Sunnis and Shi’ites~~The Gathering Storm

To Wolfgang Capito, currently in Bruchsal, from Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of Saint John of Jerusalem, who now serves the garrison on the blessed Isle of Rhodes.  My dearest cousin, greetings in the Lord and sincere prayers for your wellbeing, good health, and growth in virtue.

In my previous communications, I spoke of Selim the Grim, the new Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, and his threat to the security of our island fortress.  I related how Selim’s struggle with his brothers and cousins for the throne ended in his favor and their deaths.  Now he has entered into a dangerous game of chess with his arch-enemy Ismāil, Shāh of Persia.

This Shāh Ismāil is a force to be reckoned with.  After his father was killed in battle, Ismāil went into hiding for several years, then returned, vowing to make Shi’ite Islam the official religion of his empire.  His followers are slavishly loyal to him, many believing that he is a relative of Mohammed.

Shi’ite Muslims have serious quarrels with the majority branch, known as the Sunni.  Shia Muslims insist that only direct relatives of Muhammad should be in the most important positions of leadership.  They revere the twelve imams, ancient religious leaders, most of whom were poisoned, but one who they believe did not die but was hidden by God.  This last imam will return one day as the savior of mankind to bring peace and justice to the world.

Selim, of the Sunni sect, wishes not only to stop the spread of Shi’ism into his Ottoman domains but to conquer and rule them and unite Islam.  According to our Venetian contacts, he now exchanges belligerent letters with Shāh Ismāil.

Venetian galley

When he first came to power, Ismāil sent a secret Persian delegation to Venice, hoping to receive military and naval support from that Serene Republic against the Ottoman Turks.  Since Persia does not have a seacoast on the Mediterranean, the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt allowed Ismāil’s envoys to cross Syria.

So Selim has a quarrel with Shāh Ismāil’s foolish efforts to build an alliance with the Venetians and is equally incensed at the Egyptians’ aid to Ismāil.  It appears that a great battle is brewing.

Shi’ites place great value in personal martyrdom and heroic sacrifice for their religion.  For that reason, a Shi’ite warrior may be a fanatical foe on the battlefield, and hence very dangerous.  Sunni warriors are also brave, but more careful about selling their lives.  The Ottoman Janissaries, in particular, are brave, but very intelligent in calculating how to make best use of their weapons and skills in battle.  A collision of the three giant Islamic empires could bode evil days for one or two of them.

Discord within the ranks of the Muslim princes helps our prospects for survival here in the east of the Mediterranean, but if any one of the three gains a clear superiority over the others, it will not go well for us…a united Islamic military force could represent our worst nightmare.  The rise of one over the others could change the world.

Likewise, the need for a common cause among our Christian princes has never been more urgent.   It is my fervent hope that there be no strife among them, and, most especially, no quarrel over religious truths which could weaken our common efforts to defend Christendom against the infidel.

In closing, I pray for your continued success at your studies, and your happiness in your work.  Your devoted Diether continues to remember your kindness with much gratitude.

From your own Diether,

The Fortress of Rhodes, on the Ides of August, 1514


Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

Previous letters from Diether:  Letter from a Knight on Rhodes; From Christian child to Turkish Janissary

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