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The Revolutionary Shias

Simon Norfolk/INSTITUTE
The Bazare-e-Bozorg, a covered market on the Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World Square), Isfahan, Iran, December 2003


In 2004, anticipating the victory of the Shiite parties in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon that would be dominated by Iran with its large majority of Shias and Shiite clerical leadership. The idea was picked up by the Saudi foreign minister, who described the US intervention in Iraq as a “handover of Iraq to Iran” since the US was supporting mainly Shiite groups there after overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt claimed that Shias residing in Arab countries were more loyal to Iran than to their own governments. In an Op-Ed published in The Washington Post in November 2006, Nawaf Obaid, national security adviser to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, reflected on the urgent need to support Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had lost power after centuries of ruling over a Shiite majority comprising more than 65 percent of the Iraqi population.

Shiaphobia is nothing new for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s legitimacy derives from the Wahhabi sect of Islam, a Sunni Muslim group that attacked Shiite shrines in Iraq in the nineteenth century, and today systematically discriminates against Shias. We know from WikiLeaks that the US government regards the Saudi monarchy as a “critical financial support base” for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other terrorist groups. As well as attacking American and Indian targets, all these are violently anti-Shiite. We also know that the Saudi king venomously urged his US allies to cut off the “head of the snake” by attacking Shiite Iran.

In Bahrain democratic protests by Shias, who make up around 70 percent of the population, have continued in mainly Shiite villages near the capital, Manama, despite decades of suppression by the government, recently with the aid of Saudi troops and Sunni mercenaries from Jordan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis, who openly sent their troops into Bahrain in March, are terrified that the unrest will spread to the oil-bearing Eastern Province where their own Shia minority resides. Human rights activists point out that Shias make up less than 20 percent of the kingdom’s workforce and less than 2 percent of its police and security forces.

Syria, just a few hundred kilometers across the desert to the west, presents an even more brutal picture. Here a civil war could be looming with defecting soldiers fighting back after protesters—many of them Sunnis who make up three quarters of the population—have been killed in the thousands by security forces dominated by a Shiite sectarian group, the Alawis, who have held power for more than four decades and are refusing to relinquish it, despite protests from neighboring Turkey and Jordan and suspension by the Arab League, of which Syria was a founding member. Earlier this year the European Union said that Iran had sent senior commanders of its Revolutionary Guards to help the Assad regime quell the unrest. In addition to recent reports of sectarian killings between Sunnis and Alawis in Homs and around the city of Hama, there are now real fears that a conflict comparable to Iraq’s is developing in Syria. Sunni minorities in Iran—in Khuzestan and Baluchistan—have also been subject to attacks, with dozens of protesters killed.

Some of those involved in the recent Arab uprisings claim that sectarian anxieties are being deliberately stoked by authoritarian regimes to maintain their grip on power. The Assad regime is widely accused of frightening Syria’s minorities—Christians, Kurds, Ismailis, Druzes—by raising the threat of a takeover by Sunni fundamentalists or takfiris—extreme Sunni groups who denounce others as “infidels.” The specter of sectarian violence can become self-fulfilling.

Many of the protesters in the Middle East deny that they have religious or sectarian agendas; they want democracy, civil rights, an end to corruption, and a change of regime. As Timur Kuran pointed out in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times last spring, most of them do not appear to have a distinctive ideology or coherent, disciplined organizations. The exception is the highly disciplined Muslim Brotherhood (a Sunni organization), whose Freedom and Justice Party stands to do well in the coming Egyptian elections through the strength of its organization and popularity of its informal welfare programs. The Brotherhood’s top-down structure combines features of the traditional Sufi (mystical) order, based on graded levels of initiation, with modern methods such as bussing supporters to polling stations. It is a formidable contender for power in the absence of other organizations standing between the individual and the state.

The weakness of civil society organizations that characterizes many Muslim societies means that power is liable to fall by default to the military or, as in the case of Syria, to a military state controlled by a kinship group bound by tribal loyalties underpinned by a minority faith. Regimes may be crying wolf when they justify repressive measures by invoking the specter of sectarian conflict. However, the experience of Iraq—where US Administrator Paul Bremer’s foolish policy of dissolving both the army and the Baath Party after the US invasion led to a brutal conflict involving the Shiite majority and disempowered Sunnis—exposed the fragile foundations of Iraqi national identity, a feature it shares with many other Middle Eastern countries. The conflict is far from being over. More attacks on Shias by radical Sunnis can be anticipated as the US withdraws.

Shiism, as Hamid Dabashi explains in his challenging and brilliant new book, is a perfect foil for power but unimpressive as a modern state ideology. Its origins lie in the disputed succession to Muhammad, who died in 632 in his early sixties without unambiguously naming a successor. His closest kinsman was Ali, his younger first cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima. The Shiite minority came to believe that Ali had been designated to succeed Muhammad and that he was passed over three times for the caliphate, or leadership of Islam, before being murdered by a disillusioned supporter after a brief and contested tenure.

