Sunnis and Shi'a: A Mimetic Rivalry

Laurence Louër is the author of recently published Sunnis and Shi‘a. A Political History, with Princeton University Press. A great specialist of Shia Islam and politics as well as identity politics in the Middle East, Laurence answers our questions and helps us better understand the – mimetic – rivalry between Shi‘a and Sunni and its relation to other identities and political objectives.

Where does the rivalry between Shi‘a and Sunnis come from?

The rivalry initially developed as a factional strife about who should succeed Muhammad at the head of the Muslim state when the Prophet died without a male heir in 632. The strife, however, posed essential questions about the nature of legitimate political authority. Those who came to be known as the Sunnis developed an oligarchic conception of power in which the caliph (the Prophet’s successor) was to be chosen from among the Prophet’s companions, and subsequently from among the notables and qualified people. In effect, the Sunni caliphate rapidly transformed into a dynastic monarchy, and the caliph lost all theocratic powers. By contrast, those who came to be known as the Shi‘a were legitimists, claiming that rulership of the Muslim state should be open only to members of the Prophet’s family – that is, to the male descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and Fatima, one of Muhammad’s daughters. Shi‘a have stuck to a theocratic conception of rulership: they attribute divine powers to Ali and his descendants, who are called “Imams,” a term that refers to both political and religious guidance. According to the dominant Twelver branch of Shiism, the line of Imams died out in 874 when God hid the twelfth Imam from men’s eyes to protect him from the caliph’s plot. They believe that he will return at the End of Times to establish truth and justice.

A watershed in the Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry occurred following the establishment of Shiism as the state religion by the Safavid dynasty in 1501 in Iran. This entailed the transformation of Shiism into an official religion tailored to legitimise state policies. It also led to a fierce geopolitical rivalry between the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, whose rulers had adopted the title of caliph in their eagerness to embody and defend Sunni orthodoxy. A series of wars ensued, with Iraq as one of the most hotly disputed territories between the two powers. It has remained to this day a frontier zone between Sunnism and Shiism. To this day also, Shiism remains an essential attribute of the Iranian state, no matter what political regime dominates it. Iran thus seeks to retain its status as the guardian of Shi‘a the world over, using Shiism as a springboard from which to wield influence, more or less aggressively, from one period to the next. As a result, most Sunnis see Shiism as intrinsically Iranian or, at least, Shi’a as agents of Iranian influence. This raises many problems for the coexistence of Sunnis and Shi‘a in several Middle Eastern countries.

Why can one say that Sunnis and Shi‘a can often be joined in a mimetic rivalry? Could you give us contemporary examples of such mimetic rivalry?

I took up the notion of mimetic rivalry from French anthropologist René Girard. It means that rivalry is a cause simultaneously of differentiation and of imitation. In the contemporary world, we notice, for example, that when Sunnis are in a minority position, they seek to construct themselves as a community by borrowing from Shi‘a forms of organisation and discourse. Among Sunni religious scholars in particular, there is a fascination with the leadership capabilities of the Shi‘a clerics who have been key political actors since the twentieth century and have attained a level of religious, social, and political authority unmatched among Sunnis. This is well manifested by the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, in which the most powerful political institution is the Guide of the Republic, headed by a high-ranking religious scholar and based on Rohullah Khomeini’s famous wilayat al-faqih doctrine, or government by the ulama.
In Iraq, for example, following the 2003 regime change that displaced a Sunni-dominated government, Sunni political and religious entrepreneurs sought to construct the Sunnis into a sectarian community by asserting the role of Sunni ulama (religious scholars) as the community’s legitimate representatives. They took up the discourse of victimisation traditionally embraced by the Shi‘a and also emulated the Shi‘a lionisation of an entire pantheon of heroes and saints, making heroes of the companions of the Prophet whom the Shi‘a loathe, such as Umar, the second caliph.

More generally, mimetic rivalry might reinforce the emergence of a hybrid Sunni religious authority that couples the figure of the cleric with that of the Islamist activist. Such figures have existed since the 1980s. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, an Egyptian Muslim Brother, became a very popular transnational ulama thanks to the support of Qatar, where he lives. Until now, however, these figures have remained relatively isolated. Yusuf al-Qaradawi himself is without ties to any activist organisation and is heavily reliant on the Qatari state. Another example is the “caliph” of the Islamic State (Daesh), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: a religious studies graduate, he could legitimately lay claim to the status of ulama even as he is the leader of an Islamist political organisation. Though basing himself on the great Sunni myths, he embodies a figure, that of the ruling ulama, who has until now existed only among the Shi‘a.

Laurence Louër's book was first published in French under the title Sunnites et Chiites. Histoire politique d'une discorde (Paris, Le Seuil). It has been translated by Ethan Rundell.

Continue reading the full interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.

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