Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Shiite Muslims and Karbala

The site of the Battle of Karbala is still a holy shrine for Shiite Muslims. They believe that Hussain deliberately sacrificed himself at Karbala for the Shiite sect of Islam. He wanted to be brutalized, or ill-treated, by the Umayyad caliph because he sought to demonstrate that rulers who governed by military force rather than by the word of Allah were evil. For this reason, Hussain's martyrdom, or death for the faith, is still celebrated by Shiites.

Hussain's martyrdom is commemorated on a religious holiday called Ashura. On this holiday, Shiite men hit themselves in the forehead until they bleed. The martyrdom of Hussain had great significance for the Shiites. The Shiite movement began and was justified because, in the view of the Shiites, Ali was denied his proper place as the first caliph after Muhammad died. His martyrdom, though, fueled the Shiite movement and, as Moojan Momen writes in An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, "implanted its ideas deep in the heart of the people." The Shiites remain an oppressed minority of Islam. They tend to be poorer and less educated than the Sunni majority.

The Abbasid dynasty

Ali's death did not end civil war in the years that followed. The Sunnis from Damascus continued to offend other
factions within Islam as they became more secularized—that is, as they separated religion from the affairs of state. In response, another rebel group formed. Members of this group were descendants of Muhammad's uncle, named Abbas, so they were called the Abbasids.

The Abbasids launched another civil war in 750. They captured Damascus and massacred the Umayyad caliph and his family. They then moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad, the capital city of modern-day Iraq but at that time in the nation of Persia. From Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate (the term used to refer to the office of caliph and his domains) ruled over the Muslim empire, which included Syria and Palestine (the nation in which Jerusalem was located), until 1258. The caliph, though, was something of a figurehead; that is, he did not wield much power. While the Baghdad caliphate provided the administrators and religious leaders, power was in the hands of the warriors, the Seljuk Turks. The Turks were Sunnis who were led by a sultan (the king of a Muslim state) in Isfahan, Iran.

Meanwhile, the only member of the Umayyad family to escape the massacre in Damascus—Abdurrahman—established an independent caliphate in Córdoba, Spain, in 755 (see "Spanish Islam" in Chapter 1). Because of the presence of an Islamic caliphate within its borders, European Christians began to see Islam as a growing threat. This feeling of being threatened eventually led to popular support for the Crusades. Other independent caliphates were formed in Morocco in 788, Tunisia in 800, and eastern Persia in 820. In 868 an independent caliphate was formed in Egypt, where the ruling Shiite family was called the Fatimid dynasty, named after Muhammad's daughter Fatima.

This division of Islam into factions, born of a complex and chaotic history, weakened Islam, although the Islamic empire was rich in trade, agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and learning; Damascus, for example, had seventy libraries. Divisions, though, prevented Islam from presenting a united front against the Crusaders. The movement of the capital from Damascus, which lay just to the east of the Crusader states, to the more distant city of Baghdad would prove fateful. The greater distance from Palestine made it harder for the caliphate to lead opposition to the Crusaders. For their part, the Crusaders were able to take advantage of this factionalism, or division. Often aiding one side and then another, they kept the Muslims on their toes, focused on one another rather than on ridding their lands of the colonists. In fact, at times it was in the interest of one Muslim faction or another to aid the Europeans.

An example concerns the formation of a fourth Crusader state, the County of Tripoli, which lay between Jerusalem and the two Crusader states to the north, Edessa and Antioch. The Muslim emir, or ruler, of Tripoli, learned that forces from Damascus were planning to ambush Baldwin, who was on the march with a small Crusader force from Edessa to Jerusalem to assume the throne of the kingdom after his brother, Godfrey, died. The emir of Tripoli wanted to retain control over the city for himself and did not want Damascus to meddle in Tripoli, so he tipped off Baldwin, allowing him to escape the ambush. Then later, in 1109, when Raymond of Toulouse and a small band of Christian knights marched on Tripoli, Damascus got its revenge on the emir when the forces it sent to help defend the city refused to fight. Only in this way did Tripoli fall and become a fourth Crusader state. A unified Islamic response in Tripoli probably would have prevented the city from falling to the Christians. Without Tripoli, the Crusader states in the north would have remained cut off from Jerusalem.

The Assassins

Another example of the divisions that undermined Islam in responding to the Crusaders was the formation of a Shiite group called the Assassins. The name was invented by the West; members of the Assassins would have referred to themselves as Ismailis. This name refers to an imam, or Shiite Muslim religious leader, named Ismail, who the group believed was divine. Assassins, then and in the twenty-first century, carry out planned murders for religious or political purposes. One theory about the source of the name is that it comes from the word hashish, the drug that members of the group used when they carried out their missions.

The Assassins dedicated themselves to overthrowing the Sunnis and returning Islam to what they considered the true path of the faith. The most militant, or aggressive, wing of the Assassins was formed in about 1090, just five years before Pope Urban II called the First Crusade, by a learned man
named Hasan al-Sabah. His original goal was to base his movement in Shiite Egypt, from there assassinating Sunni leaders. But the Egyptian caliph had no desire to harbor a band of terrorists, so Hasan and his group were forced underground. In the years that followed, they tried to disrupt Sunni Islam wherever they could. For example, in Syria they fanned the flames of disagreement between the Sunni emirs. Thus the Assassins not only became outcasts and sworn enemies of Sunni Islam, but they also became the enemies of the Shiite caliphate in Egypt. For this reason, Hasan actively worked on many occasions for the benefit of the Crusaders, his only ally in defeating Sunni Islam.


None of this is to say that Islam mounted no opposition to the Franks. In the years after the First Crusade and the capture by Christians of Jerusalem, some Muslims revived the tradition of jihad, usually translated as "holy war." The concept of a holy war for Islam was first developed in the seventh century, when Muslims fought the Byzantine Empire to gain control of Jerusalem. Many of those who fought against the Byzantines had been given grants of land, which had remained in the same families for more than four centuries. Now those lands were being lost to the Christians, and some Muslims wanted to fight back.

Thus jihad reemerged in the early years of the twelfth century, after the Crusaders seized Tripoli in 1109, then the cities of Beirut and Sidon in 1110. Many desperate Muslims fled these cities, taking refuge in Damascus and Aleppo, both cities in Syria. They were looking for some way to oppose what was happening in their land. In Aleppo an influential judge named Abu al-Fadl ibn al-Khashshab tried to persuade the Turkish ruler to call on the Baghdad caliphate for help in driving out the Christians. The Turkish ruler, Ridwan, though, was trying to get along with the Christians, so al-Khashshab went to Baghdad himself in early 1111.

Military power in Baghdad lay with the Turks, not the Arabs. The Turks supported al-Khashshab, because they wanted to assert their authority over Aleppo. Accordingly, the Turkish sultan ordered his army to get ready for "Holy War against the infidel [unbeliever, in this case the Christians] enemies of God." In this way, jihad was launched against the Christians.

Even so, little damage was done to the Christians. The Turkish sultan sent his force to Aleppo, but in the meantime Ridwan had arrested al-Khashshab and barricaded the city. He believed that the Turks were coming not to "rescue" him but to seize control of the city. After the Turkish forces arrived, they vandalized the area around Aleppo but then left without taking the city. While nothing was done about Christians in Syria and Palestine, the seeds of holy war had been planted.

For More Information


Chambers, Mortimer, et al. The Western Experience, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Lewis, Bernard, ed. Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture ofConstantinople. Vol. 1, Politics and War. Vol. 2, Religion and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelve Shi'ism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Von Grunebaum, Gustave E., ed. Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.