The “divide” in the Ummah dates back to the times immediately after the Holy Prophet and to the principle of successorship afforded on Ali ibn Abi Talib by a group of adherents called the Shi’atu Aliy (adherents of Ali), as opposed to a larger group who believe that the Holy Prophet did not appoint a successor and instead regarded Abu Bakr as the rightful caliph after the Holy Prophet. The larger group, i.e. Sunnis, prevailed and appointed the initial caliphs amongst whom two were murdered — Ali was ultimately chosen as the fourth caliph, but he too was assassinated. Later, Ali’s son, Hussein, led the Shias into an unequal battle with the caliph’s forces and were brutally massacred. The symbolism of this Battle of Karbala where Hussein was martyred and beheaded is known as Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram, a day of mourning), which is deeply ingrained, subliminal and spiritual in the Shia psyche, that has developed since. The difference between the two sects got further ruptured with the 12th Shite imam who is believed to have gone into occultation and hiding with God and will come back at the end of time (known as Mahdi or the Messiah). The latest population estimate of the Ummah is approximately two billion, divided into two broad denominations (with multiple offshoots): the smaller sect is Shia with 15-20 per cent and the Sunnis with 80-85 per cent of the total Muslim population.
There are historically irreconcilable differences between the Shias and Sunnis that have simmered and enflamed from time to time for over 14 centuries. The advent of modern sovereign states with two major countries in the region composed on a majority sectarian basis, i.e. the essentially Sunni Saudi Arabia and the essentially Shia Iran, has fueled further economic, political and geostrategic one-upmanship through the prism of a sectarian lens. Both countries envisage a fraternal global role of sectarian guardianship that invariably cross-pitches interests against each other.
The concept of “martyrdom” is integral to sovereign Iran’s Shite philosophy and the same has been practiced by Tehran to invoke the martyrs of the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s who dominate public spaces and imagination in the Iranian state as revered figures. The Battle of Karbala is frequently posited in a modern political context to stir passions and galvanise support, as was done in the Iran-Iraq war and even in the pre-1979 Iranian Revolution struggle by Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, unlike the puritanism and extreme intolerance of the Wahhabi moorings in the Saudi Arabian narrative, the Shite experience in Iran has been relatively more inclusive. The leitmotif of martyrdom is extended to soldiers like Mehrdad Nahravand (a Parsi Air Force pilot in the Iran-Iraq war) who famously crashed his F-4 fighter jet into Iraqi tanks after being shot down, or even little known outside of Iran, the dignity afforded to 13 Iranian Jewish soldiers by a memorial service in their honour, by no less than the Iranian Revolutionary Guards themselves. The collective consciousness of Shia identity subsumes persecution and suffering as integral to its identity, rituals and symbols and it was reinforced in modern times by the state of international isolation that it felt in the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein was supported by the West and the Gulf states.
In recent times, this sense of being “wronged” was justifiably felt on the Iranian streets as the United States had unilaterally reneged on its commitments towards the Iranian Nuclear Deal (to the discomfiture to all other signatories and multilateral institutions) and re-slapped the crippling economic sanctions. The accompanying backdrop of the yeoman role played by the Iranian state in taking down the most debasing and inhumane infrastructure of the ISIL terror organisation — led by its interventionist Quds Force and its reticent leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Thereafter, the killing of Soleimani by the United States in a targeted drone attack only perpetuated and deepened that sense of persecution and hurt that was manifest in the Iranian media, hailing the martyr as Malik Al-Ashtar, a reference to the most loyal companion of the first imam, Ali. The publicly restrained, loyal and fearless (invariably on the frontline and never photographed wearing a flak jacket) Maj. Gen. Soleimani spearheaded the coordination of the Iranian Quds Force along with a host of Shite militias in the battlegrounds of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The recent success garnered by the Shiite forces in controlling the Iraqi-Syrian swathes and in the other flaring battlegrounds of Yemen where the minority Shia-Houthi militia was repeatedly inflicting damage on the numerically, materially and financially superior and combined forces of the Sheikhdoms and the United States. The embarrassing portents of the “Shia Crescent” as feared by Jordanian King Abdullah was indeed fructifying as the Shiite forces were holding sway from the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, the Assad-backed forces in Syria, Iraq and Iran — something had to be done, and Maj. Gen. Soleimani paid the price in perhaps the last presidential hurrah by Donald Trump, as he unconvincingly portrayed the slain general as a “monster”.
Now, Mr Trump has ensured Soleimani’s place in the soul of the hurt nation, as unprecedented outpourings of emotions, symbolism and calls for revenge by the Iranian nation have been unleashed. Cries of “martyr’s blood will not be forgotten” rant the multi-city mourning processions and the obviously choked voice of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, added poignancy and personal wound to the moment of collective grief. Soleimani had famously called out the United States by stating earlier: “You started it, we will end it,” and had on multiple occasions sought his own end as a martyr — will now continue defining the battle in the region, even after his death. The emblematic red flag over the Jamkaran mosque and in other commemorative processions following Soleimani’s killing with the phrase “Ya la-Tharat al-Hussein,” (“O ye avengers of Hussein”) is telling of the times to come. Iran has promised reciprocal “hard revenge” and the familiar emotion of victimhood looms large in a civilisation that dates back to 7000 BC.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-general and a former lieutenant-governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry....