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After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam

Lesley Hazleton

  • Paperback
ISBN: 9780385523943
Balancing past and present, Hazelton shows how 7th-century events are alive in Middle Eastern hearts and minds today as though they had just happened, shaping modern headlines from Iran's Islamic Revolution to the civil war in Iraq.
After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
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  • Paperback
ISBN: 9780385523943
Balancing past and present, Hazelton shows how 7th-century events are alive in Middle Eastern hearts and minds today as though they had just happened, shaping modern headlines from Iran's Islamic Revolution to the civil war in Iraq.


Balancing past and present, Hazelton shows how 7th-century events are alive in Middle Eastern hearts and minds today as though they had just happened, shaping modern headlines from Iran's Islamic Revolution to the civil war in Iraq.

Publisher Description

In this gripping narrative history, Lesley Hazleton tells the tragic story at the heart of the ongoing rivalry between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, a rift that dominates the news now more than ever.Even as Muhammad lay dying, the battle over who would take control of the new Islamic nation had begun, beginning a succession crisis marked by power grabs, assassination, political intrigue, and passionate faith. Soon Islam was embroiled in civil war, pitting its founder's controversial wife Aisha against his son-in-law Ali, and shattering Muhammad's ideal of unity.Combining meticulous research with compelling storytelling, After the Prophet explores the volatile intersection of religion and politics, psychology and culture, and history and current events. It is an indispensable guide to the depth and power of the Shia-Sunni split.

Author Biography

LESLEY HAZLETON is the author of three acclaimed books about the Middle East--"Israeli Women," "Where Mountains Roar," and "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," Her most recent book is "Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother," A former psychologist, she reported from Israel for "Time "magazine, and has written on Middle Eastern politics for "The New York Times," "Esquire," "Vanity Fair," "The Nation," "The New Republic," "The New York Review of Books," and other publications. She lives in Seattle, Washington.


"Fascinating. . . . Lively and engaging. . . . Anyone seeking to understand today's Middle East can learn from this book. . . . Hazleton not only recounts the facts behind the split but also expertly uses centuries-old accounts to convey the depth of emotional and spiritual associations bundled within a simple word like 'Karbala.' . . . [She] deftly uses original sources, many based on contemporaneous or nearly so oral accounts, to give life and breath to figures familiar to every Muslim but unknown to most non-Muslims." --Seattle Times "Illuminating. . . . After the Prophet will be held up as a primer for grasping the modern-day Middle East." --The Miami Herald

"Remarkable. . . . A story of human passion and consequence, told with consummate skill. . . . [Hazleton] manages the not inconsiderable feat of maintaining scholarly respect for her subject while also showing a real fondness for the people at the story's heart--people who, we learn, were not unlike us, and whose tale is directly linked to today's newscast." --Dallas Morning News

"Thrilling in its depiction of long-ago events. . . . Passionately and scrupulously done." --The Wall Street Journal

"As sectarian aggression flares in Iraq, Hazleton's explanation of its deep, entrenched roots is essential." --Christian Science Monitor

"A remarkable and respectful telling of the story of Islam--a tale of power, intrigue, rivalry, jealousy, assassination, manipulation, greed, and faith that would have made Machiavelli shudder (had he read it), but above all it is a very human story, told in a wonderfully novelistic style that puts most other, often dreary, explanations of the Shia-Sunni divide to shame." --Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

"A profound story masterfully told. . . . An exceptional book." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A page turner that reads like an incredible cross between a suspense thriller and a fairy tale. All the elements of a fantastic story are here: intense spirituality; murder, violence, and bloodshed; dynastic power struggles; poison and atrocities; wife murdering husband; slave killing caliph; inspiring heroes; dastardly villains; heresy and apostasy. . . . The implications of [After the Prophet] are huge. . . . A superbly written first step for the uninformed to become knowledgeable. Don't miss it." --The Fredericksburg Lance-Star

"Hazleton's gripping narrative of the rise of Islam and the subsequent split between Shia and Sunni branches paints a picture that is far more epic, nuanced, and tragic. . . . Hazleton unspools this historically tangled tale with assurance and admirable clarity." --The Bellingham Herald (Washington)

"My only regret is that Hazleton didn't write this terrific and necessary book in time to enlighten Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., before they so unwisely invaded a land, and a religious culture, of which they were reprehensibly ignorant. I hope they read it now, with proper rue. Meanwhile, the rest of us can take pleasure in Hazleton's vigorously drawn characters, her lucid storytelling, and her enthralling, imaginative grasp of the roots and consequences of the Sunni-Shia divide." --Jonathan Raban, author of My Holy War and Surveillance

"A new masterpiece. . . . Thrillingly and intelligently distills one of the most consequential trains of events in all history." --Booklist (starred review)

"Whether or not George Bush even knew there were such things as Shias and Sunnis before invading Iraq, after reading Lesley Hazleton's gripping book no one will be able to plead ignorance about why the split between them happened and what it all means." --Alan Wolfe, Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and author of The Future of Liberalism

"Hazleton succeeds in bringing out the truly epic character of the Shia-Sunni split, telling the story with great empathy. The general Western reader will come away from this book with a newfound respect for the depth and power of the early schism in Islam and of what happened at Karbala." --Wilferd Madelung, Laudian Professor of Arabic, University of Oxford, and author of The Succession to Muhammad

Review Quote

Praise forAfter the Prophet "InAfter the Prophet, veteran Middle East journalist Lesley Hazleton tells with great flair the 'epic story of the Shia-Sunni split in Islam,' as she rightly calls it...

