There are four great ironies in the Arab World that have had profound influence on its structure and history.   First, Mohammed’s, the founder of its most identifying feature, Islam, surviving issue was a woman, Fatima, and not a man.  Given Islam’s male orientation she could not succeed him thus the succession was left to violent competition between her husband, Ali, and a leading follower, Abu Bakr, that continues to this day in the form of Shiites and Sunnis contesting for power in the world of Islam.

Second, the greatest “Arab” leader was Saladin, who vanquished the Christian Crusaders who had wrested the Holy Land from Arab rule. The irony here is that Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab.  Even more ironic, Kurds are the only people in the Middle East who were left completely stateless in the wake of the remake of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and post WWII divisions of the lands.

Third, the Arab world was ruled for almost 500 years by Turks who built the Ottoman Empire into one of history’s most important regimes.   And fourth the largest populations of Muslims, the faith invented by Arabs, lie outside the Arab world with Indonesia having the largest, Pakistan the second and India almost equal with Pakistan in third place.

The first three have shaped the Arab World while the fourth is simply an irony.  The strife left by an uncertain succession to Mohammed lies at the base of the civil wars now raging in Iraq and Syria.  The question to ponder is what would have happened if Mohammed had left a male heir to succeed him?   What would Islam be if there were no conflict between Sunnis and Shiites?

The most likely outcome of the upheaval in Iraq will be the formation of an independent Kurd nation, the long awaited “Kurdistan” of the Kurdish people, the heirs to Saladin.  When I was at our embassy in Ankara, Turkey I had a map of the Middle East on my wall.  On it I had drawn in red marker a somewhat triangular new nation straddling the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  I did not name it but of course it was what a “Kurdistan” would look like if the Kurdish people were allowed to form a nation state along their population lines.

For five centuries the “Arab” World was united under Turkish rule.   Perhaps the Arabs left aside their internal differences while they constantly struggled against their common enemy, the Turks.  Whatever, the Turks ruled with an iron hand the lands from Vienna, Austria to Persia, to Sudan, to Algeria.   The main struggle was the Ottoman’s constant contest with Spain and other Europeans for control of eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

One can but wonder what will be the next irony to shape the Arab World in these tumultuous times.