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The Revolutionary Shias

Shawn Baldwin/Corbis
Iraqi protesters holding pictures of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, Baghdad, April 2004

Furthermore the eschatological time bomb wrapped in the myth of the Hidden Imam’s expected return packs a formidable political charge. By and large, the tradition of Twelver Shiism prevails in Iran (90 percent) and its immediate neighbors, Azerbaijan (85 percent), Iraq (65 percent), and Bahrain (75 percent), with substantial minorities in Kuwait (40 percent), Saudi Arabia (around 8 percent), Afghanistan (30 percent), and Pakistan (30 percent).

The Gulf rulers have good reason to be nervous. Shiite-inspired revolts were frequent during the early centuries of Islam, and numerous social or tribal movements were fueled by the prospect of the Hidden Imam’s expected return or justified by reference to the Prophet’s dispossessed progeny. Then came Khomeini’s triumphant arrival in Tehran in February 1979. Although he was too canny—and religiously correct—to formally claim to be the Hidden Imam himself, he allowed populist expectations surrounding the Hidden Imam’s return to work on his behalf.

Dabashi argues that the tension between the tradition’s scholarly legalism and its revolutionary élan produces a precarious equilibrium. This is exemplified in Iraq by, on the one hand, the eighty-one-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a scholastic jurist, and, on the other, the radical militant leader Seyyed Moqtada al-Sadr, “two Shi’is at the two opposing but complementary ends of their faith, defending their cause and sustaining the historical fate of their community in two diametrically parallel but rhetorically divergent ways.” The actual holder of power, namely the government of Nuri al- Maliki, has had to negotiate this delicate Shiite balance along with Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities.

The same tension is highly visible in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is challenging the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In advance of the elections in 2013, Ahmadinejad is trying to boost the office of president. The struggle between the President, who has been openly accused by the liberal Green movement of buying the votes that brought him victory in the contested election of June 2009, and Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader) reflects what the sociologist Sami Zubaida has neatly described as the “contradictory duality of sovereignties”—between God and the people—“written into the constitution” of the Islamic Republic.*

Popular expectations surrounding the Hidden Imam and his return are central to this struggle. Khamenei, who represents a part of the clerical “old guard” that took power after the revolution, has gone so far as to suggest changing Iran to a parliamentary system, without an elected president—a move that former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has stated would “be contrary to the Constitution and would weaken the people’s power of choice.” Ahmadinejad has responded by giving the debate an eschatological twist, stating that ordinary Muslims do not need the intercession of clerics to contact the Hidden Imam. For Ahmadinejad, populist expectations surrounding an imminent return (an attitude described as “deviant” by conservative clerics) serves to boost his presidential ambitions.

At the heart of this debate lies the problem of legitimacy, based, as Dabashi sees it, in a long tradition in which the revolutionary impulses born out of historical dispossession of the right to succeed Muhammad compete with compulsive anxieties about proper social behavior:

The more volatile, unstable, and impulsive the charismatic outbursts of revolutionary movements in Shi’ism have been throughout its medieval and modern history, because of its traumatic origin, the more precise the exactitude of the Shi’i law has sought to regulate, to the minutest details, the affairs of Shi’i believers—from their rituals of bodily purity to the dramaturgical particulars of their communal gatherings, to their political suspicions of anyone’s claim to legitimate authority.

Rituals of bodily purity serve to reinforce communal identities. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her classic work Purity and Danger, rules about pollution of the body are substitutes for morality: “They do not depend on a nice balancing of rights or duties. The only material question is whether a forbidden contact has taken place or not.”

At the same time, as Dabashi suggests, the notion of having been wronged by the existing powers, which lies at the heart of Shiism, contributes to the notion that

the veracity of the faith remains legitimate only so far as it is combative and speaks truth to power, and (conversely) almost instantly loses that legitimacy when it actually comes to power.

A logical resolution to this paradox would be a formal separation of powers between religion and state, where the religious leadership “speaks truth to power” without exercising executive authority. Such was the position of the clerical class during the regime of the Pahlavi shahs and for the most part under their predecessors of the Qajar dynasty (1785–1925), when there existed what Said Amir Arjomand has called an “unspoken concordat” between the state and the clerical establishment, with the latter refraining from criticizing the dynasty’s policies.

It was Khomeini who radically upset this de facto concordat with his doctrine of Vilayet e-Faqih—the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult—whereby the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council appointed by him approve parliamentary candidates and have veto power over legislation (as well as control over much of the bureaucracy and armed forces) in competition with the elected president. The contradiction at the heart of the Islamic Republic exemplifies Zubaida’s “contradictory duality of sovereignties” and constitutes a major obstacle to reform. It was the Guardian Council, for example, that effectively defeated the reformist agenda of President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005) by rejecting his proposals—overwhelmingly approved by the parliament—for constitutional changes that would reduce the council’s power and boost those of the presidency. Constitutionally speaking, Khatami’s struggle was similar to Ahmadinejad’s, although his social outlook (as a moderate with liberal instincts and advocate for international dialogue) was the diametrical opposite of Ahmadinejad’s.

