Iran's Supreme Guide has just issued a fatwa calling for strict punishment (that means a death sentence) against Kuwaiti Shia dissident Yasser Al Habib, who is living in the UK, for insulting the Mothers of the Believers. Kuwait has stripped him of his citizenship for the same reason.
OK, this calls for some explanation. Insulting the Mothers of the Believers is a bit more complicated than shouts of, "Yo Mama!"
Muhammad's wife Ayesha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's first followers and the first Caliph after his death. Wife Hafsah was the daughter of Umar bin Khattab, another Meccan convert and Islam's second Caliph. Along with another dozen wives, Ayesha and Hafsah are known as Umahat Al Mumineen, the Mothers of the Belivers. Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab, as well as the other Meccans who migrated to Medina with Muhammad, are the Sahabah, or companions of the Prophet.
Ayesha was nine years old when Muhammad consummated his marriage with her. Hafsah had been married at ten but widowed eight years later, and was twenty when Muhammad married her. Their young age in comparison to Muhammad's other wives and the fact that their fathers were both friends of the Prophet and leaders in the community led to a close friendship. When Muhammad slept with one of Hafsah's slaves, as I have described here and here, Ayesha was the one in whom Hafsah confided. As a result they were both the temporary object of their husband's wrath.
Muhammad died on Ayesha's lap and her father, Abu Bakr, was chosen as his successor. Some Muslims believed Ali, a cousin who had lived with the Prophet since he was ten years old and was married to Muhammad's daughter Fatimah, should have been the next leader. Abu Bakr died two years later and Ali was again bypassed as Umar bin Khattab, who was Hafsah's father, was chosen as the second Caliph. The same thing happened with Caliph number three, Uthman, but after he was stabbed to death Ali finally got his chance to lead. Ayesha, who by now carried quite a bit of influence in the Muslim community which had quickly become an empire, accused Ali of not seeking to prosecute those who had killed Uthman. Ali and his two sons (the Prophet's grandsons) were themselves killed soon afterwards and Muslims split into the Sunnis (who follow the Sunna, or example of Muhammad), and the Shia (who believe the Ahl Al Bayt, or relatives of Muhammad, should have succeeded the Prophet).
Fast forward 1400 years to Yasser Al Habib, who claims that Ayesha and Hafsah conspired to murder their husband Muhammad so their fathers could become the leaders of the Muslim empire.
There is something important to understand here. The first 200 years of Muslim history were transmitted via oral tradition until Hadith writers such as Bukhari and Sira biographers such as Ibn Hisham first wrote them down. Even the earliest copies of the Quran date from that later time period. There is no reliable way of knowing what happened in the first 200 years of Muslim history. It is all a matter of faith.
You might be asking the obvious question. Why would Iran, a Shia country, issue a sentence of death in abstentia (otherwise known as a fatwa) against a fellow Shia in London who is saying nothing different than the Shia have believed for 1400 years? What did he do that was so egregious even his own country would take away his citizenship?
Well, Shia and Sunnis are now trying to "come together". Iran wants to assuage the fears of its Sunni neighbors about its nuclear ambitions and territorial aspirations. What better way than to issue a fatwa against a Shia dissident in London? Kuwait, on the other hand, does not want to aggravate its powerful neighbor who resides just a few miles across the Arab or Persian Gulf (even the name depends on which side you live). What better way than to deprive Yasser Al Habib of his citizenship?
I have an idea. Rather than issuing fatwas in which religious leaders arbitrarily decide what is right or wrong and determine the life or death of another person, why not have an academic conference? After all, we are living in the 21st century. Invite the world's greatest scholars, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, to present their research as to the role Ayesha and Hafsah played in the early struggles of Islamic power and leadership, and be willing to go wherever the evidence takes you.
It will never happen, of course. And for the same reason an academic conference will never be held to examine the historical evidence whether or not Muhammad was a Prophet of God and the Quran is a text from God. That would be too much for Muslims, who cannot even imagine life without Muhammad. It's much easier to just issue another fatwa.