The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future

April 11, 2007

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. By VALI NASR, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 304 pages. ISBN 0393062112. $25.95

The Shia RevivalIn an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on October 17, 2006, Jeff Stein asked a number of senior government officials if they knew the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. Among his interviewees were Willie Hulon, chief of the FBI’s national security branch, Representative Terry Everett, then vice-chairman of the House intelligence committee on technical and tactical intelligence, and Representative Jo Ann Davis, then Chairwoman of the House Intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the CIA’s performance in recruiting Muslim spies and analyzing information. All three drew a blank to Stein’s question. Stein’s experiment highlights the ignorance and intelligence failure that has plagued the current war in Iraq and American engagement with the region.

Vali Nasr’s book is an attempt to recognize a centuries old conflict that has and will continue to shape the face of the Middle East. Written for a general audience and drawing on secondary sources and a sprinkling of personal anecdotes, Nasr’s book is a historical and political overview of the Sunni-Shia conflict since the time of the Prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h). Nasr argues that the conflict has always been central to struggles within the Middle East, and has become more significant since the Iranian revolution. He goes on to state that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has further increased Shia power and has galvanized Shia groups throughout the region. Therefore, the conflict between Shias and Sunnis will shape the future of the Middle East.

In the first two chapters Nasr begins with a basic introduction to Shiism, demonstrating that after the death of the Prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h) the majority of the community chose Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s companions, as his political successor, while small group of people believed that Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in law was invested with a divine authority and therefore the rightful leader. However, Shiism did not become a distinct political force until the ascension of the Umayyad dynasty with the caliph Muawyia. The Shia identity was solidified with the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn by Muawyia’s son Yazid at Kerbala. Even today, the festival that commemorates Husayn’s death, Ashoura, is a central display of Shia religious piety. Nasr also points out that Shia and Sunni differences go far beyond the issue of succession. The two groups have distinct views regarding the role of authority and leadership within the community. Sunnis believe that the Prophet’s successor had to lead the community politically and did not have to have a special relationship with God. Shias, however, believed that the Prophet possessed special spiritual qualities, was immaculate from sin and could penetrate the hidden meaning of religious teachings, and these qualities were passed to Ali and his descendents, through the noor (light) of Muhammad. Therefore Shias believe as much in the vehicle for the message, as in the message itself. The majority of the world’s Shias are ithnasharis or Twelver Shia, who followed Ali’s line until the twelfth Imam, who they believe has gone into hiding. Today the Shia community stretches from Iran, through the Middle East and down into South Asia and East Africa. Shias have a significant population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the third chapter Nasr describes the relationship between Shiism and contemporary politics. Shia scholars have embraced nationalist movements in Lebanon and Iraq and actively engage philosophers such as Kant and Marx. They believed that the nationalist movements would alleviate tensions with Sunnis, and as a result there was a brief unification between the Sunni and Shia religious establishments. However, the façade of nationalism faded when the Shia continued to be marginalized as a result of Sunni prejudices that even nationalism couldn’t erase. After the heyday of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s, the 1970s were marked by a rise of Islamic fundamentalism, thus leading to an increasing of an anti-Shia bias. Sunni thinkers, most notably, Ibn Taymiya, declared Shias heretics. Therefore political Shia groups have been forced to advance political issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, over religious ideology. As a result Shia groups in Lebanon, such as Amal and Hezbollah are viewed as a strong anti-Israeli, anti imperialist force and not a pro-Shia one.

Nasr spends a good portion of the next four chapters talking about the rise of Iran and the central role it has played in the Shia revival. Imam Husayn was married to the daughter of the last Sassanid king who became the mother of the fourth Shia Imam. Therefore Shiism has always had deep roots in Iran. However, Shiism did not become a dominant force in Iran until the 16th century when the Safavid dynasty took control of the country. The Safavids created a safe domain for Shia teachings and the propagation of the faith and produced a large number of books built on Shia scholarships, seminaries, libraries and mosques, which gave Iran a new intellectual vibrancy. The Shia ulema in Iran are viewed as the guardians of the faith and are charged with managing the affairs of the community and expressing the will of the hidden Imam until the Day of Judgment. Nasr pays close attention to the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had a clear sense of destiny and believed that he had a level of authority by virtue of his understanding of mystical doctrines. The influence of western culture, political repression, and the close ties between Tehran and Washington gave the ulema a cause to worry. Khomeini put forward a new government in Hukoumat e Islami (the Islamic Republic) and argued that God had sent Islam so that such a republic could be implemented under the authority of the ulema. Khomeini adopted a religious aura and people began to see him as a highly religious figure equal to that of the imams. He was consequently able to take advantage of these sentiments and called on religious rhetoric to encourage ill-equipped innocents to go to war with Iraq, where they compared their positions to that of Imam Husayn. He paid little attention to state structure, arguing that economics “is for donkeys” and actually discouraged popular Shia piety like ashoura. Khomeini wanted to be a global Islamic leader and not just an Iranian one and focused on issues that he thought were important to all Muslims; he preached anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli sentiment. Chapter seven discusses how Khomeini directed a challenge against Saudi Arabia, which led to a new, state-led clash of Sunni-Shia fundamentalism that played itself out throughout the world. He believed he could harm the Saudi royal family the same way he had the Pahlavis. Instead the Saudis began to preach wahabi values throughout the Muslim world, build many hospitals, schools and mosques to propagate their message. They also turned to Islamic intellectuals such as Israr Ahmad to attack the Shia, denouncing them as heretics.

