It was common during the years of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to talk about the Sunni-Shia split—and how the sectarian violence was the result of a “centuries-long hatred” between the two different religious schools. But seeing this divide as the result of a longstanding feud—or to see it in the model of other religious schisms, like the Catholic-Protestant split and the centuries of war that followed—would be a mistake, argues Toby Matthiesen.
Toby, in his most recent book The Caliph and the Imam: The Making of Sunnism and Shiism, tries to chart the history of the Sunni-Shia split: its origins at the very start of Islam’s founding, and how different Muslim polities—including those outside of the Arabian core—flitted between tolerance and conflict.
In this interview, Toby and I talk about the origins of the division between the Sunni and the Shia, how different regimes throughout history molded and were molded by the split, and what that means for the present day.
Toby Matthiesen is Senior Lecturer in Global Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several award-winning books and has previously held fellowships at the Universities of Oxford, Ca’ Foscari of Venice, Stanford, Cambridge, and the LSE.