The shia-sunni split in Islam has its roots in two major conflicts that occurred during the first 30 years after the arrival of Islam. These were
- the fall of the Persian Empire within 10 years after the death of the Prophet.
- the 20-year conflict and eventual defeat of the highly prosperous pilgrim city of Mecca in the middle of Arabia.
both these conflicts with the new religion of Islam caused major major reshaping of the middle east region within a short 30 year span. the defeated Persians and Meccans were assimilated into a newly created Islamic Empire. However, such assimilation of previously hated enemies was never going to be easy and the resulting chaos resulted in the formation of Shia Islam.
FALL OF PERSIAN EMPIRE
At the time, in order to ensure the survival and growth of the new religion of Islam, the Prophet and later Caliph Abu Bakr had left behind the legacy of a small islamic state, put together by subduing various waring tribes in the arabian peninsula. this little muslim state, while sparring with the Persians along their mutual border, lucked onto a fault line in the Persian empire.
the Persian Empire was weakened by recent wars with neighboring Byzantine Empire, followed by a series of weak rulers and constant court upheavels. the muslims saw an opportunity and pushed hard and before they could recover their breath and head back home, the entire empire collapsed right under their feet. lock, stock and barrel.
The Persian Empire had a long history, high culture, its own language and its own religion. But empires decline and collapse under the weight of their own excesses, a lesson history teaches us over and over again. however, this was a bit of a surprise, as there is no indication that the Prophet or anyone else foresaw that within a few years Muslims would be ruling the whole of Persia.
As many as 40% of the persians may have converted to Islam at the time. while these Persians wholeheartedly adapted to their new masters and the new language and most importantly the new religion, many must have still harbored resentments deep down inside. resentment fostered by pride in their glorious past.
OTHMAN AND NEW ISLAMIC EMPIRE
Similarly another group of conquered people with secret resentments were the old rulers of the pilgrim city of Mecca. The third caliph Othman originally came from a powerful clan among this very Meccan ruling elite, people who had virulently opposed the Prophet during his ministry till the very end.
Now 12 years later, when Othman (who converted to Islam long time ago) became the Caliph, he elevated some of his old clan members to high positions in the new Islamic State. He did so because the muslims had by now captured (again I believe much to their own surprise) the vast eastern territory of Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Northern Egypt as well. This vast new Islamic Empire required astute administrators and Othman may have felt that his upper crust clan members would be best suited for the job.
ROOTS OF CIVIL UNREST
Now these old Meccan clan members of Othman, who as I mentioned earlier were themselves at one time fierce opponents of early Islam, may have found an opportunity to get back at Muslims for the resentments they long harbored.
for within a few years of their elevation to powerful positions in the state, civil unrest among the fledging Muslim empire began to surface. An unrest that exploded into outright civil war after the assassination of Othman himself and the arrival of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali as the next Caliph (number four).
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THE PERSIANS
With the Islamic Empire in disarray, Ali moved the capital of the empire from the holy city of Medina far away to the city of Kufa (modern day Iraq) which not too long ago was part of the recently deceased Persian Empire!! This may have been the very opportunity the resentful persians had been waiting for since their downfall.
the persians now saw a chance to sow some distrust and discord at the very center of the muslim empire. And this is how shia sect came into being. Working as a tag team with the fellow disenfranchised Meccans, they came up with the novel idea of isolating the "house of the prophet" as being on one side and the prophet's other close companions being hostile to this house.
this meant isolating the Caliph Ali, who was the husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatima and father of the Prophet's two beloved grandsons. on one side would be Ali and on the other side would be the three earlier caliphs (who had passed away by then). Ali was portrayed as having divine qualities and the Prophet's family presented as having been the true hires of the Islamic State. And as such having been short-changed by the earlier caliphs and so on.
ARRIVAL OF SHIA ISLAM
In the first few years, this new doctrine was secretive and not widely known. Infact, so-called-shias only came out in the open after Ali and both the prophet's grandsons (