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Interviews with Lesley Hazleton
about After the Prophet
Interview with Wisconsin Public Radio for "Here on Earth, Inside Islam Series"

Does the Sunni/Shia conflict contribute to the image of Islam as a violent religion? How much does it account for the violence in Iraq? We will look into the origins of the Sunni/Shia split, consider the bombing of the Shia shrine in Karbala, and talk with a Muslim scholar working on promote intrafaith harmony.

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Interview with Marcie Sillman on 'KUOW Weekday'

You've likely heard of the Shia–Sunni split in the Middle East but what caused the split? British journalist Lesley Hazleton explores the stories behind the schism; from assassinations, to a favored wife, to bloody battlefields. Join us as we explore the roots of a centuries–old divide.

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KUOW Speakers' forum

Hazleton's latest book is "After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia–Sunni Split in Islam." Town Hall Center for Civic Life sponsored the event with Elliott Bay Book Company on September 17, 2009.

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The Page 99 Test

Open the book to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." -- Ford Madox Ford

Click here for Lesley Hazleton's response regarding After the Prophet)
Interview with Dave Beck on 'KUOW Presents'

Lesley Hazleton is a Seattle author and journalist who has written books about Jerusalem, Jezebel and the biblical Mary. She's traveled extensively through the Middle East. And yet, in 2004, she watched the Ashura Massacre in Karbala, Iraq and couldn't understand why it was happening. So, she went in search of the story of the Shia–Sunni Split in Islam. Her research led to the new book "After The Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia–Sunni Split in Islam." Lesley spoke with KUOW's Dave Beck about how the history changed her perspective on the politics of the region.

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From Time.com

The split between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is one of the most important schisms in modern religion — yet in the West, at least, it's one of the least understood. The centuries-old strife sporadically erupts into new bloodshed throughout the Middle East — today, particularly, in war-torn Iraq, where the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein has reopened old wounds. As British-born journalist Lesley Hazleton argues, these wounds have been left to fester by a lack of adequate planning or understanding of the issue's complexities on the part of American policymakers. Her new book, After the Prophet, recounts the epic story of the split between Islam's two main factions and its present role in the Middle East. TIME talked to Hazleton about the history and misunderstandings of this dispute and what, if anything, can be done to extinguish it once and for all.

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From Real Change
with Adam Hyla, editor -- Sept. 16-22, 2009

In the sunlit living room of her Lake Union houseboat, Lesley Hazleton is about to make a point. She disappears for a moment and returns with a plain paperback. It’s one of 39 volumes written by the ninth-century Arabic historian Al-Tabari, the first to record the early days of one of the world’s newest religions, Islam.

For a whole year, Al-Tabari’s histories were arrayed on the living room floor: source material for the book that we are discussing this morning. But they weren’t hers; they belonged to the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library.

Since the library had only one copy of each, “I had to give them back if somebody else wanted them,” she says.

“Nobody else ever wanted them.”

That may serve as a commentary on American incuriousness about a faith bound tight to the politics of some very important nations — places to which we’re sending troops and treasure. But we ought to be glad that Hazleton could consult Al-Tabari’s texts in peace. From them, she’s rendered a gripping narrative of real events, “After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam” (Doubleday, 2009).

True history told with the narrative suspense of a novel, it begins with Muhammad’s failure to name an heir. It’s propelled by the ambition of his youngest wife, Aisha, and by the forbearance of his son-in-law, Ali, as the two lock in a decades-long rivalry over the soul of the new religion and the leadership of an empire.

And it ends — well, this is where history takes flight into the mythic for the Shia, Islam’s powerful minority sect. Because the book’s ending culminates with the death in battle of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein at Karbala, in present-day Iraq. Each year, the Shia re-enact the 10-day siege of his entourage in a period called Muharram, and if they can, they converge upon the spot where he fell: present-day Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad. For them, Hussein’s death was an act of self-sacrifice that would restore the faith of the new empire — an act commensurate with that of Jesus on Calvary.

Knowing what Karbala means, we can begin to understand the import of March 4, 2004. It was the day called Ashara, the final day of Muharram in the first year after Saddam was removed. As Shia pilgrims converged on Karbala for the first time since before the dictator, a 30-minute barrage killed 178 and wounded 500. The perpetrators? Sunni extremists operating under the sobriquet Al Qaeda. It freshened the meaning, writes Hazleton, of the Shia phrase “Every day is Ashara, and every place is Karbala.” In much of the Middle East, the bloodshed of history soaks into the present.

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From Zocalo Public Square

Lesley Hazleton, author of three books about the intersection of politics and religion in the Middle East and a one-time Middle East correspondent for various publications, was understandably hesitant to explain, in a nutshell, the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Her latest book, After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, is an effort to expand Americans’ understanding of that schism. “Essentially it was a battle over who would lead Islam after Muhammad died, and it began at the moment of his death, which is where my book begins,” she explained, noting that Shias maintained that Muhammad’s bloodlines should determine his successor, and Sunnis advocated merit and consensus for making the same determination. “If I had to boil it down, and this is a big if, it was a battle between idealism and pragmatism, and still is.” Hazleton chatted with Swati Pandey of Zócalo about the story behind the schism and why it still matters today.

