Servants of Allaah! The animosity of the Shee’ah towards the people of the Sunnah is severe. This animosity has been ingrained in their souls since the time they took the belief of corrupt partisanship as a rule and path for their religion. It is no wonder, because a snake gives birth to none other than a snake, and whoever reads the annals of history will find the murder and pillage that they committed on the people of the Sunnah, and will find their treaties with the enemies of Islaam far too notorious to be mentioned here.

—from a sermon by Sheikh Saalih al-Wanyyaan delivered in the Saudi province of Qasim, circa 19871


The Mosque of the Prophet at Medina makes a splendid showpiece for the lavish piety of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Fully air-conditioned, richly carpeted, accessible by multiple escalators from a giant underground parking garage, clad in the costliest of polychrome marbles and embellished with nine soaring minarets, the stadium-sized building, which was massively expanded in the 1980s, hosts millions of pilgrims every year. The faithful come to pray here because this city is where their prophet found refuge, started the first Muslim community, spent most of his life, and was buried, at the site now marked by the green-domed shrine attached to his mosque.

Yet as I discovered on a recent visit, a good many pilgrims have another, additional purpose in mind. Thousands every day make their way to the southeast corner of the gleaming esplanade that surrounds the mosque. A short flight of steps here leads up to a concrete walkway, a sort of low parapet that skirts part of the esplanade, and is bounded on its far side by a heavily grilled fence.

A churning crowd of pilgrims pressed against this fence. Some clung to the metal links, muttering solitary prayers. Others wailed in lamentation, or implored the intercession of saints. Here and there, clusters of pilgrims huddled around tour leaders who recounted momentous events in the history of the faith, or roused their little flocks to heart-rending bouts of communal weeping.

In the midst of all this stood a smiling young Iranian couple, she in lacy white, he in jacket and tie. The fence provided, apparently, a suitable backdrop for their honeymoon photos, snapped by a giggly, chadored companion in flagrant disregard of prominent signs showing a camera with a diagonal red bar through it.
There were other forbidding signs, too, including a large one mounted on poles inside the fence. This explained pointedly, in Arabic, English, Urdu, and Farsi, that worship of tombs is condemned by Islam as a form of corruption on earth. It seemed a strange injunction, since there was nothing at all to be seen inside the fence except for that sign, and acres of dust and rubble.

But once upon a time this eerily empty space was a cemetery. Known as Jannat al-Baqi, or the Heavenly Grove, it was perhaps the most famous burial place in the Muslim world. Aside from housing a reputed seven thousand graves of the Prophet’s venerated companions, it was the main resting place for the Ahl al-Bayt, or House of the Prophet, containing the tombs of Muhammad’s aunts, of nine of his wives, and of his infant son Ibrahim, as well as of male descendants through the marriage of the Prophet’s only child to survive, his daughter Fatima, to his cousin Ali. These included the shrines of the Prophet’s grandson Hassan, great-grandson Ali Zayn al-Abdin, great-great-grandson Muhammad al-Baqir, and great-great-great-grandson Jaafar al-Saddiq.

Those last four of Muhammad’s descendants are known to Shia Muslims as the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the chain of imams, or infallible exemplars who succeeded to the mantle of the Prophet. One branch of Shias believes that the chain subsequently passed to, and ended with, Jaafar’s son Ismail. They are known as Sevener Shias, or Ismailis. A separate branch, with currently far more adherents, believes that the chain passed to another of Jaafar’s sons, Musa al-Kazim, whose gold-domed shrine stands on the right bank of the Tigris at Baghdad, and has lately been a target for mortar shells and suicide bombers. This branch is known as the Jaafaris, or Twelvers, since they believe that the chain of living imams expired with the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared as a five-year-old child in the year 874. It is said that he has since been concealed by God, but will one day return to deliver the world from injustice.

There are those in the present age who believe that this return is imminent. One of them is the populist president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often declares that his government’s main task is to prepare for the Mahdi. The President is rumored to be close to a radical messianic group known as the Hojjatieh. Detractors claim that this group seeks to hasten the Mahdi’s return by creating chaos on earth. Whatever the case, its adherents are likely to interpret current events as signs of imminence—for instance, the demolition of the Askariya shrine at Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, this February. The shrine houses the tombs of the Mahdi’s father and grandfather, the tenth and eleventh imams.2 Its destruction was carried out by skilled explosives experts who are widely assumed to have been al-Qaeda operatives and it sparked the most furious round of sectarian bloodletting yet seen in Iraq. More than any other single incident, the attack on this shrine markedly accelerated the country’s slide toward full-scale civil war.


