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Shia Islam: a timeline

The key dates in Shia history, from the death of the prophet Muhammad to the modern day.

Historical beginnings

632 -- Muhammad dies, sparking the ongoing controversy about his rightful successor, or caliph. Sunnis believe that the Prophet nominated his close friend, Abu Bakr -- father of Aisha, Muhammad's youngest wife -- while the Shia maintain that he appointed his first cousin and son-in-law, Ali.

634 -- Abu Bakr dies after two years of serving as caliph. Another of Muhammad's father-in-laws, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, is named as his successor. He wins stunning military victories over both the Byzantine and Persian empires.

644 -- Omar is assasinated by a Christian slave. Othman Ibn Affan, a scion of Mecca's ruling Umayyad clan, takes over the caliphate.

656 -- Othman is murdered by dissenters from his army. Ali is finally appointed caliph, a role he reluctantly accepts - becoming the fourth so-caled Rightly Guided Caliph. For Shias, however, he holds the title of Imam, or leader -- the first of 12 Imams believed by "Twelver" Shias to be the true successors of Muhammad. Aisha, Muhammed's most outspoken widow, leads a military campaign against him but is defeated at the Battle of the Camel.

657 -- Ali moves the capital from Mecca to Kufa, situated in modern-day Iraq. Muawiya, an Umayyad brother-in-law of Muhammad's, and a cousin of Othman's, confronts Ali for rule of the caliphate but is defeated at the Battle of Siffin. Unable to overcome Ali in battle, he instead manoeuvres him into accepting arbitration -- a move that causes a schism among his followers, with a breakaway faction, known as the Kharijites, now rejecting Ali's rule.

660 -- Muawiya declares himself caliph in Damascus.

661 -- Ali is assassinated by Kharijites in his mosque in Kufa, leaving Muawiya I as the uncontested caliph.

669 -- Hasan Ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson the second Imam in the Shiite tradition, is poisoned by his wife on orders from Muawiya I. His brother, Hussein Ibn Ali, becomes the third Imam.

680 -- Muawiya I dies, leaving his son Yazid as caliph. When followers of Hussein rise up against Yazid, he sends 4,000 troops to besiege the third Imam at the Battle of Karbala, leading to a massacre that is commemorated by Shia Muslims during the ten day mourning period known as Ashura. This is arguably the theological beginning of Shia tradition and practice.

Dynasties and splits - the next stage

765 -- Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam, is poisoned and a dispute arises over his sucession. The dispute develops into a fundamental rift within the Shia community, with a breakaway faction known as Ismailis accepting al-Sadiq's eldest son, Ismail, as rightful seventh Imam, while the mainstream Shias (or Twelvers) accepting his younger son, Musa al-Kazim as successor. This creates a historical split within Shiism.

780-974 -- Foundation of the first Shia state, based in the Maghreb, under the Idrisid dynasty.

909-1171 -- Rule of the Fatimid Caliphate, one of the first and most powerful Shia (Ismaili) caliphates that controlled most of North Africa, the Levant and Arabia.

1501-1736 -- Rule of the Safavid dynasty in Persia marks a major turning point in the history of Shia Islam since it marks an end to the relative mutual tolerance between Sunni and Shia since the time of the Mogul conquests. Antagonism and sectarian strife between the two groups becomes increasingly prevalent. Also, during this period, Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, initiates a religious policy to recognise Shiism as the official religion of the Safavid Empire. The fact that modern Iran remains an officially Shia state is a direct result of Ismail's actions. His violent enforcement of Shiism exacerbated sectarian tensions in the region.

In the 20th Century

1904-1908 -- Ongoing violent clashes between Sunni and Shia in South Asia, particularly the Uttar Pradesh area of the Indian sub-continent.

1919-1924 -- The Khilafat movement, a pan-Islamic political campaign, is launched by Muslims in British India to protect the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I. This provided a momentary rapprochement of the Sunni and Shia communities.

1935-1936 -- Iraqi Shiites stage violent uprisings against the minority Sunni government.

1959 -- Mahmud Shaltut, the rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, issues a fatwa recognising Shia Islamic law as the fifth school of Islamic law and authorising the teaching of courses in Shia jurisprudence as part of the University's curriculum.

1979 -- Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, Shia president of Pakistan, is excecuted on questionable charges by Sunni fundamentalist General Muhammad Zia al-Huq.

1979 -- Revolution in Iran overthrows the monarchy and establishes a Shia Isalmic Republic under the figure-head of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

1980 -- Following the Iran-Iraq war, persecution and violence against the Shia majority in Iraq becomes increasingly prevalent. Celebration of Shia festivals, such as the Ashura, is banned under Saddam Hussein's Baath governmet.

1991 -- Shia Muslims perpetrate a series of uprisings in southern and northern Iraq, which are ruthlessly and systematically crushed by Saddam's ruling Baath party. 50-100,000 people are allegedly killed, and thousands more forced to flee their homes.

1996 -- More than 200 people are killed in northern Pakistan during a shootout between Sunni and Shia factions.

2000 -- Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia militia Hizballah, negotiates with Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, to end the Israeli occupaton of southern Lebanon.

2005 -- Iraqi parliamentary elections brings in a Shia majority government for the first time since the 2003 invasion.

2005 -- Anti-Shia insurgents led by Jordanian-born Raed Mansour al-Banna kill 127 people in Al Hillah, Iraq. Following the attack, Shia mobs attacked the Jordanian embassy in Baghad, causing ambassadors to be withdrawn from both countries.

2007 -- The sectarian violence in Iraq following the 2003 American-led invasion escalates to a level described by the United States national Intelligence Estimate as "civil war". At least 2.7 million people are estimated to have been displaced by inter-faction hostility.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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