As promised a few days ago, the second part of my journey into early Islamic history will be about its first inner-Islamic and until today most decisive schism. Both parties, if Sunnis and Shiites can be considered parties in the first place—both of them lack leadership or widely accepted representatives—, have neither reconciled with each other nor at least acknowledged the other parties narrative(s).

Part II
The Division of Islam or “the days, which won’t be future past”

Even with the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E., Islam as a religion was undoubtedly still in the process of becoming. Not even the Koran as scriptural corpus was written down, nor compiled, let alone canonized (cf. Aslan 2011: 113). (Note: The other uses of the term Koran or Quran (Arabic qurʾān) in the Koran (al-qurʾān) as scriptural body, namely, “a) the presentation of a revelatory text to Muhammad himself, b) the public presentation of this text by Muhammad, c) the text itself, which is presented,” (Bobzin 2015: 20) were known, however, need not be considered further.)

“The religious ideals that would become the foundation of Islamic theology existed only in the most rudimentary form. The questions of proper ritual activity or correct legal and moral behavior were, at this point, barely regulated; they did not have to be. Whatever questions one had—whatever issue was raised either through internal conflict or as a result of foreign contact—any confusion whatsoever could simply be brought before the Prophet for a solution. But without Muhammad around to elucidate the will of God, the Ummah was left with the nearly impossible task of figuring out what the Prophet would have said about an issue or a problem” (Aslan 2011: 113).

Here it is not necessary to get deeper into the debate back then between the ansar, the “helpers” after the hijrah, the Banu Hashim or Ahl al-Bayt, the closer family of the prophet and the Quraysh, in particular the muhajirun among them, those who in 622 moved from Mecca to Yathrib, present-day Medina. The individual groups had their own ideas of who should succeed Muhammad. While the ansar assumed that they had virtually earned the leadership for their former actions, the Quraysh sought, above all, for continuity, since they had ruled over Mecca for generations—Muhammad himself belonged to the tribe of the Quraysh. The conflict between the Quraysh and Muhammad, before the latter conquered Mecca in 630 C.E. and subjugated the Quraysh, may therefore also be considered as family quarrels (cf. Aslan 2011: 114).

According to Sunni understanding, the first of the four so-called “righteous caliphs” (al-khulafa ar-rashidun), thus the first of those who ruled Muhammad’s young and rapidly expanding empire, was Abu Bakr, who died in 634 C.E. Abu Bakr was chosen among a group of high-ranking followers of Muhammad, who formed a shura, a council of elders. Probably the only serious competitor for Abu Bakr was Ali bin Abi Talib. Born around 598 C.E., Ali ibn Abi Talib was the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet (Halm 2015: 13). But in fact he was not even invited to the shura.

“Muhammad’s clan, the Banu Hashim, fumed, claiming that without Ali, the shura was not representative of the entire Ummah. Likewise, the Ansar from Medina, who considered both Ali and Muhammad to be as much Medinan as Meccan—in other words, ‘one of their own’—complained bitterly about Ali’s exclusion. Both groups publicly refused to swear allegiance to the new Caliph” (Aslan 2011:117).

Even before his death, Abu Bakr decided that Umar ibn al-Khattab will be his successor and thus ignored the new meeting of the shura, which might had chosen Ali as caliph. Umar ibn al-Khattab ruled until 644 C.E. He was followed by the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan of the clan of the Banu Umayyah, the Umayyads, the former political establishment of Mecca. Although the first two caliphs tried to compile the Koran, it was probably first achieved not earlier than in the early 650s under the reign of Uthman ibn Affan (cf. Neuwirth 2013: 243ff.; Bobzin 2015: 110).

As the forth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib follows on Uthman ibn Affan, who lost his life due to a power struggle in 656. According to later Shiite tradition Ali was also Imam, that is, chief of the umma. Finally, Ali had the position in the steadily expanding Islamic empire, which according to tradition should have been his since Muhammad’s death. According to this tradition, on his last pilgrimage on the way to Yathrib (Medina), close to a place called Khumm, Muhammad is said to have designated Ali as his successor: “To all, who I (i.e. Muhammad) command, Ali should also command” (Halm 2015: 11; Aslan 2011: 114). In fact, Ali’s rule was anything but uncontroversial and was characterized from the beginning by internal conflicts. In 660 C.E., during the lifetime of Ali, a schism within the umma took place, for Muawiyah, the son of Muhammad’s former main opponent Abu Sufyan, was “worshiped as caliph in Jerusalem” (Halm 2015: 14). In January 661, two days after an assassination attempt occurred in Kufa, Ali succumbs to his injuries. According to later Shiite interpretation, Ali is considered the first of a multitude of (Shiite) martyrs. While al-Hasan, the eldest son from the marriage of Ali with Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and according to Shiite understanding the second Imam, renounced the office of the caliph, Ali’s second son al-Husayn did not renounced it. Therefore, al-Husayn opposed the new caliph Yazid in 680, who was designated by his father Muawiyah to succeed him as caliph (Berger 2016: 242).

