Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP) / via Washington PostChristianity’s history is dotted with controversies, rifts and schisms. They range in severity from differences over heresy (with each side calling the other “heretical”) in which different Christian congregations existed side-by-side for a time, such as the Donatist schism, to conflicts over doctrines and dogma that occasionally erupted in violence (either in the short term, e.g. the Nestorian heresy, or longer term, e.g. as the Iconoclast controversies), as well as schisms that ended up creating entirely-separate churches (e.g. the Great Eastern Schism or the Reformation).

The result of this long history is that Christianity isn’t a single entity, but rather, a collection of many different institutions whose only point in common is that they revere the figure known as Jesus Christ and ostensibly follow his putative teachings. (As it turns out, going all the way back to its origins, Christianity has always been a collection of varied movements. At no point in its history was it ever a single group following a single set of doctrines.) When Westerners think of religious schisms and conflicts, this history is what they tend to think of.

Even so, Christianity isn’t unique in this regard. All major religions have had their rifts, conflicts, “heresies,” and variant teachings.

Perhaps the most famous of these outside of Christianity is the Islamic schism; dividing that religion into Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims (with around 85% of the world’s Muslims belonging to the former sect).

This schism has its origins with the aftermath of the prophet Mohammad’s death in 632 CE. The two men who were his most likely successors as leaders of Islam were his first male convert, Abu Bakr, and his son-in-law Ali. Abu Bakr ended up being chosen, over the protests of Ali and his followers (the Shi’atu Ali or “partisans of Ali,” hence the name of their sect). The degree to which Ali himself conceded this choice isn’t entirely clear; aside from hard feelings over it, not much happened during Abu Bakr’s rule (which only lasted a couple of years), and Ali acted as an advisor to Abu Bakr’s successor Umar, so there was some comity at that point, although resentments undoubtedly lingered. Ali finally was named caliph, or leader of Islam, only in 656 (almost 25 years after Mohammad’s death) during the chaos that erupted after Umar’s successor Uthman was killed by rioters.

That Ali wouldn’t order the execution of those rioters caused the low simmering resentments between Uthman’s and Ali’s supporters to break out in the open, launching a civil war within Islam now called “the First Fitna.” Ali was assassinated and his son succeeded him, but within months abdicated in favor of Muawiyah, a leader of Uthman’s faction, thus ending the Fitna.

The conflict erupted anew in 680 when Muawiyah died and Husayn, another son of Ali, refused to accept Yazid, Muawiyah’s son, as the next caliph. Husayn was killed during the Battle of Karbala that very year.

This turned out to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back; at several points during the preceding decades, both sects had at least tried to get along, and the one war that had broken out in full fury had been settled; but Husayn’s death at Karbala proved to be too much for the Shi’ites to take. There would never again be any meaningful attempted accord. What’s more, there were rifts within each side; Ali’s assassin had belonged to a group within his own faction who’d rebelled against Ali’s efforts to negotiate an end to the First Fitna. And Yazid and his immediate successors ended up dealing with rebels that broke away from their original faction, as well.

In other words, the whole thing ended up being one monstrous clusterfuck.

The tensions and differences opened up by these 7th century conflicts — which at that time could have been ameliorated, had cooler heads prevailed back in 680 — still reverberate today. An example of this was made evident this weekend in Teheran, where — as the Washington Post reports — the Sunni state of Saudi Arabia’s execution of a famous Shi’ite triggered massive protests (WebCite cached article):

Iran’s Supreme Leader warned on Sunday that there would be divine retribution for Saudi Arabia’s rulers after the execution of a renowned Shiite cleric, sustaining the soaring regional tensions that erupted in the wake of the killing.

The warning came hours after crowds of protesters stormed and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran to vent their anger at the execution of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was among 47 people put to death in the kingdom on Saturday.

In a posting on his website, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the execution “will cause serious troubles for the politicians of this [Saudi] regime in a very short time….The hands of divine vengeance will surely snatch — by their necks — those cruel individuals who took his life.”

The execution of Nimr, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, has ignited sectarian tensions across the already inflamed region and jeopardized U.S. diplomacy aimed at tamping down conflicts in the Middle East.…

The Saudi consulate in the Iranian city of Mashad was also set on fire during the protests that erupted after Nimr’s execution was announced.

As WaPo explains, the Saudi executions were hardly some kind of Shi’ite purge:

Most of the 47 executed on Saturday were Sunnis accused of participating in Al Qaeda attacks.

As a side note, it looks as though Iranians have some kind of obsession with attacking embassies.

This outburst of violence isn’t actually the worst of the Sunni-vs-Shia conflict going on in the world. The Syrian Civil War has been, among other things, a proxy war between the (Sunni) Saudis and the (Shi’ite) Iranians, both making use of their own partisans in the region (such as Hezbollah, which is patronized by Teheran). Compared to the carnage there, setting an embassy ablaze might seem like small potatoes. But such are the tensions between Islam’s two main sects that violence can break out over virtually anything at all, almost anywhere there are Muslims.

And the worst part of it is, there’s no stopping it. No Sunni-Shia accord is on the horizon and there’s no chance of any reconciliation. It’s not going to happen. Just goes to show what can result from people obsessing over metaphysics — i.e. nothing good.

Photo credit: Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA, via AP, via Washington Post.

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