Ali’s younger son Husayn was killed at Karbala in 680 in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the caliphate from the Umayyad dynasty reigning in Damascus and restore it to what he saw as the Prophet’s legitimate line. Although the Umayyads were overthrown by a Shiite-inspired revolt in 750, the victors were not direct descendants of Muhammad but of his uncle Abbas. While the majority tradition, later known as Sunni, included Ali as the fourth of the “rightly guided caliphs,” the minority Shias rejected the first three of Muhammad’s successors, whom they regularly ritually cursed in their mosques.

In effect the Shias believed that the leadership of Islam—if not its teachings—had been hijacked by usurpers. Convinced that the cause of true Islam had been betrayed by the Umayyads, and later by the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), they looked to their dispossessed leaders, the imams, or religious authorities of the House of Ali, to restore true religion and legitimate government. Unlike the Catholic–Protestant division that emerged after fifteen centuries of Western Christianity, the contested legacy of Muhammad reaches back to the time of the religion’s origins.

Max Weber famously distinguished between “exemplary” prophets such as the Buddha, who showed the path to salvation by personal example, and “ethical” prophets such as Muhammad, who demanded obedience to their teachings. Dabashi, however, challenges Weber’s view, arguing that Muhammad embraces both categories—with different consequences for the two main traditions that flow from his mission. While the vast majority of Muslims were Sunnis who “assimilated his exemplary conduct”—along with the Koranic teachings—into the textually based sharia law, the Shias “did not want to let go of their Prophet’s exemplary character and thus sought to extend his charismatic presence to their imams.” The “exemplary presence of an imam” was needed to sustain the charismatic character of the Prophet.

The crucial difference between Shias and Sunnis is not so much in the letter of the law, which Sunni legal scholars interpret in accordance with a hierarchy of sources embracing the Koran, the Prophet’s custom (sunna), consensus, and analogical reasoning. It lies rather in the quasi-mystical authority with which the Shiite legal scholars are invested.

In the Sunni tradition the ‘ulama, or legal scholars, came to act as a rabbinical class charged with the task of interpreting the Koran and the ethical teachings derived from the Prophet’s exemplary conduct as recorded in hadith reports or “traditions.” The eventual division of the mainstream Sunni tradition into four main schools of law allowed for considerable variations in interpreting these canonical texts. The mystical or “otherworldly” aspects of the Prophet’s legacy became the province of the Sufi or mystical orders that grew up around the myriads of “saints” or holy men.

The Shias, by contrast, institutionalized the Prophet’s charisma by investing their imams with special sources of esoteric knowledge to which they, through their religious leaders, had exclusive access. Hence Shiism, arguably, presents a more unified approach to Islam than Sunnism, though one that (like Protestantism) is opposed to the mainstream. During Islam’s formative era most of the holy and sinless Shiite imams in the line of Muhammad were deemed to have been martyrs or victims of the usurping Sunni caliphs. After the twelfth imam in the direct line of Muhammad finally “disappeared” in 940, Shiite authority came to be exercised by a formidable clerical establishment—comparable to the Catholic priesthood. These religious specialists were assumed to be in possession of the esoteric knowledge and interpretive skills necessary for the community’s guidance. The parallels with Christianity are striking. For the people called Ithnasharis, or Twelvers (who comprise the majority of the Shia), the disappeared or “Hidden Imam” is a messianic figure who will return (like the resurrected Jesus) to bring peace and justice to a world torn by strife.

Dabashi shows how this traditional belief system, enshrined in popular culture, resurfaces in contemporary literature. The scandalous death of the Imam Husayn—the Prophet’s grandson—at Karbala in 680 is reenacted annually in the popular passion plays performed in every Iranian town and village. For ordinary Shias he is the archetypical martyr for justice and truth; for Marxist writers such as Khosrow Golsorkhi (1944–1974) and Ahmad Shamlou (1925–2000), Husayn is both Christ-like victim and revolutionary icon. For Ali Shariati (1933–1975), the Islamist ideologue and leading inspiration for the 1979 Iranian revolution, he is a “cosmic figure whose murder weighs on the conscience of humanity.” In the Twelver tradition the “disappearance” of the last imam initiated a scholastic tradition “in which the sanctity of the letter of law” came, importantly, to represent “the charismatic presence of the Shi’i imams.”

The Shiite scholars do not quite constitute a church in the Christian sense, since there are no formal sacraments and they are not a corporate body endowed with powers to save Muslims from sin. Their senior leaders, the ayatollahs (“signs” of God), are not organized into a top-down hierarchy, but acquire their followings—and considerable wealth—through public recognition of their learning, reinforced by the payment to them of religious dues. Far from being a monolith they differ among themselves (like their Sunni counterparts) on matters of doctrine and practice. But unlike their Sunni counterparts (whose authority has diminished considerably since Ottoman times, with the rise of the modern state and secular education), they still dispose of formidable ability to change their societies.

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