Excerpt from Book

Chapter 1 If there was a single moment it all began, it was that of Muhammad''s death. Even the Prophet was mortal. That was the problem. It was as though nobody had considered the possibility that he might die, not even Muhammad himself. Did he know he was dying? He surely must have. So too those around him, yet nobody seemed able to acknowledge it, and this was a strange blindness on their part. Muhammad was sixty-three years old, after all, a long life for his time. He had been wounded several times in battle and had survived no fewer than three assassination attempts that we know of. Perhaps those closest to him could not conceive of a mere illness bringing him down after such concerted malice against him, especially now that Arabia was united under the banner of Islam. The very people who had once opposed Muhammad and plotted to kill him were now among his senior aides. Peace had been made, the community united. It wasn''t just the dawn of a new age; it was morning, the sun bright, the day full of promise. Arabia was poised to step out of the background as a political and cultural backwater and take a major role on the world stage. How could its leader die on the verge of such success? Yet dying he definitely was, and after all the violence he had seen--the battles, the assassination attempts--he was dying of natural causes. The fever had begun innocuously enough, along with mild aches and pains. Nothing unusual, it seemed, except that it did not pass. It came and went, but each time it returned, it seemed worse. The symptoms and duration--ten days--seem to indicate bacterial meningitis, doubtless contracted on one of his military campaigns and, even today, often fatal. Soon blinding headaches and wrenching muscle pain weakened him so much that he could no longer stand without help. He began to drift in and out of sweat-soaked semiconsciousness--not the radiant trance in which he had received the Quranic revelations but a very different, utterly debilitating state of being. His wives wrapped his head in cloths soaked in cold water, hoping to draw out the pain and reduce the fever, but if there was any relief, it was only temporary. The headaches grew worse, the throbbing pain incapacitating. At his request, they had taken him to the chamber of Aisha, his favorite wife. It was one of nine built for the wives against the eastern wall of the mosque compound, and in keeping with the early ethic of Islam--simplicity, no inequalities of wealth, all equal as believers--it was really no more than a one-room hut. The rough stone walls were covered over with reed roofing; the door and windows opened out to the courtyard of the mosque. Furnishings were minimal: rugs on the floor and a raised stone bench at the back for the bedding, which was rolled up each morning and spread out again each night. Now, however, the bedding remained spread out. It was certainly stifling in that small room even for someone in full health, for this was June, the time when the desert heat builds to a terrible intensity by midday. Muhammad must have struggled for each breath. Worst of all, along with the headaches came a painful sensitivity to noise and light. The light could be dealt with: a rug hung over the windows, the heavy curtain over the doorway kept down. But quiet was not to be had. A sickroom in the Middle East then, as now, was a gathering place. Relatives, companions, aides, supporters--all those who scrambled to claim closeness to the center of the newly powerful religion--came in a continual stream, day and night, with their concerns, their advice, their questions. Muhammad fought for consciousness. However sick, he could not ignore them; too much depended on him. Outside, in the courtyard of the mosque, people were camped out, keeping vigil. They refused to believe that this illness could be anything but a passing trial, yet they were in a terrible dilemma, for they had seen too many people die of just such sickness. They knew what was likely to happen, even as they denied it. So they prayed and they waited, and the sound of their prayers and concern built to a constant, unrelenting hum of anxiety. Petitioners, followers, the faithful and the pious, all wanted to be where news of the Prophet''s progress would be heard first--news that would then spread by word of mouth from one village to another along the eight-mile-long oasis of Medina, and from there onto the long road south to Mecca. But in the last few days, as the illness worsened, even that steady murmur grew hushed. The whole of the oasis was subdued, faced with the inconceivable. And hovering in the air, on everyone''s mind but on nobody''s lips, at least in public, was the one question never asked out loud. If the impossible happened, if Muhammad died, who would succeed him? Who would take over? Who would lead? It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons. Even one son. Though there was no strict custom of a leader'' s power passing on to his firstborn son at death--he could always decide on a younger son or another close relative instead--the eldest son was traditionally the successor if there was no clear statement to the contrary. Muhammad, however, had neither sons nor a designated heir. He was dying intestate--abtar, in the Arabic, meaning literally curtailed, cut off, severed. Without male offspring. If a son had existed, perhaps the whole history of Islam would have been different. The discord, the civil war, the rival caliphates, the split between Sunni and Shia--all might have been averted. But though Muhammad''s first wife, Khadija, had given birth to two sons alongside four daughters, both had died in infancy, and though Muhammad had married nine more wives after her death, not one had become pregnant. There was surely talk about that in Medina, and in Mecca too. Most of the nine marriages after Khadija had been political; as was the custom among all rulers of the time, they were diplomatic alliances. Muhammad had chosen his wives carefully in order to bind the new community of Islam together, creating ties of kinship across tribes and across old hostilities. Just two years earlier, when Mecca had finally accepted Islam and his leadership, he had even married Umm Habiba, whose father had led Mecca''s long and bitter opposition to him. But marital alliances were sealed by children. Mixed blood was new blood, free of the old divisions. For a leader, this was the crucial point of marriage. Most of Muhammad''s wives after Khadija did indeed have children, but not by him. With the sole exception of the youngest, Aisha, they were divorc

Product Details

Lesley Hazleton
Short Title
Anchor Books
The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
Country of Publication
United States
Publication Date