After the Prophet

I just finished a very interesting book, After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam by Lesley Hazleton. Hazleton presents the first few generations after Muhammad’s death with dramatic flourishes. She tries to convey not just the facts but the way these facts and interpretations play out emotionally in the Islamic psyche.

She suggests that the tragic quarrels between Muhammad’s successors have the same kind of emotional resonance that the events of Good Friday and Easter have for Christians. In particular, the emotional extremes of the Shia celebration of Ashurah—days of moaning and self-flagellation—represent something very like Gethsemane.

Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, could have avoided the battle of Karbala. He was vastly outnumbered; most of his allies had deserted him. Knowing full well he would be killed he went ahead. He represents, Hazleton says, the noble, ethical remnant of Muhammad’s household sacrificed at the hands of the cruel. For the Shia in particular his death sums up the bitter disappointments and brutal unfairness of the world. No wonder it touches something so deep in the Muslim soul.

As Hazleton describes the detailed memories and legends of Hussein’s death, one can’t help thinking of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. The similarities are unmistakable. There’s also an obvious contrast to Gethsemane, though, which Hazleton does not bring out. Hussein went to his death on a white charger, brandishing a sword. He had gone to Karbala seeking military conquest. He was a noble warrior, facing hopeless odds. Jesus waged a very different kind of fight. Perhaps he shared many of Muhammad’s and Ali’s and Hussein’s hopes for peace and holiness and communal unity. But he sought them in a very different way.

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