Husayn encamped in Karbala with his followers, the “Shiat Ali,” the party of Ali, on the 2nd Muharram, that is the 2nd day of the first month of the Islamic year, approximately 43.5 miles north of Kufa. There he waited in vain for the promised thousands of followers from Kufa. Shortly before Husayn’s arrival in Karbala, the governor of Basra, Kufa and Khurasan called Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad executed the rebels. Among them someone called Muslim, a cousin al-Husay’s.

Subsequently, according to Shiite tradition, a chain of martyrdoms is following, which the grandson of the prophet and his faithful ones are said to have suffered, and which are much later performed in the form of passion plays whose prototype dates back to the fifteenth century (Halm 2015: 45). Scenic elements were given as early as the 10th century to the rites related to ashura, the tenth day in the month of Muharram (cf. Halm 2015: 47). The following presentation gives an overview of the martyrdoms of the ten days of Muharram, which according to the Shiite tradition is to be solemnly commemorated (cf. Halm 2015: 46f.):

Days Events according to the Shiite tradition during the first ten days of Muharram
1st-3rd Husayns journey and arrival in Karbala and the fearless negotiation with the Yazid’s representative.
4th The celebration of the martyrdom of al-Hurr ibn Yazid at-Tamimi, who repented his sins and defected to from the enemies of al-Husayn to the latter.
5th The weeping of the martyrdoms of Awn and Muhammad, the children of al-Husayn’s sister Zaynab.
6th Ali al-Akbar (Ali the Older) dies in his fathers (i.e. al-Husayn) lap after being hit by arrows. The baby Ali al-Asghar (Ali the Younger) is killed by an arrow, which pierced his throat.
7th Husayn’s nephew al-Qasim ibn al-Hasan was killed on the day of his wedding with the former’s daughter.
8th Commemoration of the martyrdom of al-Abbas, the half-brother of al-Husayn. Both of al-Abbas’s arms are cut off, when he tries to get water from the Eurphrat for the thirsty martyrs.
9th (tashua) The siege of al-Husayn’s encampment.
10th (ashura) The escalade of al-Husayn’s encampment. Al-Husayn and most of his warriors are killed in the fighting, 72 men in total.

The events of the first ten days of Muharram, which found their gruesome climax with ashura, can hardly be overestimated for the religious history of Islam, at least for the Shiite part of it. With Halm it can be correctly stated that “before 680 a Shiite religiousness did not exist” (2015: 21). And “only the death of the third Imam and his companions,” continues Halm, “is the big bang that creates and sets in motion the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shiism. For the Shiites, Kerbelâ is the linchpin of their faith, the culmination of a divine plan of salvation whose promises are given to those who take sides with the martyred Imam” (Halm 2015: 21).

What happened in the following four years is hardly reconstructable and therefore remains in the realm of speculation. The only thing that is clear is the who, namely the Arabs and the where, the already mentioned city of Kufa. It was not until the 16th century that ancient Iranian religious traditions invaded the Shia. Whatever happened in the immediate aftermath of the Karbala massacre, the terminus a quo for the verifiable existence of a religious movement is the year 684 C.E. Those who put in promising Ali’s son al-Husayn to help him in the battle of Karbala or the intended conquering of Kufa, but in fact let him down, obviously regretted their behavior. “The catastrophe of the prophet’s grandson provoked a grave crisis of conscience among its Kufic partisans” (Halm 2015: 22). Because of an exegesis of sura 2:54 attributed to themselves as a group, they now understood themselves as tawwabun, the “repentants”, or more literally “those who turn back.” This verse explains the consequences of the production and worship of the Golden Calf cited in the Torah, namely the god-ordained killing of the fallen of the righteous or divinely ordained path. So it says in Ex 32,27:

ויאמר להם כה אמר יהוה אלהי ישראל שימו איש חרבו על ירכו עברו ושובו משער לשער במחנה
והרגו איש את אחיו ואיש את רעהו ואיש את קרבו

And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor (literally he, who is close).’”

The facts are clear. Some Israelites, more precisely some of the “sons of Levi” (see Ex 32,28) have created themselves an idol, worshiped it and were subsequently condemned with death sentence, which is to be executed by their own relatives, whether near or far. At the end of the day, according to the biblical account, the fallen ones lost their lives, three thousand men in total (שלשת אלפי איש).

