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

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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...

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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

Publishers Weekly
Much American foreign policy has been shaped by the centuries-old disagreement between Islam's two main factions, and yet Americans in general, and our politicians in particular, often can't tell Sunnis from Shi'ites. With the publication of this outstanding book, we no longer have any excuse. Hazleton (Jezebel) ties today's events to their ancient roots, resurrecting seventh century Arabia with reverence and vivid immediacy. Here are rich recreations of the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his beloved wife Aisha; here are often overlooked details (why is green the color of Islam? why do some Muslim women veil?) filling in the contours of the narrative. The battle to name Muhammad's successor is gripping—but it is Hazleton's ability to link the past and present that distinguishes this book: “the main issue is again what it was in the seventh century—who should lead Islam?—played out on an international level. Where Ali once struggled against Muawiya, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia today vie with each other for influence.” Anyone with an interest in the Middle East, U.S.-international relations or a profound story masterfully told will be well served by this exceptional book. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
A just-so story about the profound-often fatally so-differences between the two chief divisions of Islam. The Sunni-Shia divide is wider than the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Its origins, writes Middle East journalist Hazleton (Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, 2007, etc.), lie in the unfortunate fact that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was mortal. At 63 years of age, after many battles and grievous wounds, he died of fever. "It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons," writes Hazleton. He did not, however, and a rift soon divided the Islamic world. Who would succeed him? Some believed that the job should fall to the family of his favorite wife, Aisha, others to his son-in-law, Ali. The argument, on a scholarly front, took on angels-on-pinheads dimensions, as imams pondered whether Muhammad, had he chosen Ali, would have ushered in a "form of hereditary monarchy." Many asserted that Muhammad intended some sort of democracy, or at least meritocracy, in the governance of Islam. All the disputations came to a head with the assassination of Ali, who had claimed the caliphate, and subsequent Battle of Karbala, in Iraq, where Ali's son Hussein was killed. The supporters of Ali, or Shiat Ali, thereafter were ever more a minority party within the larger sphere of Islam, though dominant in countries such as Iran and, at times, Iraq. This story is well known to readers with any background at all in Islam, for whom the book will be superfluous. However, given that few Western readers, it seems, have much of that background, Hazleton's storytelling approach to the schism will be welcome. She writes fluidly, sometimes in prose reminiscent ofCharles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta: "The air was dense and moist instead of bracingly dry, the blue of the sky pale with humidity. They had followed Aisha only to find themselves out of place, disoriented."A literate, evenhanded account of a long-ago religious conflict that continues to play out-and shape history-today. Agent: Gloria Loomis/Watkins Loomis Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385523943
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 168,177
  • Product dimensions: 8.26 (w) x 11.14 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

British-born Lesley Hazleton is a veteran Middle East journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Nation, and other publications. The author of several books on Middle East politics, religion, and history, Hazleton now lives in Seattle, Washington. She blogs about religion and politics at
For more information, visit:

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Read an Excerpt

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 divorcées or widows, and their children were by previous husbands. There was nothing unusual in this. Wealthy men could have up to four wives at the same time, with Muhammad allowed more in order to meet that need for political alliance, but women also often had two, three, or even four husbands. The difference was that where the men had many wives simultaneously, the women married serially, either because of divorce—women divorced as easily as men at the time—or because their previous husbands had died, often in battle.

This meant that the whole of Mecca and Medina was a vast interlocking web of kinship. Half brothers and half sisters, in-laws and cousins, everyone at the center of Islam was related at least three or four different ways to everyone else. The result beggars the modern Western idea of family. In seventh-century Arabia, it was a far-reaching web of relationships that defied anything so neatly linear as a family tree. It was more of a dense forest of vines, each one spreading out tendrils that then curled around others only to fold back in on themselves and reach out again in yet more directions, binding together the members of the new Islamic community in an intricate matrix of relationship no matter which tribe or clan they had been born into. But still, blood mattered.