But to return to the Heavenly Grove of Medina: What happened to this center of so much devotion over the centuries, and incidentally not only by Shias, but by the many variants of Sunni Islam, including Sufism, that revere the House of the Prophet? On April 21, 1925, a horde of Bedouin warriors razed the cemetery, flattening its hallowed cenotaphs and mausoleums to the ground.3 Commanded by Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder and first king of modern Saudi Arabia, they were inspired by the teachings of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, a Sunni puritan whose obsession was to purge the faith of the terrible sin of shirk, or “association,” which is to say, the ascribing of heavenly power to anything but God. It is said that only the personal intervention of Abdul Aziz prevented his soldiers from exercising their iconoclastic zeal on the tomb of the Prophet himself.4

Understandably, the Shia narrative of history is largely one of accumulating grievances. Yet this worldview is constructed from faith as well as fact. Shiism revolves, more than any other religious doctrine except perhaps Christianity, around notions of redemption through suffering. Its origins lie in the grudge that rapidly grew, following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD, among the partisans (shi’ain Arabic) of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Passed over three times for the title of caliph, or worldly successor to Muhammad, Ali then reigned only briefly before being assassinated. His son Hussein later tried to rally supporters in Iraq, but the institutions of the caliphate had been captured by the Ummayads, distant cousins from a powerful rival branch of Muhammad’s clan. Claiming hereditary title, the Ummayad Caliph Yazid dispatched an army that surrounded and slaughtered Hussein and his followers.

Survivors of that massacre, including Hussein’s sister Zaynab, subsequently drew support from other disgruntled Muslims, particularly among newly converted, non-Arab groups such as the Persians. (Hussein was said to have married the daughter of the last Sassanian shah of Iran.) With time, a subtle accretion of pre-Islamic beliefs grew to overlay their Shiism. In much the same way that the preexisting myths of Isis and Horus, Astarte and Adonis eased the spread of Christianity, the tragic saga of the House of the Prophet came to be seen as a parable about the struggle of good against evil. The Shia came to regard Ali as their first imam, a model of virtue and the true vessel of the word passed through Muhammad, whose divine right was usurped by treachery. The martyrdom of Hussein, now recognized as the third imam, became, after his followers’ failure to protect him, a symbol of communal guilt, to be expiated by penitence, most dramatically in the flagellation rites of the Ashura festival.

The House of the Prophet emerged as a sort of priestly class, whose leading male descendant in each generation was accepted as a manifestation of God’s will on earth. The trouble of choosing which of these descendants to anoint led to successive splits in the movement. Yet even when this form of legitimation ran its course for the predominant Twelver Shias, with the disappearance of the Mahdi in 874, a mix of money and politics continued to sustain the sect’s particularism.

The money component was the application of a tax on worshipers, known as the Mahdi’s share, or khums (literally, a fifth), to be collected by clerics for the common good. These riches both enhanced the role of the Shia clergy and strengthened solidarity within the sect. Shiism derived continued political potency from its identification with the defense of the weak: to be a partisan of Ali was to practice a form of resistance against perceived injustice. The result was that the faith thrived among oppressed minorities, or was championed by ambitious dynasts such as the sixteenth-century Safavid rulers of Iran, who succeeded in melding Twelver Shiism with a sense of Persian national identity.

Until recently most Sunnis, most of the time, have given little thought to the challenge presented by Shiism. (The word “Sunni” refers to the sunnah, or “way” of the Prophet, i.e., the punctilious following of his recorded practices, to the exclusion of other exemplars.) They have not had to, because their brand of Islam has been so dominant. Sunnis make up some 85 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. In solidly Sunni countries such as Morocco, Bangladesh, or Indonesia, few have much idea of what Shias are, or how their practices differ.


In Islam’s major rituals, such as prayer and fasting, the answer is very little. Yet while Sunnis, too, show special respect to the House of the Prophet (the royal families of Jordan and Morocco proudly claim descent from Muhammad), the exalting of Ali, and the notion of a hereditary imamate, are seen as dubious “innovations” that obscure the core message of Islam, which is the oneness of God. Sunnis deride the Shia doctrine of takiyya, a form of concealment of true belief that was adopted as a defense against Sunni inquisition; they call it a license for deviousness. In the Sunni narrative, the Shia are seen as outsiders, Persian-tinged schismatics whose assault on Muslim unity has periodically weakened the faith.