Nasr’s last chapter talks about how the 2003 American invasion of Iraq made one of the most important Arab majority countries a Shia majority as well. It also gave Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani an opportunity to argue for majority rule and representative government in Iraq. Sistani did not want an Islamic state, but wanted to give constitutional and elective political power to Shias. He encouraged all Shias to vote, including women, and as a result Shias did well in the first Iraqi election, winning 48% of the vote. Concomitant with the rise of Sistani, the movement of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr was picking up speed. Sadr had inherited the followers of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, and galvanized them with a mixture of Islam and nationalism, but his movement lacked coherence and was characterized as cult following among Shia youth. Soon after the election Sistani convinced Sadr to join the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which formed the heart of Shia politics in Iran. Sadr agreed and the threat of the power of the SCIRI caused Sunni attacks on the Shia majority to intensify. On August 31, 2005, thousands of Shias were killed in a stampede, amid rumors there was a suicide bomber in their midst. In the middle of growing tensions, Sistani encouraged Shias to remain calm and not retaliate. However the attack on the askariya shrine in February 2006 marked the beginning of a sectarian civil war. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Sunni extremist from Jordan declared war on the Shia, compared them to venom and claimed that the real danger the Sunnis faced were the Shia, not the Americans. Today, spurred on by Zarqawi, a number of Sunni extremists are coming from outside of Iraq, and launching attacks against Shia. As the Shia grow stronger in Iraq they are influencing Shia in other parts the world, particularly in Lebanon and Bahrain where Shias are demanding more representation. The fallout from Iraq is also affecting Saudi Arabia where thousands of young men are leaving to fight a jihad against the Shia in Iraq. Nasr argues that the only way to contain sectarian conflict is through democracy. The future stability of the region is not based on hegemony of one sect over the other but on an inclusive vision that will equitably distribute power and wealth. However, this will not be achieved until all parties recognize sectarian rivalries and understand what motivates them.

Nasr’s book succeeds on a number of levels. Nasr states in his introduction that understanding the history of the region is paramount to understanding the conflict itself and he makes the text accessible to a non-academic audience by providing a rich and detailed history, tracing the Sunni-Shia conflict back 1,400 years, in a straightforward manner. Additionally, he talks about the Sunni-Shia conflict in varying locales, including South Asia, instead of focusing explicitly on Iran or Lebanon. He explains how Shiism as a religion evolved in various contexts and how this has led to a rich tradition of spiritual expression within the Shia community worldwide. Nasr also demonstrates how Shia political advancement in one country has influenced politics in surrounding countries from the Middle East to South Asia and further adeptly describes the overarching influence of influential and charismatic leaders such as Khomeini and Sistani. Finally, Nasr’s text is contemporary and connects the reader directly to current events. It is a text that stands on its own and accomplishes its goal of allowing a reader to speak intelligently and thoughtfully about what is happening throughout the region.

However, Nasr is overly sympathetic to the Shia and paints them as a model minority that is tolerant and non-violent while constantly being persecuted at the hands of over zealous Sunnis. In doing so Nasr ignores the violence that has taken place at the hands of Shia groups, especially Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Additionally, in order to make the text accessible to a western audience Nasr draws many parallels with events in the Christian world. While one or two parallels, such as equating the Sunni-Shia conflict with the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, helps the audience understand the nature of the conflict, Nasr takes these comparisons too far. Every chapter is replete with Islamic-Christian parallels, including a comparison between Imam Husayn and Jesus Christ, and between the Jamkaran Mosque outside of Qom to the shrine of Fatima in Portugal. These constant comparisons prevent the reader from examining Shia Islam and the Sunni-Shia conflict as distinct phenomena, and instead place them into a western framework that does not do them justice. Finally, while Nasr extensively discusses the complexity and pluralistic nature of Islam at the beginning of his book, he fails to implement this framework when talking about the Sunni-Shia conflict. He essentializes the conflict as one between Twelver Shias backed by Iran and Salafist Wahabi extremists supported by Saudi Arabia. As such, he ignores the millions of Sunnis and Shias who do not fall into either category. Nevertheless, Nasr’s book is a valiant attempt to address an important and widely ignored conflict that will continue to play a significant role in the future of the Middle East. Hulon, Everett and Davis should all read this book and take it into consideration when making future policy to fight the “war on terror.”

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