There were rumors that there was in fact one child born to Muhammad after Khadija—born to Mariya the Copt, an Egyptian slave whom Muhammad had freed and kept as a concubine, away from the mosque compound—and that indeed, the child had been a boy, named Ibrahim, the Arabic for Abraham. But unlike the ancestor for whom he was named, this boy never grew to adulthood. At seventeen months old, he died, and it remains unclear if he ever actually existed or if, in a culture in which sons were considered a sign of their fathers' virility, he was instead a kind of legendary assurance of the Prophet's honor.

Certainly any of the wives crowded around Muhammad's sickbed would have given her eyeteeth—all her teeth, in fact—to have had children by him. To have been the mother of his children would have automatically granted her higher status than any of the other wives. And to bear the son of the Prophet? His natural heir? There could be no greater honor. So every one of them surely did her utmost to become pregnant by him, and none more than Aisha, the first wife he had married after the death of Khadija.

The youngest of the nine, the favorite, and by far the most controversial, Aisha was haunted by her childlessness. Like the others, she must certainly have tried, but in vain. Perhaps it was a sign of Muhammad' s ultimate loyalty to the memory of Khadija, the woman who had held him in her arms when he was in shock, trembling from his first encounter with the divine—the first revelation of the Quran—and assured him that he was indeed Rasul Allah, the Messenger of God. Perhaps only Khadija could be the matriarch, and only her eldest daughter, Fatima, could be the mother of Muhammad's treasured grandsons, Hasan and Hussein.

There can be no question of impotence or sterility on Muhammad's part; his children by Khadija were proof of that. No question either of barrenness on the part of the later wives, since all except Aisha had children by previous husbands. Perhaps, then, the multiply married Prophet was celibate. Or as Sunni theologians would argue in centuries to come, perhaps this late-life childlessness was the price of revelation. The Quran was the last and final word of God, they said. There could be no more prophets after Muhammad, no male kin who could assert special insight or closeness to the divine will, as the Shia would claim. This is why Khadija's two infant boys had to die; they could not live lest they inherit the prophetic gene.

All we know for sure is that in all nine marriages after Khadija, there was not a single pregnancy, let alone a son, and this was a major problem.

Muhammad was the man who had imposed his will—the will of God—on the whole of the vast Arabian Peninsula. He had done it in a mere two decades, since the angel Gabriel's first appearance to him. Iqra, "recite," the angel had told him, and thus the stirring opening lines of the Quran—"the Recitation"—came into being. Further revelations had come steadily, and in the most beautiful Arabic anyone had ever heard, transcendent poetry that was taken as a guarantee of its divine origin, since surely no illiterate trader like Muhammad was capable of creating such soul-stirring beauty on his own. He was literally the Messenger, the man who carried the revealed word of God.

As Islam spread through the towns, oases, and nomadic tribes of Arabia, they had all prospered. The accrued wealth of taxes and tribute was now that of the Islamic community as a whole. But with a public treasury and publicly owned lands, it was all the more important that their leader leave a will—that he designate his successor or at least establish clear guidelines for how his successor was to be determined.

What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.

It is clear that Muhammad knew that he would die, if not quite yet. He had no illusions of his own immortality. True, he was still full of  vitality—his gait had been strong until the illness struck, his build solid and muscular, and only a close observer could have counted the few white strands in what was still a full head of dark, braided hair—but those three assassination attempts must have made him more aware than most that his life could be cut short. On the other hand, a close brush with death is sometimes the renewed impetus for life. Indeed, the most serious of those attempts to kill him had been a major turning point in the establishment of Islam.

That had been ten years earlier, when his preaching had so threatened the aristocrats of his native Mecca. His message was a radical one, aimed above all at the inequities of urban life, for despite the prevailing image of seventh-century Arabia as nomadic, most of its population had been settled for several generations. Social identity was still tribal, however; your status was determined by what tribe you were born into, and no tribe was wealthier or more powerful than the Quraysh, the urban elite of Mecca.