The Koran interprets the consequences of the creation and worship of the Golden Calf in a pretty original way. Thus, not the faithful men among the Israelites or a specific tribe are charged with killing the apostates, but the apostates, according to sura 2:54 have to kill themselves: “So turn to your Maker, And slay yourself (literally: kill your souls, which are yours)” (fa-tūbū ʾilā bāriʾikum fa-qtulū ʾanfusakum ḏālikum). The reflexive construction resumes the frivolous or unlawful act of the Israelites, for the deed, as sura 2:54 (grammatically-semantically) points out, is directed against the apostate Israelites (cf. Schmitz 2009: 80).

The promised consequence of the repentance made by the apostates is, according to the Koranic account (see the end of 2:54), God’s turning back to them, because of his compassionate nature: “Then He turned towards you: For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful” (fa-tāba ʿalaykum ʾinnahū huwa t-tawwābu r-raḥīmu).

From the order to turn back, expressed in the construction fa-tūbū, which is formed from the root t-w-b, follows the very specific self-designation the followers of Ali are using until today, namely tawwabun (Hawting 2006: 174). Consequently, they identified themselves with the Israelites. Perhaps because of the severity of their guilt, namely because of their turning away from Ali, thus, ultimately deviated from the divine directive, since it was the messenger and prophet of God, Muhammad, who had designated Ali as his successor at Khumm.

The essential difference is obviously to be found in the way turning back. While according to sura 2:54, the apostate Israelites had to kill themselves, so that God in turn (mercifully) turns back to them, the in-the-end-repentant followers of Ali had not to commit a collective atoning suicide. Unlike for the Israelites, suicide was strictly forbidden to them; that’s what sura 4:29 is explicitly saying: “And do not kill yourselves (literally: souls); for verily, God is merciful to you” (wa-lā taqtulū ʾanfusakum ʾinna llāha kāna bikum raḥīman).

The severity of guilt is not to be compensated by a single act of repentance or in the form of an animal sacrifice. Only the surrender of one’s own life is able to do it, e.g. on the battlefield against the enemy. Thus, also the offspring, until today, inherited the order to bear this guilt and to compensate it “with their own blood” (Halm 2015: 23).

“The movement of the Tawwābūn, therefore, appears as a gigantic self-sacrifice performed in expiation of or atonement for what they saw as their great sin” (Hawting 2006: 174).

However, as Halm points out, the “‘sin’ of the Shiites is not an original sin, not an existential flaw, which clings to humanity from the beginning and makes it in need of salvation, but a historical failure of the entire ‘party’ in a concrete situation” (Halm 2015: 23). This inalienable debt can only be atoned year after year in the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic calendar, which finds its culmination on ashura, that is the Shiite form of the Jewish “Day of Atonement” Yom Kippur, the tenth day after New Year in the Jewish calendar.

The tawwabun had not invented ashura, but rather gave him back a part of its original coinage. According to a Hadith of Bukhari, Muhammad himself celebrated this day as a memorial or holiday:

“Ibn Abbas (ra) reports: When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Medina, he saw that the Jews were fasting on the day of ashura. He asked them, ‘Why are you fasting today?’ They said, ‘Today is an important memorial day for us! It is the day when God delivered the children of Israel from their enemy! Therefore Moses (Musa) fasted that day!’ The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘I have a greater right to Moses than you!’ Then he fasted on the day of ashura and also admonished the Muslims to do it” (Ferchl (ed.), Ṣaḥīḥ al-Buḫārī 2006: 241).

Goitein in turn, refers to Bukhari (30:69), who passed down a Hadith of Aisha, according to which Muḥammad and the Quraysh fasted already at the time of the jahiliyya, the so-called “time of ignorance.” Put in other words, according to this Hadith, Muhammad fasted long before he came to Yathrib/Medina with its strong Jewish community in 622 C.E. (Goitein 1966: 96; cf. Gil 1999: 145-166). The instruction to fast on the tenth day after the Israelite and later Rabbinic-Jewish New Year is found in Lev. 23:27.29 and Num. 29:7 (s.a. bT Taan 30b and bT BB 129a)—fasting must be understood as a form of self-humiliation and/or self-denial.

At some point in the 620s, most likely after the break with the Jewish tribes in Yathrib/Medina, via divine revelation, the fasting of ashura is transfered onto the entire month of Ramadan. Thus, ashura loses massively in importance within the Sunni form of Islam, but was never be completely forgotten (Hawting 2006: 173). The “party of Ali” (Shiat Ali), however, somehow rediscovered this Old Israelite and Jewish heritage of self-humiliation and/or self-denial as part of a highly complex atoning/reconciling rite between 680 and 684 C.E., because as the sole source for revitalizing the concept of atonement or reconciliation on the Old Israelite and Rabbinic-Jewish Day of Atonement, sura 2:54 is not enough.


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GOITEIN, Shlomo Dov, Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, Leiden 1966.
HALM, Heinz, Die Schiiten, 2. Aufl., München 2015.
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