Tuesday, May 3, 2016

After the Prophet

After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split 
© 2009 Lesley Hazleton
256 pages


When Muhammad lay in his deathbed, legend has it that he cried to God for pity on those who would follow him. With no sons and no explicitly ordained heir, the question of succession was left to the faithful – to the murky realm of politics. There, the man many viewed as Muhammad's biological heir, his son-in-law Ali, was repeatedly passed over, despite faithful service to the succeeding caliphs – and when, twenty years later he was finally acknowledged caliph, was assassinated. After the Prophet is the story of Ali’s plight, of his and his sons’ martyrdom, with a concluding chapter on the long-term consequences of their deaths for Islam. It is highly narrative, drawing chiefly from oral histories given written form, and its figures are storied characters. We have an old and corrupt king, degenerate sons, wicked advisers, and scheming women – all set against a family which is depicted as too noble for their own good. The result is a history of a long-running personal feuds, where drastic changes like the conquest of Persia or the development of Islamic law courts are only mentioned incidentally. This is an intimate, mythic history where emotions run close to the surface, where characters are frequently covered in blood and tears, their actions charged with cosmic importance.

In the delivery of facts I wasn’t particularly impressed with After the Prophet, but she succeeds very well in demonstrating how the emotional weight of Ali’s downfall was felt by Iranian revolutionaries, who saw in the deaths of early activists against the Shah an echo of Ali’s own defenders and their martyrdom. This success is a small part of the book, its epilogue, but it builds on the emotional drama which has been steadily growing throughout the history, and gives the story a proper finish in establishing why reading it is important in the first place, given the United States’ apparently interminable adventures around the Persian Gulf where so many Shiites are concentrated. For those who have no idea what the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is, this a mythic beginning.

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