The Quraysh were merchant traders, their city a central point on the north-south trade route that ran the length of western Arabia. It had become so central less because of any geographical advantage—if anything, it involved a slight detour—than because it was home to the Kaaba. This cube-shaped shrine housed numerous regional deities, many of them said to be offspring of a higher, more remote deity known simply as Allah, "the God." Mecca was thus a major pilgrimage center, and since intertribal rivalries were suspended within its walls during pilgrimage months, it also provided a safe venue for large trading fairs.

This combination of pilgrimage and commerce proved highly profitable. The Quraysh skillfully melded faith and finance, charging fees for access to the Kaaba, tolls on trade caravans, and taxes on commercial transactions. But the wealth they generated was not shared by all. The traditional tribal principle of caring for all its members had not survived the passage into urban life, so that while some clans within the tribe prospered, others did not. It was these others with whom Muhammad's message would first resonate.

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Table of Contents

Note on Usage and Spelling

Seventh Century

Prologue 1

Pt. 1 Muhammad 5

Pt. 2 Ali 67

Pt. 3 Hussein 155

Notes 215

Sources 219

Index 231

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Interviews & Essays

Author essay -- Lesley Hazleton -- After the Prophet

It began with a question asked after a particularly ghastly suicide bombing in Iraq: "How come Muhammad, the prophet of unity who spoke of one people and one God, left behind him this terrible, unending, bloody legacy of division between Sunni and Shia?" The question haunted me, and led me to the magnificent story of the struggle for leadership after Muhammad's death, an epic as alive and powerful today as when it first happened.

I knew then that how I wrote this book was as important as what I wrote. I had discovered a story so rich in characters, culminating in such a tragic and unforgettable sacrifice, that it would have made a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez green with envy. Of course -- how else could it survive and gather power over so many centuries? How else inspire people to forfeit their lives and those of others in its name? Yet though it is deeply engraved in Muslim consciousness -- to the Sunnis as history and to the Shia as sacred history -- the story of the events that divide them has remained largely unknown in the West. And our ignorance of it has haunted us as one Western power after another has tried to intervene in a conflict they barely understand.

That's why I wanted to bring Western readers inside the story, to make it as alive for them as it is in the Middle East, so that they can not only understand it on an intellectual level, but experience it -- grasp its emotive depth and its inspirational power, and thus understand how it has survived and even strengthened, and how it affects the lives of all of us today.

The subject was all the more irresistible to me personally since it brings together many of my deepest interests: the interplay of religion and politics, more intricately intertwined in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world; my own experience living in and reporting from the Middle East for Time magazine and other publications; my affinity for narrative nonfiction and for tracing the interplay of past and present; and my original training as a psychologist, which comes into play as I explore the story, the way it has endured, and how it is used today in politics, society, spiritual life, and, too often, war.

I could almost imagine that if all this had only been better known in the West, American troops would never have been sent within a hundred miles of Iraqi holy cities like Najaf and Karbala, which figure in it so largely, and that we would never have tried to intervene in an argument fueled by such a volatile blend of emotion, religion, and politics. But I know this is wishful thinking. In the end, I will be happy if readers simply turn over the last page and breathe out the words I found myself saying again and again as my research deepened, and that seem to me an entirely appropriate response to a story of this power: "Oh my God..."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 17, 2014

    Great Read!

    The political and social division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is certainly perplexing to me. I needed to know more background in order to gain a better understanding of history, as well as current world events. The book starts from the beginning of the schism. after the death of Muhammad. It is written more as a narrative novel than a history book. Frankly, I found it hard to put down. I understand there is a book on Muhammad by the same writer as well as other acclaimed books. I will certainly be reading them all as I have a high level of interest in gaining a better understanding of Islam and the dynamics which drive life, death, politics and society in the region.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2014

    Good Children

    This book belongs to the people who believe in all the prophets and are good children,and one's that know all the prophet's names.I belong in one of those groups of adults and children.People ,come join me as a group.Thank U.Thank U.

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