Such mistrust reflects the fact that Sunni dominance has not always been assured. In its first centuries, Sunnism found itself challenged not just by Shia uprisings, but by doubters of all stripes. The strength of the early Sunni caliphates, in Damascus and later in Baghdad, weakened over time. By the tenth century, Shia rulers had managed to seize control across much of Islam. In Baghdad, a Persian Shia dynasty held temporal power, reducing the Sunni caliphs to figureheads. The Fatimids, an illustrious Sevener Shia dynasty that claimed descent from the Prophet’s daughter, set up a rival caliphate in Cairo. Their prosperous and tolerant realm stretched from Sicily to Syria, and held the custodianship of the two holy cities for two hundred years, until 1171; even before the Fatimids’ arrival, a more radical Sevener Shia cult known as the Carmathians had raided Mecca and stolen the sacred Black Stone that is embedded in the side of the Kaaba, the cubical shrine that Muslims face in prayer. It was returned twenty-one years later, apparently broken into seven pieces.

The eventual Sunni backlash was momentous. A puritan movement not unlike Wahhabism erased Shiism from the Arab west, while Turkic tribes swept out of Central Asia to capture Baghdad. Converting to Sunnism, they vigorously promoted its orthodoxy across the Muslim east. When Christian Crusaders attempted to colonize the Levant, Sunni propagandists portrayed their initial success as a result of Muslim division. The Fatimid caliphs of Cairo, who at times made tactical alliances with the invaders, were condemned as traitors. A seldom-cited corollary of the eventual triumph of the great Muslim general Saladdin and his successors was their near eradication of Shiism in Egypt and Palestine. Among other things, Saladdin, a strict Sunni of Kurdish extraction, was said to have burned 120,000 volumes from the imperial Fatimid library.

This turbulent period strongly marked every branch of Islam. Sevener Shism atomized into esoteric offshoots and isolated communities.5 Twelver Shiism, with the exception of one hardy group in Lebanon, retreated into the Persian cultural sphere. The mixed city of Baghdad, which had been the main point of contact and exchange with Sunnis, slumped into a decline that was sealed with its sacking by the Mongols in 1258. Sunni historians blamed this disaster, too, on Shia treachery.6

From the eleventh century onward, Sunni religious scholarship rigidified. In the interest of avoiding fitna, or sedition, speculation was suppressed in favor of unquestioning orthodoxy. Perhaps as a reaction to the loss of Shiism’s more emotive and personal expressions of faith, Sufi mysticism became widespread. The Sufis’ absorption of such populist “Shia” practices as venerating the House of the Prophet probably helped wean Shia waverers to Sunnism. It also exposed the Sufis to periodic attack from such purists as the fourteenth-century jurist Ibn Taymiyya, whose teachings strongly informed both eighteenth-century Wahhabism and modern Sunni chauvinist movements, including al-Qaeda.

For most of the past millennium, conflict between Sunnis and Shias has been in remission. This is not to say that friction was entirely absent. But with perhaps half the world’s Shias living within Iran, and the rest, by and large, diluted within overwhelming Sunni populations, there was little room for contest.

During the long period of Muslim rule over India, for instance, sporadic communal riots between Shias and Sunnis were an accepted feature of mixed cities such as Lucknow and Lahore. Yet a burst of Sunni puritanism under the seventeenth-century Moghul emperor Aurangzeb seems to have marked a brief departure from a more general mood of tolerance, which saw the emergence of powerful Shia principalities in different parts of the subcontinent. (And in some local cases, the adoption by Hindus of the Shia martyr figure, Hussein, as a god of death.)

Iraq, whose ancient, uncomfortable position as the contested frontier of Persia was perpetuated during four hundred years of Ottoman Turkish rule, suffered occasional bouts of bloodletting. Yet these were as often between nomads and settled people, or between followers of rival Twelver Shia clerics, as between Sunnis and Shias. While the country’s Turkish overlords mistrusted the Shia, and so staffed their administration with Sunni Arabs, the impoverished Shia tribes of the Iraqi south were scarcely considered a threat to so vast a Sunni empire. The Ottomans looked on benignly when, in the eighteenth century, rich Indian Shias bestowed lavish endowments on Najaf and Karbala. Indian alms paid for the digging of canals that not only relieved the shrine cities’ thirst, allowing for their reemergence as centers of pilgrimage, but also encouraged the settlement of nomadic Arabs, many of whom converted to Shiism.

