|Writing the book.
After the Prophet began with a question from another writer that came up after a particularly ghastly suicide bombing in Iraq: "How come Muhammad, the prophet of unity, the man who united Arabia and founded a new religion and a vast empire, could leave behind him this terrible, unending, bloody legacy of division between Sunnis and Shia?" The question haunted me, and led me into two years of intense full-time research.
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 be his heir? Who should lead Islam?" And of course there was no agreement. The result was this amazing story of what happened in the years immediately following his death -- a truly 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.
I realized quickly that this epic is as alive and powerful today as when it first happened in the seventh century. How else could a story retain, even deepen, its emotive power over fourteen centuries? And how else could we begin to understand the bitterness of the Shia-Sunni split today? Yet though this story is well-known throughout the Middle East -- as history to Sunnis and as sacred history to Shia, for whom it all but engraved on their hearts -- it has remained largely unknown in the West. This ignorance on our part has haunted all Western actions in the Middle East as one power after another has tried to intervene in a conflict they barely understand.
There is, in fact, no way to understand today's headlines of bombings and massacres without knowing this seventh-century story -- knowing it not just in the form of a couple of quick sentences here and there, as it is usually told in the West, but in all its detail and emotive depth and power. The Islamic revolution in Iran, the civil war in Iraq, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the deterioration of Pakistan and Afghanistan -- all these and more are deeply rooted in the events I follow in After the Prophet, starting with the moment of Muhammad's death.
The story is documented in extraordinarily vivid detail -- often immensely 'juicy' detail -- in the earliest and most respected Islamic histories, and in particular by the most respected historian of them all, al-Tabari, whose major work, written in Baghdad in the ninth century, comes to 39 volumes in translation. Al-Tabari takes the reader deep inside the conflict as to who would succeed Muhammad, including stunning eye-witness accounts and direct quotes from all the major figures in the story, in language often so pithy that the modern reader accustomed to more decorous histories can only gasp in amazement and admiration. His battlefield accounts are so vivid that one can almost hear the fighters panting and feel their desperation; the dialogue has all the pith and richness Arabic is capable of. I have enormous respect for al-Tabari''s historical method, and would have loved to have been able to somehow meet him across the centuries. (But then of course I did -- in his work.)
The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how directly it is reflected in the modern Middle East, especially in Iraq, where much of the story took place, and in Iran. What happened "then" is, in a very real sense, what is happening "now," Or rather, in the Middle East, "then" is "now." And since this is the way the story is understood by both Sunnis and Shia, I have made this connection between then and now throughout the book. I read deeply, for example, in the writings of such pivotal thinkers as Ali Shariati, the secular French-educated intellectual who played a central role in the ferment leading up to the Iranian revolution, constantly using religious imagery from the epic seventh-century story, and transforming a tale of martyrdom into one of liberation. Shariati made the story of the death of Muhammad's grandson Hussein at Karbala -- the Shia equivalent of the Christian Passion story -- into the radical impetus for revolution. The Ayatollah Khomeini would take up the theme, as then would Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Iran , and Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army, in Iraq.
For me as a writer, the story was irresistible, since it brings together many of my deepest interests: the interplay of religion and politics, more deeply intertwined in the Middle East than in any other place; my own past experience living, traveling in, and reporting from the Middle East; and my original training as a psychologist, which comes into play as I explore the story and trace the way it has endured and is used today.
My aim was to bring Western readers inside the foundation story of the Shia-Sunni split so that they can not only understand it on an intellectual level, but experience it -- grasp its emotive power, and thus appreciate its enduring power. I know this is wishful thinking, but in an ideal world one likes to think that if this story had only 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, which figure so largely in this story, and that the West would never have tried to intervene in an argument fueled by such a volatile blend of emotion, religion, and politics. In the end, I will be happy if readers turn over the last page of this book and kind of breathe out three simple words that I found myself saying again and again as my research deepened, and that seem to me an entirely appropriate response: "Oh my God..."