After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (2018), Lesley Hazleton

I read “After the Prophet” last year, but the book is so compelling that I had to read it again. Hazelton is truly a master story teller. I felt like my first read through was inadequate; there were many details that I thought I missed. So I read it again with the goal of gleaning more about this fascinating piece of history.

As I said in my review last year, I think this is a book more people need to read. Since reading it, I have asked many people if they know the reason behind the Sunni-Shia split. They shrug as they try to tell me that they knew there was a split but not why. This why question is critical to understanding our Muslim friends both at home and abroad.

More are even more confused when I tell them that it started over a broken necklace. Aisha was one of the prophet Muhammad’s most beloved wives. As a gift, he gave her a beautiful necklace. As the caravan was out doing business, Aisha discovered that the necklace had snagged on a tree; because it was missing, she went back to find it. When she returned, the caravan was gone. She stubbornly waited in the harsh desert for them to turn around and rescue her. This would not come; however, a young, strapping Muslim warrior would happen to waltz by and carried Aisha into Medina. This, of course, caused a scandal: the prophet’s wife with a handsome young man? Surely their minds went immediately to the nefarious. Even Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and one of the first converts to Islam after Muhammad, believed foul play on the part of Aisha. Muhammad received a revelation from Allah exonerating Aisha from any wrong doing. However, the damage was done. Factionalism against Ali was already brewing. This would pit Ali against Aisha and her father, Abu Bakr.

When Muhammad died, he left no succession plan for the Caliphate. Although Muhammad may have alluded to Ali as his successor, Abu Bakr was able to politically navigate the council that was to determine the next Caliphate to vote for him. In the end, he received the title.

It would be a long road for Ali to become Caliphate, and even when he did, it would end it tragedy. He was killed by an assassin’s poisonous blade. His sons, Huysan and Hasan, would go on to attempt to avenge their father’s death. But they were no match for the powerful rulers that sponsored the assassin. Even today, Shi’a Muslims celebrate a holiday called, “Ashura,” which is to commemorate the death of Huysan in particular.

This is just a fascinating book. I am not doing the story justice in these few details. Hazelton describes the events with such precision it feels like one is in the Arabian desert or in the heat of battle. Her commentary is both interesting and modern (perhaps too modern in some places). Her understanding of Middle Eastern history is engaging and informative. This is a must read.

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