Book Review: After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam by Lesley Hazleton



Lesley Hazleton published a book named “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam”. The book has focused on Sunni and Shia versions of the incidents on which there are differences among Muslims. But the main focus of the book can simply be seen as hate, which is evident throughout, along with biased opinions in the end. She has mentioned Quran as Word of God because of its beauty and divine message. She has also mentioned Prophet Muhammad PBUH as literally the Prophet from God because of the divine revelation of Quran on Him. It is highly regarded however I couldn’t understand is as she mentions herself as “Agnostic Jew” in a Ted Talk on Quran.

But apart from that, her study on Islam while writing on it was more than poor on various Islamic laws. She mentioned in Chapter 3 of the book:

For a wronged woman, there could have been no better outcome, yet the form of it would be cruelly turned around and used by conservative clerics in centuries to come to do the opposite of what Muhammad had originally intended: not to exonerate a woman but to blame her. The wording of his revelation would apply not only when adultery was suspected but also when there had been an accusation of rape. Unless a woman could produce four witnesses to her rate – a virtual impossibility – she would be considered guilty of slander and adultery, and punished accordingly. Aisha’s exoneration was destined to become the basis for the silencing, humiliation, and even execution of countless women after her.”

Here, like most of other Western authors, Lesley Hazelton has presented her weak knowledge and lack of study before writing the book. To come up with four witnesses is only in case of adultery or fornication. There is nothing like to present four witnesses when someone is raped. Some clerics in Muslim world, and recently in Dubai, have done as what Lesley Hazelton has mentioned, but these clerics and countries are not Islam. Islam is not what we are. Islam is Quran and Sunnah; and to judge Islam, one has to study Quran and Sunnah, not us.

The whole boot is written without citations and endnotes, making it more vulnerable. However the book is written in a balanced way like;

  • To praise the dimensions where Sunnis and Shias have no conflict.
  • To defame the dimensions where there are conflicts. The book is meant to present the differences, but not the hate and biased views.

Mood of the author also seemed to change frequently. On some stages it is felt as the author is angry with Islam, and on other sides her mind is blown away on the remarkable early successes. She is confused in certain areas, and makes this similar effect on the reader. But still, the overall book is a piece of knowledge. People who want to learn more can read Al-Tabari from where she has gathered material for her book mainly, however her personal opinions have ruined the tastes in various places, as well as made some beautiful points as well.

While presenting history, authors should be careful. At least they should be honest as a researcher, as well as a writer. They have the right to opinionate certain aspects, but they should have thorough grip.

In the end of the book, there are some current political scenarios mentioned by the author, which are strongly mentioned. These are lessons, messages and things to remember for Muslims. Some of these fragments are as follow;

Whatever balance there was would be changed utterly by World War I and the consequent partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire. Western intervention reshaped the Middle East, often in what seems astonishingly cavalier fashion. The British enabled the Wahhabi-Saudi takeover of Arabia, installed a foreign Sunni king over Shia majority Iraq, and shored up the Nazi sympathizer Reza Khan as Shah of Iran. After World War II, the United States took over as prime mover. Motivated by Cold War ideology, it helped engineer a coup d’état against Iran’s newly elected prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh and reinstated the autocratic regime of Reza Khan’s son, Shah Reza Pahlavi, under whom Iran first aspired to nuclear power—with American encouragement. Successive U.S. administrations backed the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom of Saudi Arabia not only for access to its oil but also as a bulwark against Nasser’s pro-Soviet regime across the Red Sea in Egypt. In the 1980s the United States joined forces with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fund the anti- Soviet mujahidin—literally jihad fighters, or as Ronald Reagan preferred to call them, freedom fighters—in Afghanistan, and in a rather stunning example of unintended consequences, these troops later formed the basis of the Taliban. In that same decade, the United States found itself arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, supporting Saddam Hussein in order to counter the fierce anti-Americanism of post revolutionary Iran, while also supplying Iran in the murky “arms for hostages” Iran-Contra affair.

