Iran and Saudi Arabia: The Religious Roots of a Political Conflict
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting one another on Yemeni soil for a year now, one side aiding Yemen's Sunnis, and the other, its Shias. The conflict in Syria, similarly, is between these two, since despite the fact that Islamic State is their mutual enemy (calling the Shias infidels and the Saudi monarchy illegitimate on account of its alliance with the USA), Iran is defending Bashar al-Assad's regime there, and Saudi Arabia is lending its support to some of the armed groups that oppose him.
Both countries are fighting for dominance in the region. Since the revolution of Jomenei, Iran forms part of the Americans' 'axis of evil', and it has been fear of a spread of that revolution that has led the Saudis to seek American military support in exchange for guaranteed supplies of oil at a reasonable price. This unnatural alliance has obliged the European Union to avert its gaze from the Saudis' total disregard for Human Rights, and left Iran and Syria to the Soviets. Now that the EU needs Iranian help to put a stop to IS, and, thanks to fracking, no longer depends so heavily on Saudi Arabian oil, the West is trying to adopt a more neutral stance towards the conflict.
The origins of the conflict
If, though, we ask what led to the enmity between the Iranians and the Saudis in the first place, we need to step back in time. In the early 19th century and following the rise of the First Saudi state, a systematic destruction of Shi'a mausoleums was carried out, justified by the ideological-cum-religious claim that in making pilgrimages to the tombs of the prophets, imams, and holy men, the Shias were guilty of shirk, of treating mortal men as gods, an unforgiveable crime in Muslim eyes.
If we ask about the origins of Saudi rigorism, the answer to that lies in the fundamentalist reform of Sunni Islam preached in the eighteenth century by one Abd al-Wahhab, and adopted in the twentieth century by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is why the Islam of Saudi Arabia is known as Wahhabism, the form that has been adopted also by the Taleban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State. The eighteens-century Saudi Arabian Kingdom was established in opposition to the Ottoman Empire and to Safavid Persia, established in the early sixteenth century as the first officially Shi'a state. The latter was already in crisis by the mid eighteenth century, but not before it had settled Shi'a minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, and Shi'a majorities in Bahrain and Iraq.
But to go deeper still, it was in the tenth century that the Shias not only ceased to be persecuted by the Sunnis, but actually managed to gain control of the main Islamic power centres of that time. It was then that the Shi'a sought to portray themselves as an orthodox form of Islam, one thereby legitimately empowered to govern majority Sunni populations. To that end, they abolished the ban on Shias taking part in political life (something previously regarded as collaboration with the Sunnis) and abandoned the theological position that had distanced them most radically from the Sunnis, namely accusing them of having perverted the Quran. From this point on, Shias accepted the Quran of the Sunnis as the book genuinely revealed to Muhammad, whilst retaining their insistence that Muhammad had named Ali his successor. Prior to the tenth century, the greatest Shi'a leaders had accused the Sunnis not only of removing a number of texts from the Quran but of twisting their sense along the lines in which Jews and Christians had twisted the sources of their own revelation.
A power struggle between two people
This had been an extremely serious accusation, and together with their more or less equating the Shi'a leaders, the imams, with the prophets themselves, it had, between the seventh and the tenth centuries, led to their being driven underground and persecuted by the Sunni caliphs. This aspect of Shi'a theology probably came from adapting the presentation of Islam to aspects of ancient Persian culture, with its Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. If this hypothesis is in fact the case, the Shias' defence of the legitimacy of the power of Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin Ali could not fail to entail a power struggle between two people, but also a cosmovision that differed from earlier (East Arabian Shi'a and West Arabian Sunni) Islam in such as way as to justify the struggle in question. It was the Sunnis who won. Ali and his sons were murdered, and their blood still boils among the Shias, who lash themselves with whips and wound themselves with long knives in commemoration of the dead.
Jaume Flaquer SJ
Jesuit, responsible for Cristianisme i Justícia (Christianity and Justice) theological area and specialist in Islamic studies