Like most of my readers, I suspect, I found myself somewhere between surprised and unnerved by the sudden crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations, but mostly I felt confused. Both regimes are, after all, run by radical Islamicists who would appear—at least from this distance—to be each other’s natural allies. Both nations, each in its own way, are police states that feature as part of their national culture what the vast majority of Americans would consider to be a severely deficient understanding of the basic human rights that animate our own culture. Both are surely united in their hostility towards Israel—despite the occasional rumors that the Saudis might be softening their stance—and even if their relationship towards our own country is not at all the same, that hardly seems to constitute a good enough reason for them to dislike each other so intensely. Must the friends of our enemies also be our enemies? Is this somehow all about us? Or is it primarily about them?
Obviously, and leaving out for the moment what this possibly could have to with our own nation, the whole thing has to do—at least in large part—with the apparently unbridgeable chasm between Sunnis and Shiites, the Saudis belonging to the former group and the Iranians to the latter. But that too is confusing to me because the basic distinction between the two groups is rooted in a dispute anchored in distant times that, even if never truly resolved, by all rights ought to have vanished long ago into the swirling mists of forgotten history.
The story itself is somehow complicated and simple at the same time. The prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E. without formally passing along the mantle of spiritual leadership to a worthy successor and thus leaving Islam—then a small but growing sect made up primarily of the Prophet’s personal followers—without a leader who could claim the ultimate authority to lead Muslims in his stead. In retrospect, this was a huge error. At first, one of Muhammad’s aides, one Abu Bakr, succeeded him as leader, but others felt the Prophet had indeed designated a successor in his own son-in-law, a man named Ali. Eventually, Ali did become caliph (which means “replacement” and specifically denotes the individual replacing Muhammad) and, after he was assassinated (he was stabbed to death in a mosque in present-day Iraq), his sons, Hussein and Hasan, stepped up to take their father’s position in the Muslim world. Both were eventually murdered as well, however, and so their supporters became known as Shiites, the anglicized version of the Arabic words that mean “followers of Ali.” And their position was relatively clear: the earliest Shiites promulgated the opinion that the Muslim world should only be led by someone physically descended from Muhammad. The rest of the Muslim world, devoted to the Sunnah (which is the Arabic word for “tradition,” in this case denoting specifically the Prophet’s tradition) adopted the alternate opinion that their leader should be someone characterized by piety and learning, i.e., by devotion to the Sunnah, but not necessarily a blood relation of the Prophet or one of such a relation’s descendants.
And so began the schism that continues to fuel the fires of the Middle East. Nor do the sides stack up evenly: more than eighty-five percent of the world’s billion and a half Muslims are Sunni, as is the leadership and royal house of Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are Shiites, as are their leaders and client groups across the Middle East. The only Shiite-majority countries in the Muslim world, in fact, are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrein. All the other major Muslim countries have Sunni majorities, including Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia. (The numbers for our own country are slightly confusing because, although a large majority of American Muslims are Sunni, most Arab Americans are Christians, not Muslims at all.)
That whole story hardly seems enough to warrant the level of intense vituperation we have been witnessing over the last week—the Sunni Saudis beheading a Shiite sheikh who militated for the rights of Shiites in the Eastern Province of the kingdom and the Shiite Iranians launching a violent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Nor do Shiites and Sunni Muslims differ too dramatically in terms of their beliefs—they both revere Muhammed, consider the Quran to be a book of divine revelation, and they both follow the five tenets of Islam: prayer, charity, faith, fasting during Ramadan, and the obligation to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca in the course of one’s lifetime. From outside the tent, they don’t seem particularly different at all! And yet the animus is so real as to be in the process of altering the whole tableau of Middle Eastern politics almost before our eyes.
Maybe the whole issue of succession seems so odd to become so angry about precisely because, in our American meritocracy, it goes without saying that leaders are correctly chosen because of their moral worth and because of the positions they espouse. Indeed, in our American republic, only two sons of presidents have gone on themselves to become president, and neither inherited the position from his father. Even in the modern monarchies of Western Europe, in fact, the notion that the crown passes from the sitting monarch to that monarch’s heirs is only tolerated because the monarchs in question have no real political power.
It all sounds so foreign and odd. But that’s only because we forgotten to remember much of our own history—and thus to know that the course of Jewish history too was altered by a violent war of succession…and it too was characterized by multiple assassinations, ferocious street demonstrations, and civil unrest so violent that it set in motion the events that eventually cost the Jewish people their sovereignty. It’s a story worth telling!