Sunni and Shia radicals alike called on a potent blend of the seventh century and the twentieth: on the Karbala story and on anti-Westernism. By the 1980s such calls were a clear danger signal to the pro-American Saudis, who were highly aware that radical Sunni energies could come home to roost in an Arabian equivalent of the Iranian Revolution. Their answer, in effect, was to deal with radical Islamism by financing it abroad, thus deflecting its impact at home. The Saudis became major exporters of Wahhabi extremism and its bitterly anti-Shia stance, from Africa to Indonesia, countering a newly strengthened sense of Shia identity and power—“the Shia revival,” as it’s been called—energized by the Iranian Revolution. The Sunni-Shia split had again become as politicized as when it began.

 As the United States has at last recognized, with thousands of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westerners enter such a power struggle at their own peril, all the more since many in the Middle East suspect that Western powers have deliberately manipulated the Shia-Sunni split all along in order to serve their own interests. The chaos unleashed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have resulted in yet another unintended consequence in American eyes, but it was not so unintended in Iraqi eyes. “The invader has separated us,” declared Muqtada al-Sadr in 2007. “Unity is power, and division is weakness.”

The Karbala story has endured and strengthened not least because it reaches deep into questions of  morality—of idealism versus pragmatism, purity versus compromise. Its DNA is the very stuff that tests both politics and faith and animates the vast and often terrifying arena in which the two intersect. But whether sacredness inheres in the Prophet’s blood family, as the Shia believe, or in the community as a whole, as Sunnis believe, nobody in the West should forget that what unites the two main branches of Islam is far greater that what divides them, and that the vast majority of all Muslims still cherish the ideal of unity preached by Muhammad himself —an ideal the more deeply held for being so deeply broken.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam by Lesley Hazleton”

  1. Dear,
    please read Islamic History more thoroughly yourself before commenting.

    Read the Quran, then both Shia-Sunni individual doctrines, ideologies, ahadith/tafseer & sirah collections, historical evolution COMPREHENSIVELY, and analyze ALL approaches on these topics; those presented by the various schools of thought, as well as those of their opposers, and lastly, impartial non-muslim observers.

    Read the extant primary sources available youself, and remember to keep an OPEN mind,and then read various sects interpretations of the texts. After you have done this ENTIRE lengthy exercise YOURSELF, without accepting ANY outside influence, should you form an opinion on this critical subject.

    I did this exercise, and arrived at a bottom-line(s):

    1. Everything was alright uptil Hazrat Umar [r.a]’s Caliphate. Uthman [r.a] committed excesses, which led to the Consolidation of Ummayyad power, and monarchy. The system was pretty much shattered from there onwards. Objectively speaking, other than Uthman [r.a] and Caliph AbdulAziz, i have no sympathy for ANY person from Banu Umayya. All were nothing more than a bunch of power hungry politicians and tyrants.

    2. The Umma emerged with an imposing, at many times cruel and oppressive majority (sunnis), and a minority (shias), who developed a kind of defensive, inferiority-complex as a reaction, and at times exaggerated the bias they faced from the majority, with some extremists from BOTH sides venturing into Bidat. The same dynamics which always play out when there exists a majority group alongside a minority(s), within a specific territory e.g Muslims in British India. Although i have grave concerns with some, if not most, shia rulings as they apply today, i truly do believe that the descendent of RasulAllah [s] TRULY were severely oppressed by the Umma; a crime for which our ancestors (hopefully not us) will have to pay on Qiyama.

    3. And lastly, a realization that their can be no UNITY OF FAITH (i’m not talking about the ‘Unity of People/Brotherhood- that CAN be achieved like in pluralist societies e.g the U.S etc) amongst Sunni and Shia. Both of Their beliefs after Tawheed, Khatm-e-Nabuwwat; particularly on the question of leadership of Umma, are simply irreconcilable. Whosoever says that Shia-Sunni should unite IN FAITH is a fool, or considers his/her audience foolish – And i write this with the utmost respect for whosoever is reading this analysis.

    In the end i would like to state my personal position- neither a sunni or shia, but a Muslim (monotheist) first and last, bowing only before Allah, and following the Way set by the Quran and Sunna of RasulAllah [s], in order to achieve the pleasure of Allah, the Final Goal.