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From DoubleDay

Doubleday senior editor Kris Puopolo talks to Lesley Hazleton about After the Prophet just after the book was completed, referring to it by its working title, "The Inheritors." An even earlier title was "Karbala."

Lesley, you've written a lot about religion and politics in the Middle East, but what brought you to this foundational Islamic story?

It was a question that came up after a particularly awful massacre by Al Qaida in Iraq, and that's 'How come Muhammad, the prophet of unity -- one people, one god -- could leave behind him this terrible, unending, bloody legacy of division between Sunnis and Shia?'
This is why the book starts as Muhammad is dying . He died without sons, and without a clear will, so the question was: who should he his heir, who should lead Islam. And of course there was no agreement. So the result was this amazing story of what happened in the years immediately after his death -- an epic story with a cast of characters that would make Gabriel Garcia Marquez green with envy. It's the story of the first civil war in Islam, Muslim against Muslim. And as today, that civil war plays out in, of all places, Iraq.

It's documented in extraordinarily vivid detail -- immensely 'juicy' detail -- in the earliest and most respected Islamic histories, and these are full of direct quotes, so all the dialogue in this book is from those histories. This is non-fiction -- none of it's my invention. But then I doubt if any westerner could invent such curses as 'May your mother be bereaved of you'. I mean, that still sends chills down my spine.

The thing is, there's no way to understand today's headlines -- the bombings and the massacres -- without this story of the first civil war, because what happened "then" is what's happening "now". I've made this connection between then and now all the way through the book, because that's what the Sunnis and the Shia do. In the Middle East, then is now.

As I and many others have said, this history reads like a novel. Is there one dramatic event that you see as the real turning point in the split between Sunni and Shia Islam?

Yes, the best history always is story. That's how it begins, and that's how it endures. And that's vital if we're to understand the conflict from the inside -- not merely understand it intellectually , but grasp its emotive force and see why it exerts such power today.

It's immensely dramatic all the way through, but the pivotal event, near the end of the book, is the massacre of Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, and his family. It happened at Karbala, fifty miles south of Baghdad, and this is where the split crystallizes -- in Iraq -- with four thousand of the Sunni Caliph's troops surrounding the 72 warriors of Hussein's encampment, along with the women and children of his family.

Obviously Hussein didn't stand a chance. The Shia say that he knew what would happen -- that he chose self-sacrifice in order to show up the corruption of the Sunni Caliph. This is why they call him The Prince of Martyrs.

So what we have here is the Shia Passion story, and it's as powerful as the Passion of Christ. In fact in Shia posters of Hussein, he looks immensely Christ-like. His martyrdom is the Shia Passion. For Sunnis, this massacre at Karbala fourteen hundred years ago is a sad and regrettable episode in history, but for the Shia it's sacred history, so it's as alive and present today as if it had taken place just yesterday. That's how come the story of Hussein's death was central to the Iranian Revolution in 1980 -- Khomeini transformed a martyrdom story into one of liberation. He made it radical. He made it the inspiration for revolution, just as Muqtada al-Sadr then made it the inspiration for resistance to the American occupation of Iraq by his Mahdi Army. This is one very powerful story.

Aisha, Muhammad's favorite young wife, plays a major role here. Were you surprised to learn how much political impact she had?

Definitely, especially given the image of Muslim women today. Just the idea of her leading an army into battle against Muhammad's son-in-law Ali is stunning. The Battle of the Camel, it was called. It took place just outside Basra, in southern Iraq, and the camel was hers. A red camel. She sat in an armored canopy on top of it, in the very center of the fighting, uttering blood-curdling battle cries, urging her own men on to their deaths. She kept it up even as her canopy was so studded with arrows they say it ended up bristling like a porcupine, and even though one of those arrows penetrated the chain mail and went through her upper arm.

Aisha is in the forefront of things throughout this story. She's always outspoken, always controversial, always riling things up. And she always commands respect, even if it's grudging respect. Whatever you think of her, whether you like her or dislike her, she won't let you ignore her.

What do you hope modern readers will take away from this book?

Above all, an appreciation of the emotive depth of what's involved in the Sunni-Shia split. Not just intellectual understanding, but on a very deep level, the power of it. And we need to respect that power. I mean, one likes to think that if this story had been better known in the West, American troops would never have been sent anywhere within a hundred miles of Iraqi holy cities like Najaf or Karbala, where Hussein was killed. That we'd never have tried to intervene in an argument fueled by this incredibly volatile blend of emotion, religion, and politics.

So what I hope is that readers will turn over the last page of the book and kind of breath out just three simple words that seem to me the entirely appropriate response: "Oh my God..."

September 15, 2009
from Doubleday