In southern Lebanon, part of the Ottoman vilayet, or province, of Damascus, the Shia were considered a nuisance, to be dealt with occasionally as bandits. But they were merely the poorest of many minority sects. Similarly, the Ottomans regarded their largely Shia province of al-Hasa, on the Gulf shore of what is now Saudi Arabia, as more of a burden than an asset.

Essentially, the borders between Islam’s main branches were pretty well fixed. Except during pilgrimage season, they avoided each other. In Bahrain, for instance, where a Sunni dynasty has ruled over a Shia majority since the eighteenth century, intermarriage was rare until recent times. Many villages in Lebanon have long reflected the country’s complex sectarian patchwork, with mixed populations of Christians and Druze, for instance. The one notably absent combination was Sunni with Shia. The Shia dynasty that held tenaciously to rule in Yemen until the 1960s scarcely influenced its majority Sunni population.

The large-scale intervention of Europe was to change this equation, and, at first, for the better. The threat of Western imperialism, accompanied by secularist ideas, brought about unprecedented Muslim unity. Contrary to the myth of Shia perfidy, for example, it was Shia clerics who spearheaded Iraq’s 1920 uprising against British rule. Many prominent leaders of the partition movement that gave birth to Pakistan, the first explicitly Islamic modern state, were in fact Shias, including its founding president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and three of its first prime ministers. In 1949 King Farouk of Egypt, which then saw itself as the leading Sunni Arab nation, married his sister with great fanfare to the shah of Shia Iran. In 1959, the head of Egypt’s al-Azhar university, the preeminent seat of Sunni scholarship, magnanimously issued a fatwa recognizing Twelver Shiism as an accepted school of Islam.

Vestiges of such pan-Islamist feeling persist. The issue of Palestine, for instance, remains a perpetual touchstone for both main branches of Islam. Sunni and Shia clerics share a generalized hostility to, and a common negative view of, the West, and increasingly of America in particular. Both express yearnings for the rebirth, someday, of a unified Muslim ummah, or nation. But it is clear that something has happened to threaten, if not yet to shatter, the wary calm between the sects.


That “something” is the subject of two new books. As their titles suggest, one cause for the hardening of attitudes has been the recharging, over the past few decades, of both the Shia sense of communal identity and of clerical leadership. The other change, which both authors also touch on, has been the concurrent surge of political Islam among Sunnis. Two aspects of this have affected sectarian relations. One is what Vali Nasr identifies as the “Sunnification” of political discourse in Arab states and Pakistan, meaning the replacement of broader secularist ideals such as pan-Arabism and nationalism (which he sees as having been a veil for prolonged Sunni dominance) with a religious vision that is necessarily more exclusive. The other is the emergence of triumphalist strains of Sunnism, harking back to Ibn Taymiyya, that explicitly condemn Shiism as an obstacle to such visions.

Both writers treat their subject mainly from the Shia perspective. Wisely skirting well-trodden ground, they focus less on Iran, whose 1979 Islamic Revolution was certainly the most dramatic shift in recent Shia fortunes, than on the rising aspirations of lesser Shia communities. The empowerment of specifically Shia forms of political expression in Iran, and more recently Iraq, has been an obvious stimulant. But both authors probe usefully into local causes.

In view of the long legacy of grievance between the sects, it is not easy to be impartial. Vali Nasr, who teaches politics at the Naval Postgraduate School, does not try hard to do this. But while his book is at times strident, it is also historically incisive, geographically broad-reaching, and brimming with illuminating anecdotes.

Yitzhak Nakash, a historian at Brandeis University, has written a more measured and scholarly book. His focus is the Shias of the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Their circumstances vary considerably. In Iraq and Bahrain they are majorities. In Lebanon, Twelver Shias are now the largest of seventeen officially recognized sects, representing perhaps 35 percent of the total population, a result of recent faster growth caused both by higher birth rates among the Shia and emigration by other sects. Saudi Arabia’s Shias make up perhaps one in ten of the kingdom’s people, but are largely concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

Discrimination has been common to all these countries, yet has varied greatly by degree. In Lebanon, for instance, it was not so much doctrinal opprobrium that hurt the Shia as class prejudice against a community that was largely rural and poorly educated, combined with Christian fears of being swamped in a Muslim sea. Sunnis and Shias fought mostly on the same side during Lebanon’s civil war. The clannish Sunni rulers of Iraq and Bahrain, by contrast, viewed their Shia majorities as one among several potential security threats. They preferred, therefore, to hold power as closely inside the Sunni family as possible. It was only in Saudi Arabia that Shias experienced doctrinally based and systematic exclusion, together with attempts at forced conversion.
In all these countries, a long period of struggle has succeeded in improving, though not resolving, the status of Shias. Again, the circumstances differ, but as Nakash shows, one common feature was a shift by Shias away from forms of secular opposition that failed to secure gains in the 1950s and 1960s, such as labor unions, communism, and Baathism, and a rallying instead around religious figures. The same impetus, it might be added, promoted the Sunni turn to political Islam.

A classic example was the success in Lebanon during the 1970s of Musa Sadr, an inspirational cleric, both in uniting Shias politically and in delivering social services. The eruption of civil war in 1975, and more particularly the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, the Shia heartland, was to further radicalize the community, leading to the emergence of Hezbollah, the Party of God. With backing from revolutionary Iran, Hezbollah pursued a more militant line, yet its core strength also lay in its religious leadership and support for the poor.
Similar, clerically based Shia social movements emerged in Iraq, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. They met stiffer resistance, largely because latent Sunni fears had now been sharpened by the Iranian revolution. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein executed popular clerics, invaded Iran, and smashed the 1991 Shia revolt with steel. (He was to say later that the worst mistake in his life was not to have also executed Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled by the Shah to Iraq between 1963 and 1978.) The emir of Bahrain scrapped an experiment with democracy in the 1970s when it became clear that Shia secular and religious factions were uniting in opposition. Following riots in the early 1990s, his police killed several dozen Shia protesters, exiled leading clerics, and arrested some five thousand people, amounting to nearly one in ten adult male citizens of the island state. Saudi Arabia used similar tactics to squash its own restive Shias.

The Shia of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have more recently made substantial gains. Prisons have emptied, exiles have returned, and some political freedoms have been granted. Shia parties boycotted Bahrain’s 2002 elections in protest against slanted rules, but their chief demand is now greater democracy rather than basic communal rights. Though it remains oppressive to all its citizens, Saudi Arabia has eased specific strictures against Shias. Much to the fury of Wahhabi extremists, Saudi rulers have invited them to join a range of public forums. This may appear a small advance, but marks a significant change for a kingdom which, until the 1950s, imposed a poll tax mandated by Islamic law for non-Muslims on the Shia.
Such concessions are partly due to eased anxieties following the failure of Iran, even after twenty-five years, to export its revolutionary model. Another reason is outside pressure for political reform, particularly from America. The late realization, especially by Saudi rulers, of the more immediate threat posed by Sunni radicalism has also worked to Shia advantage. The same groups that have attacked New York with passenger planes, sawed off infidel heads, and blasted Shia mosques have also attacked Sunni governments.


But perhaps the major impetus for change, of late, has been the example of Iraq, where the utter breakdown of secular politics has pushed religious leaders and sectarian issues to the center of the stage. This has both positive and negative sides, the latter being more obvious: everyone is thoroughly spooked by the specter of civil war.

The underlying sectarian nature of Iraq’s turmoil has taken time to become clear. Even as the war loomed, most Iraqis discounted any danger of communal strife, pointing to widespread intermarriage and the mixing of Sunnis and Shias within the same tribes and neighborhoods. Shias welcomed the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam, of course, as did most Sunnis. Yet they also mistrusted the US, whose subsequent errors, multiple and egregious, lent further weight to doubts. Despite growing evidence that Sunni violence was aimed at thwarting Shia political dominance as much as at challenging America, many Shias clung to claims that the attacks against themselves were the work of Baathists, of Arab mujahideen, or perhaps of the Americans, seeking to divide and rule. A letter purportedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the recently slain al-Qaeda chief in Iraq, which explicitly labeled Shia as greater enemies than the “Mongol” Americans, was widely dismissed by Iraqi Shias as a plant. Iran, keen to see America’s fingers burned and its regional ambitions checked, happily fanned such notions: its president, for example, ascribed the attack on Samarra as the probable work of America’s Zionist allies.

Such readings have lost credibility in the face of increasingly rampant bloodletting. In his most recent taped pronouncement, Osama bin Laden himself broke a long tactical silence to issue a specific warning to Shias. Iraq is now a scene of bitter sectarian polarization, complete with ethnic cleansing and tit-for-tat mass murder. The focus of strife has now moved from the peripheries to Baghdad itself, the place where the two sects interlock most closely, and where attempts by extremists on both sides to enforce separation are therefore bound to be bloodiest.

Since the invasion, Iraq’s Shias have been more often victims than initiators of sectarian violence, with a particularly bloody toll taken by car bombings. Their hands are hardly clean, however. Stealthy groups such as the Badr Brigades, which is the armed wing of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), have assassinated former Baathists, radical Sunni preachers, and a growing number of suspected, or potential, Sunni fighters. The Mahdi Army, the ragtag militia that follows Moqtada al-Sadr, the young populist cleric, professes undying enmity to America while directing most of its energy to enforcing religious strictures on its own people at gunpoint, and raiding Sunni districts.

In his sourer moments, Nasr suggests that the violent partition of India in 1947 is likely to be repeated in Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere in a widening sphere of sectarian struggle. At other times he posits Pakistan, where fundamentalist Sunni gangs have mauled Shias with near impunity for the past two decades, as a sad bellwether for Shia minorities. Considering the recent advances made by Shia, even in archly Sunni Saudi Arabia, such predictions may be a shade too dire. So long, that is, as Taliban-style Sunni radicalism stays out of fashion.

Both Nasr and Nakash also hold out hope for another kind of Iraqi model. It is not a model that America will necessarily like, and certainly not the one the Bush administration dreamed of creating. It would involve, for one thing, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops, whose presence may be argued to help “security,” but also clouds the real balance of power and opens the beleaguered government to still-potent charges of “collaboration,” so postponing resolution. This model would also mean Iraq abandoning secularism as a broad umbrella for politics, as in Western countries, and instead confining political contest within clerically sanctioned “Islamic” bounds. But this hopeful model could prove more inspiring to other Shias in the Middle East than the model created by Iran, where direct clerical control—Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Velayat al-Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent—has proved dispiritingly oppressive, even in the eyes of many devout Shias.

Such a model is evolving through a quieter fight that has pitted Iraqi Shia factions against one another, even as they wage a messier parallel battle with Sunnis (who also fight among themselves). The battle lines of this internecine struggle can be hard to discern, but the essential issue being contested is the relation between religion and the state. In Shia terminology, the question is whether the hawza (meaning literally a religious seminary, but more broadly used to describe the leadership of senior scholars) should be “silent” or “outspoken” regarding politics.

The Badr Brigades and Mahdi Army are stark examples of what “speaking out” can mean, while the fact that Iran’s head of state is an ayatollah provides a more institutional example. Yet traditionally, the religious school of Najaf, the most respected among Shias worldwide, has championed political quietism. Its most prominent leader, Ayatollah Sistani, has forcefully argued against a Khomeini-style political role for the clergy. And while Sistani has attempted to lend full moral weight to calls for Shia avoidance of violence, he has also intervened, sparingly but effectively, to foster the progress of democratization.7 Most notably, he ably torpedoed efforts by the American proconsul, Paul Bremer, to have a constitution drafted by American-approved officials, insisting instead on proper elections. He intervened personally to defuse feverish tension in the shrine cities between the Mahdi Army and American troops, and later issued a fatwa flatly ordering the faithful to vote.

What the seventy-six-year-old ayatollah appears to be asserting is the hawza’s right to set the rules of politics, but also its duty to abstain from the political game and the infighting that goes with it. In view of the sterility of much current Islamist political discourse, this could prove to be the great new Islamic idea for governance. It is a shame to have to observe, then—which Nasr and Nakash do not—that Sistani remains a forbidding conservative on social issues. Women must veil themselves, he decrees. Dancing, music, and the playing of games are a sin. In this age, it seems, Shias and Sunnis do agree on one thing: joylessness.

This Issue

August 10, 2006