    I wish the writer well and sincere, best wshz, and truly urge to listen to the advice provided with an open mind and heart. Thank you! 🙂

    1. That is a comprehensive comment. I agree to majority of your points. But as you said that problems started to emerge after Umar RA is wrong. Problems started to emerge during Usman RA and right after his death.
      The biggest mishap that I see is that the first civil war between Muslims was fought during the times of Ali RA and Muawiya RA. I dont want to go into personal opinions because Ali RA is a hero for all, and Muawiya RA is a hero for a majority. History reveals a lot on us but we can keep it to ourselves for the sake of social harmony.
      Shia-Sunni unity is achievable. Nothing fooling in it. There are minor points where differences are. The day when representatives will stop focusing on those points, things will calm down. As the mullahs of both sides are preaching hate these days, so there is chaos.
      Prophet Muhammad PBUH was the only perfect Man as we believe. After that we may have our personal views regarding Rishiduns and the successors. There is nothing wrong in having difference in opinions.
      The problem is when we start to degrade someone who is a hero in eyes of others. In a society, as all social theories goes on, we should respect the heroes of all the school of thoughts. Similarly we should not make someone hero who is a definite villain (like Zakir Naik tried regarding Yazid).
      We can keep our personal opinions to ourselves for the sake of peace. If our personal opinions are causing hate and violence, then we neither following Islam, nor are we following basic social manners. This is what all the preachers, mullahs and representatives need to follow.
      Our history is beautiful. All the stories of past have certain significant lessons. One of the most beautiful one from the Karbala and Imam Hussain RA. Again saying, difference of opinion in itself is beauty; hate and violence is not.
      Best regards 🙂

      1. That is what i said, problems started to appear after death of Hadrat Umar [r.a].

        Like related in the works of major historians Tabari, Ibn Hisham, ibn Sad etc., supporters of the Banu Hashim claims to the caliphate (early shia) were appeased later on in Umar [r.a]’s reign, as both Hadrat Abu Bakr [r.a] and Umar [r.a] observed merit and kept strictly to sunna; that is also the reason why many Banu Hashim elders like Hadrat Ali [r.a] and Ibn Abbas [r.a] etc were RELATIVELY satisfied with their goverments. They began opposition during Utham [r.a] time, complaining against the Ummayyad governors who were violating sunna left, right and center. There can be no doubt about this. Even the Shia moderates, i believe, agree to this viewpoint to some degree, which is clearly evident in our sunni tarikh.

        Had Uthman [r.a] not favored his own Kinsmen, the Ummayyads, and given them lucrative (governor) positions, there would not have emerged dissenting Shia opposition; hence no Shia or Sunni sectarianism, only Islamic monotheism. We would even now have remained one Umma.

        I appreciate your major point about how, even though we know our history; we still like to ignore some aspects (even though we know who the criminals and innocents are); in order to keep unity and peace within the Umma.

        But i still disagree strongly with your assertion that there can be unity in faith, as the various perspectives are far too different. JazakAllah.

        1. Usman RA did things in governance of Egypt which created problems and bipolar political environment. But I still think of it as a lesson that in politics, we should not favor our friends and families. Whenever it happened, Sultanates collapsed from Turkey to India in time of great Islamic Empire.

          But brother there is definitely hope of unity. When people do pray in each other’s mosques and have friendly relations. When we start respecting opinions and views of others.

          It is a same case when we have differences with our parents. We have to respect each other in all the social means – sectarian or non-sectarian.

          Sons kill fathers, brothers kill sisters, and similar kind of other non-sectarian things happen when respect of differences goes missing. It is not solely related with “sect” only. If we see genocides of past, there won’t be any major Shia-Sunni genocide as compared to other ones.

          In “Thirty Years’ War” between Protestants and Catholics in Europe (1618–1648), 8 million were the casualties. Then they learned with time, education, and peace. It doesn’t mean that the differences are gone, but it does mean that peace can be achieved regardless of differences.
          We will have peace to Insha Allah.
          Jazak Allah

  2. Ahmed Raza & Hamza,

    Can you please recommend me some starters on this subject? I was planning to read Lesley Hazleton’s book but I’ve realized that it would be better to have some solid understanding of the subject from a neutral point of view before digesting this one.


    1. Hey Bilal,
      I remember one book of K. L. Gaba (A Hindu who embraced Islam during British India times. He changed his name from Kunhiya Lal Gauba to Khalid Latif Gauba) named “The Prophet of The Desert”. I found that book beautifully written in a chronological order. Do read this book and some other books before reading this one.

      Jazak Allah

  3. Thanks Hamza,

    I shall definitely read this book InshaAllah. Any idea where it would be available in print in Pakistan?

    Can you please suggest some books related to the start of Shia-Sunni split?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *