Talking up the discord between Shi’is and Sunnis in the Muslim world

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Shawwal 20, 1428 2007-11-01

Book Review

by Nasr Salem (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 9, Shawwal, 1428)

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr. Pub: W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2006. Hbk: US $25.95.

The Prophet (saw) is reported to have said: “Difference of opinion in my community is a mercy.” If diversity of opinion is a blessing in disguise, sectarian division is a calamitous affliction, a curse that has long befallen the Ummah. Fragmentation and disintegration are antithetical to the very concept of an over-arching faith-based Muslim community (ummah) that transcends secondary divisions. The hardening of sectarian hatreds and the rising tide of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Iraq (and elsewhere also) underscore the parlous lack of cohesion among Muslims today. This state of affairs makes the need for a strategy to tackle sectarian passions ever more urgent. But for those searching for ways to douse the flames of sectarianism and retreat from the precipice of sectarian strife, this book offers no reassurance.

The central thesis of the book is a presumed tension between the two communities; it emphasises the historical inevitability of communal conflict. The author argues that the future of the Middle East will be determined by the outcome of conflicts between the two major Muslim communities, the Sunni and the Shi‘a. “As war, democracy, and globalization force the Middle East to open itself up to a number of long-resisted forms of change,” he says, “conflicts such as the Shia-Sunni rift will become both more frequent and more intense. Before the Middle East can arrive at democracy and prosperity, it will have to settle these conflicts … The overall Sunni-Shia conflict will play a large role in defining the Middle East as a whole and shaping its relations with the outside world” (p. 24). As one reads the introduction and nine chapters of the book, a sense of foreboding and pessimism about the future of inter-communal relations among Muslims sets in and grows slowly into an agonising despondency.

The introduction and chapter 1, “The Other Islam: Who Are the Shia,” clear the ground for the rest of the book by explaining the differences between the Sunni and Shia schools of Islam. Here the author attempts to provide a cursory, fast-paced rather than detailed, thorough map of the landscape of similarities and differences between both schools in terms of their understanding of Islamic history, theology, jurisprudence and political power. His main interest is to explore how “each breathes a distinct ethos of faith and piety that nurtures a particular temperament and a unique approach to the question of what it means to be Muslim” (p. 34). In discussing the different values and visions developed by each school, Nasr underlines in particular the acts of popular piety and folk-ritual that set Shi‘ism apart from Sunnism, especially “the great feast of mourning, remembrance, and atonement that isAshura … No ritual observance is more important in this regard than that associated with Hussein’s death – the shaping event par excellence of Shiism” (p. 44).

Prejudices and stereotypes have contributed to the persistence of the Sunni-Shia schism. A lengthy historical process fostered the Sunnis’ feelings of paranoia and distrust towards the Shia. Regarded as an “errant interpretation of Islam,” treated as “the enemy within,” and repressed for representing a “political threat” (pp. 52-53), the Shia became the subject of demonization and vilification. “In Lebanon, popular lore has held that Shias have tails … In Saudi Arabia, it is said that Shias spit in their food … In Pakistan, Shiasare tagged with derogatory nicknames such as “mosquitoes”” (pp. 22-23). Complicating matters is the fact that in order “[t]o survive, the Shia grew insular, often hiding their true faith through dissimulation (taqqiya),” (p. 54). Ultimately, the chasm between the two communities grew wider, feeding on acts of demonization on one side and feelings of victimisation on the other.

The author then embarks on an excursus into the making and character of Shia politics. He points out that the Safavid efforts to impose Shiism on Iran, “as much by coercion as by persuasion” (p. 65), set into motion a process of empowerment of the Shiaulama, who became “functional replacements for the authority of the imams” (66-67). The status of the ulama as successors of the hidden Twelfth Imam combined with the insular nature of the Shia community to boost the authority of the ulama over the community. “It was also during the Safavid era that the foundation of a new Shia political doctrine was laid” (p. 72). Quietist and conciliatory, the new doctrine substituted passive resistance to the political establishment for active rebellion. “Shia ulama would not recognize the Safavid monarchy as truly legitimate but would bless it as the most desirable form of government during the period of waiting [for the return of the Twelfth Imam]. Shia shahs would protect and propagate the faith … For as long as the shahs did so, they would receive religious support” (pp. 74-75).

The Islamic Revolution in Iran put an end to this so-called “Safavid contract.” The author’s treatment of the late Imam Khomeini’s revolutionary career and articulation of his theory of wilayat-e faqih is a reduction and vulgarisation that seriously undermines the study’s scholarly standing. The reader is struck by Nasr’s failure to avoid polemics to produce a study that is detached, objective and dispassionate in either tone or content. Chapter 4, on “Khomeini’s Moment,” reveals without any doubt an author with anti-revolutionary sympathies tinged with outrageously simplistic overtones. For Nasr, Imam Khomeini’s “politics and religious views reflected not so much Shia history and theology (indeed, he was something of a theological innovator and maverick) as the authority that he claimed by virtue of his understanding of mystical doctrines. His was a new Shiism, interpreted by someone who claimed direct knowledge of the Truth” (p. 121). Nasr decries the late Imam’s efforts to reclaim the political ethos of Shiism and shift the locus of Shia thought away from quietism and rigid ritualism to an activist, even revolutionary, approach.

Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the author’s preposterous treatment of the Islamic Revolution in Iran appears in his treatment of the Iranian ‘human wave’ attacks during the Iran-Iraq war. “The revolutionary government therefore resorted to mobilizing hundreds of thousands of volunteers to defend the Islamic Republic,” Nasr states. “These untrained, ill-equipped innocents gathered at the front, where each received a plastic key representing the key to the gates of paradise” (p. 132). This is a rehash of one of the most scurrilous anti-Iranian (especially Iraqi) propaganda lies of the Iran-Iraq war. Originally fabricated by pro-Iraqi Arab media, the “plastic keys” falsehood twisted the fact that pocket copies of a book entitled Mafaatih al-Jinan (“keys of the Heavens”) were found on the bodies of many martyrs of the Iranian armed forces in the battlefield. A compendium of Qur’anicchapters, Prophetic ahadith, prayers, supplications, rites to be performed during ziyaarats to shrines, and the like, pocket-copies ofMafaatih are traditionally carried, frequently with copies of the Qur’an, by devout Shias. This reality should not have been lost onNasr, an Iranian-born professor and associate chair of research at the department of National Security Affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School. His readiness to propagate this falsehood nearly two decades after the war’s end, rather than investigate the facts and establish the truth, is amazing indeed.

Despite his antipathy towards the Islamic Revolution and its founder-leader, the author does not lose sight of the fact that some Muslim rulers and potentates lent a new intensity to anti-Shia bigotry in an attempt to contain the threats that they perceived were posed by the Islamic Revolution to their regimes. “It was Khomeini’s direct challenge to Saudi Arabia that galvanized Sunni opposition to the Iranian revolution and the Shia awakening” (p. 150). In this context, alarm-bells that the Islamic Revolution rang in Riyadh and Islamabad gave momentum to the efforts of the former “Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki, [who] laid the basis for a Saudi-Pakistani strategic relationship that would underwrite the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan and its renting out of that country as a training ground for various “holy warrior” outfits. The Pakistani-trained Taliban reflected traditional Pashtun biases against Shias” (p. 157). The ultimate effects of this marriage of convenience between the Saudi and Pakistani regimes, on the one hand, and a plethora of exclusivist Salafist groupings, have been devastating. In many places “lines between jihad within (againstShias) and jihad outside (in Afghanistan and Kashmir) became blurred” (p. 167).

Nasr’s indictment of the Islamic Revolution contrasts sharply with his upbeat, almost celebratory, treatment of how the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 “produced a new leadership for the Shia in the person of Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani” (p. 171). Ayatullah Sistani’s rise to prominence as the undisputed leader of Iraq’s Shias resulted from the continued dominance of a traditionalShia idiom in which the foundational political values of Shiism are to be found in the quietist and non-revolutionary approach advocated by the late Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoi. “Sistani is from the old school. He is first and foremost a scholar, intelligent and well-read, with a keen appreciation of history and a gift for seeing the big picture … Much like Khoi, Sistani sees the ulamamainly as teachers and defenders of the faith – roles that are filled not by an Islamic government but by protecting and promotingShia piety under whatever government Shias may happen to have … He limited the role of Islam to providing values and guidelines for social order (nizam al-mujtama)” (p. 171-173). Sistani’s advocacy of majority rule, which has tried to consolidate the empowerment of the Shia in post-Saddam Iraq through their numerical elective muscle at the ballot-box, increased Sunni anxieties, which in turn intensified the anti-Shia sectarian tendency in the Iraqi insurgency.

But the Shia ascendancy in Iraq is only one of the pillars of the current shift toward Shia power in the Middle East. The other pillar is “the emergence of Iran as a regional power” (p. 212). In an argument that reminds one of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, Nasr maintains that the challenge posed by this two-pronged Shia revival “to the Sunni Arab domination of the Middle East and to the Sunni conception of political identity and authority” (p. 241) will inevitably lead to a showdown – “a broader struggle for power between the Sunni Arab establishment of old and the emerging Shia power, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the natural heavyweights on each side” (p. 242). Much as Nasr is confident about the inevitability of Sunni-Shia conflict, he seems to be equally confident about its outcome and its role in defining the Middle East as a whole. “When the dust settles,” he says, “the center of gravity will no longer lie with the Arab Sunni countries but will be held by Shia ones. That center of gravity will move eastward, away from Egypt and the Levant to Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf” (p. 252).

This conclusion might as much please some of Nasr’s sectarian-minded Shia readers as it distresses their Sunni counterparts. Nasrhas written a geographically and historically broad, context-setting account of the entrenched and spiralling sectarian tensions between the two major Muslim schools. His style, which occasionally lapses into verbose poetics and anecdotes, then moves back to analysis, is engaging. But one is struck by the centrality of conflict in the author’s arguments and the lack of any attempt to find a possible approach to a peaceful resolution of inter-communal conflict. Arguments based on the structural determinants of conflict generally founder in the face of the human will to resolve conflict, to coexist, and to iron out differences peaceably. Human choice, both individual and collective, is central to any political equation, and it will be central to how inter-communal, Sunni-Shia relations will actually develop and evolve in the future.

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