We think of the Maccabees as heroes, as the guerilla warriors that defeated the far more powerful armies of Antiochus IV to create an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel, as worthy role models for the kind of principled opposition to tyranny that we all consider not merely praiseworthy but supremely so. All of the above is true, more or less, but there’s another part of the story, a never-told part that we’ve chosen to ignore and to forget.
The Maccabees entered history, as noted, in the context of the famous Chanukah story. But history didn’t stop when the miracle had run its course and a new cruse of oil was finally prepared. Nor did the war against the Seleucid Empire end. The fighting continued for years. Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle in the year 160 B.C.E., in fact, four years after the rededication of the Temple. He was succeeded by his brother Jonathan, but Jonathan was murdered (along with a full 1,000 of his soldiers) in 142 B.C.E. by a pretender to the Seleucid throne who had lured him to a meeting at which they were supposed to discuss an alliance. He was succeeded by another one of the brothers, Simon. Simon did a lot of good—it was during his years of leadership that the Roman Republic formally recognized the Jewish State in 139 B.C.E. But in the winter of 135 B.C.E., Simon and two of his three sons were murdered by his own son-in-law, an ambitious churl who hoped personally to succeed his father-in-law as national leader.
In fact, Simon was succeeded by his remaining son, John Hyrcanus, who ruled from 134 to 104 B.C.E. and who was the first (and almost only) Maccabean leader to die in bed. He was followed by his son, Judah Aristobulus, who took the title of king and who is remembered, among other things, for murdering his own mother by imprisoning her until she starved to death and for conspiring with his wife to murder his brother, whom he suspected of conspiring to murder him and seize the throne.
One thing led to another. Judah Aristobulus was succeeded on the throne by his brother, Alexander Yannai, who died in battle and was succeeded by his own wife, Queen Salome Alexandra. (Alexander Yannai is remembered, among other things, for crucifying eight hundred of his enemies in Jerusalem.) And then things got really bad. King Yannai and Queen Salome had two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. No clear heir was apparent…and so the sons went to war with each other. Eventually, the entire country erupted into a civil war as bloody as they come and became so weakened by the fighting that the door opened to the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known to history as Pompey and already acclaimed as “Conqueror of Asia” by his countrymen. He came onto the scene, promised to restore order and bring peace to a war-ravaged land. The people were thrilled. And so, in 63 B.C.E., the independent Jewish kingdom established by the Maccabees a century earlier became a Roman protectorate. And so ended Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for more than two thousand years.
Who ever heard of any of these people? Historians of antiquity, obviously, know their names. But how many “regular” Jewish people, all of whom could retell the story of the Chanukah miracle easily, could move forward into the rest of the second century BCE and the first third of the first to see how the question of succession led to violence and eventual disaster?
So the question asks itself: are we the wise ones to have moved on and no longer to consider any of these live issues…or are the Muslims right to struggle with unresolved issues even after all this time? I suppose it would depend whom you ask! There is surely something to be said for moving on, for leaving the past behind, for allowing the past to morph into the present without constantly undermining it with unresolved issues from centuries (let alone millennia) ago. And yet…it hardly sounds like a good idea to consider history a kind of burden to be set down as quickly as possible, as a prison from which escape is only possible by those who choose to leave their cells behind and move into the future unencumbered by ancient instances of friction, violence, and bloodshed. I suppose that the correct answer is neither of the above: to feel unable to step away from an ancient dispute and to risk the lives of countless civilians as it is adjudicated not in the courtroom or the study hall but on the battle field and in the street—that surely sounds like a loser’s proposition. But to have gone to the extreme that we ourselves have gone in making our own history unfamiliar even to the relatively well educated among us—that also seems like a poor plan if we wish to live in a present that authentically replicates the best of the past.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting an ancient battle. There are, obviously, a thousand side issues (some of which directly concern our own country) that are fueling this particular fire. But the basic principle is that both sides of the dispute are unwilling to step away from the past to create a finer, better present. In our Jewish world, we have solved our version of that problem by making our own history a closed book to most…and that too cannot be a rational way to move forward into future if we wish the future to be a meaningful extension of the past that replicates its finest accomplishments and makes of the world we will bequeath to our children a satisfying, intelligently constructed midrash on the world our ancestors bequeathed to us. Living in history without being enslaved to it—that would be the great goal. But neither Muslims nor Jews have attained it, the former still fighting ancient battles they seem unable to step away from and the latter achieving freedom from the past by make it something they know almost nothing of.