This constitutional impasse, in my view, is a direct reflection of Dabashi’s paradox of legitimacy, and its consequences have been dire:

What I believe is happening in Iran today begins with the simple fact that…the ruling Shi’ism has lost its moral legitimacy. It has lost it by simply being in power and trying in vain to remain in power by maiming and murdering its own people.


If Dabashi had restricted himself to a political and theological analysis his thesis would be interesting enough, but his ambitions are much wider. As he explains in his preface, part of his book charts a “major epistemic shift” in Shiism from doctrinal issues arising out of historical events to artistic manifestations of the faith, including in literature and architecture. A question that arises is how such a comprehensive vision of the faith can retain its distinctive Shiite labeling—since many of the features he delineates could be described, more broadly, as “Islamic,” or more specifically as distinctly Persian or Iranian. He writes eloquently about four of the masters of Persian literature—among them the great mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273), founder of the Mehlevi order of dervishes, and the poet Sa’di (1184–1291). He sees these Persian writers as the forerunners of a literary tradition that culminates in the lyrics of the great Hafez (circa 1320–1389), who gave

anyone who was fortunate enough to be born after him an expansive universe, much as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven mapped out the topography of the emotive cosmos of European philosophers and mystics.

These major figures, he acknowledges, transcend sectarian affiliations, just as the great composers he cites reach out beyond the Lutheran or Catholic traditions in which they were raised. “When we remember them we scarce know or care if they are Sunni or Shi’i, nor does it matter.”

In line with this approach he argues that Shiism is not so much a sect or minority tradition of Islam, but a comprehensive and variegated version of the entire faith. It is “the dream/nightmare of Islam itself as it goes about the world…a promise made yet undelivered to itself and to the world.” It is “the hidden soul of Islam, its sigh of relief from its own grievances against a world ill at ease with what it is.”

However, this vision of Shiism as a moral force or conscience embedded in Islam at its roots appears to contradict his historical account of Safavid Persia, which he sees as the apotheosis of Islamic civilization, when variegated elements of Shiism merged triumphantly in the “paradoxical panning out of what was now a state majority religion with an enduring minority complex.”

The Safavids, who ruled Persia and the adjoining lands between 1501 and the 1730s, made Shiism the state religion. According to Dabashi they succeeded in integrating the mystical and practical dimensions of Islam on Shiite foundations while maintaining a philosophical approach consonant with the idea of God as the cosmic intellect or ultimate consciousness. Dabashi sees the architectural splendor of Isfahan, the Safavid capital, as the material expression of an intellectual spirit comparable to that achieved by Western Christendom on the eve of the Enlightenment. For him the magnificent piazza known as the Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World Square) corresponds to Immanuel Kant’s vision of a vast and vital public space. It opened the way for “reason to become public, for intellect to leave the royal courts and the sanctity of mosques alike and to enter and face the urban polity of a whole new conception of a people.”

Tragically, in Dabashi’s view, the Safavid vision of the public space as a forum for reasoned discourse succumbed to the “hungry wolves” of Afghan invaders, imperial rivalries between Russians and Ottomans, and the colonial machinations of the French and British. Internal forces of dissolution also played their part, with raw tribalism replacing the vigorous cosmopolitan public culture the Safavids had striven to create. By the end of the eighteenth century Shiite Iran had returned to forms of tribal governance, along with a restored religious scholasticism.

The triumph of nomadic tribalism under the Qajar dynasty that endured from 1785 until 1925 “necessitated a clerical class of turbaned jurists and their feudal scholasticism to shore up its precarious legitimacy.” This historic regression, according to Dabashi, was exacerbated by the doctrinal victory of the Usuli school of jurists (who use independent reasoning in their judgments) over the Akhbaris, who were more bound by precedent.

On the face of it, Dabashi’s view appears counterintuitive, since the use of independent reasoning would seem to allow more room for individual initiative and public reason. But when we take account of the renewed tribalism harking back to the pre-Safavid era, the victory of the Usuli jurists served to enhance clerical authority at the expense of the public and cosmopolitan aspects of Shiism that had been encouraged by the Safavid state. In effect the clerical establishment made a deal with the nomadic rulers, using its authority to bolster their claims to power in exchange for clerical privileges. Members of an inward-looking, xenophobic clerical establishment, obsessed with issues of purity and pollution, became the guardians of tradition and bearers of popular identity, a process enhanced by defensive responses to Russian and Ottoman territorial encroachments and later to the pressures arising from growing European power.

  1. *

    Sami Zubaida, Islam, The People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (Routledge, 1989). The same points are made in Zubaida’s article “Is Iran an Islamic State?,” in Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, edited by Joe Stork and Joel Beinin (University of California Press, 1996). 

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