Dying to be different

Most readers of NightHawk will be thoroughly familiar with the great historic schisms in Christianity – notably the division between Catholicism and Protestantism stemming from the Reformation, but also the further divisions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church and between traditional Protestants and the fundamentalists or born again Christians.
Some readers might be less familiar with the divisions in Islam and, even more so, the reasons for them. The great split here is between Sunni and Shia Muslims and, in today’s “Guardian”, Stephen Bates provides a short explanation at the end of this item. Basically it is an argument over who should succeed the prophet Mohammed following his death almost 1,400 years ago.
But, as in Christianity, the divisions in Islam go beyond a simple duality.
Sunni followers are divided into four main schools: the Hanafi school, the Maliki school, the Shafii school, and the Hanbali school. Shia followers are divided into the Zaydis (or Fivers) , the Ismailis (or Seveners) and the Twelvers. The Twelvers are dominant in Iran and believe that the imam is hidden from the world and will only reappear on Judgement Day. This is, of course, a vast simplication – for more details, see here.
Now, why does all this matter? It matters because the differences can kill the adherents. The sectarian killings between Catholics and Protestants at the height of Northern Ireland’s so-called Troubles are as nothing compared to the sectarian slaughter now taking place in Iraq. Far more Iraqis are being killed by fellow Moslems than by the (Christian) forces of the USA and UK.
This is an appalling tragedy. For humanists like myself, conflict over the differences between Catholicism or Protestanism or between Sunnis and Shias are like arguing over the superiority of fairies as opposed to elves (i.e. the concepts do not exist) or fighting over whether one should eat a boiled egg from the top or the bottom (i.e. it does not matter).


  • Nick

    Roger, I was with you there until you mentioned the boiled egg. Have you ever tried eating an egg with a runny yolk from the bottom? It just drips all over the plate!

  • Roger Darlington

    I guess that there are two answers to your comment, Nick.
    1) I am not sure that Jonathan Swift would agree.
    2) Would you kill someone who took a different view. It’s no yolk.

  • Richard Leyton

    On eggs – Big Endian and Little Endian: Delighted to say this aspect of Swift’s work is a term used in computer architecture to describe how numbers are represented. more at Wikipedia, if you’re interested! (or is it just me 😉
    Agree whole-heartedly to your main point. It saddens me terribly that so many people get so wound up about such matters. It’s at times like this folk should watch Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”…. That and read a bit of Douglas Adams. I dare say Richard Dawkins’ latest might be a bit too far though for many 😉

  • Nick

    Roger, I wasn’t referring to the perennial conflict between the little- and big-endians, heinous though the little-endians are, but to the fact that if you try to eat an egg from the bottom (i.e., from the end closest to the centre of the Earth), the contents are liable to drop out of the shell!