Friday, February 27, 2009

The Shi'a in the Modern World

Twelver Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama) and seminary (al-Hawza al-'Ilmiyya) students in the Shi'i shrine city of al-Najaf al-Ashraf in southern Iraq.

Draft version of my encyclopedia article published in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2008). The article was supposed to cover the modern history of the Shi'a, all groups, in approximately 600-750 words. A tall order, indeed!

The Shī‘a coalesced as a distinct movement in the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and in opposition to the majority of the Muslim community, the Sunnīs, over the nature of his succession. Unlike the Sunnīs, the Shī‘a believed that political and religious authority should be handed down through a predetermined line of infallible leaders (Imams) through the bloodline of the Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his wife, Fātimah, the prophet’s daughter. Internal divisions within the Shī‘ī community over the succession to the fourth Imam, ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn, and the sixth Imam, Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq during the seventh and eighth centuries led to the separation of the Ismā‘īliyya and Zaydīyya sects from the majority Imāmiyya “Twelver” Shī‘a (hereafter Shī‘ī)

During the twentieth century, the Imāmiyya Shī‘ī communities in Iran, Syria-Lebanon, and Iraq, where they are the largest single sectarian group, have emerged at the forefront of world affairs. The Shī‘a are also a majority in Bahrāyn and Azerbaijan and are a significant minority in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Today the Ismā‘īlis are divided into several groups with the most prominent of them being the Nizarīs led by the fourth Āghā Khān. The Zaydīs make up upwards of 30 percent of Yemen’s population

̣Under the Safavids in Iran (1501-1736), whose founder Ismā‘īl declared Imāmi Shi‘ism the state religion of his empire and invited Shī‘ī clerics (‘ulamā’) from Syria, Iraq, and eastern Arabia to settle in his realm, the ‘ulamā’s societal role was solidified and they began to play a political as well as religious role in society. Under the Qājārs (1796-1926) the hierarchical structure of the ‘ulamā’ was formalized and Ụsūlīsm, whose practitioners supported the reasoned interpretation (ijtihād) of the Qur’an and religious legal sources, became the dominant school of thought over the literalist Akhbārīs, who had risen to prominence during the late Ṣafavid period.

Ayatullah al-Sayyid al-Shahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada al-Sadr. He was assassinated with two of his four sons in 1999 by agents of Saddam Husayn's regime. He was mortally wounded (shown here) and died soon thereafter in the hospital of his wounds.

Under the Qājārs the ‘ulamā’ often played an oppositional role and they were at the forefront of the Tobacco Revolt (1890-1892) in protest to the monarchy’s concession to a British company and the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1909) that forced the Qājārs to institute governmental reforms. The ‘ulamā’ were repressed under Reza Shah (1926-1941), who overthrew the Qājārs in 1926 and instituted a series of laws that weakened the legal, social, and educational role played by the ‘ulamā’. Repression of the ‘ulamā’ continued under the Pahlavis (1926-1979) and the ‘ulamā’ began to actively oppose the monarchy. In January 1979 the last Pahlavi shah, Muhammad Reza, was forced to abdicate and Grand Āyatu’llāh Ruḥu’llāh Khumaynī, the fiery clerical opponent to the Pahlavis, and his supporters successfully took control of the fledgling revolutionary state and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the decades since the revolution, the traditionalist Iranian Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ have been marginalized by their revolutionary colleagues currently led by Iran’s supreme leader, Āyatu’llāh ‘Alī Khāmana‘ī, though several prominent traditionalist clerics began to challenge the religious basis of the regime during the 1990s.

In Ottoman Syria the Shī‘a were concentrated in the Jabal ‘Āmil region of present day southern Lebanon. During the Ottoman-Ṣafavid wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Shī‘a were regarded with suspicion and were largely neglected up to the formation of the modern nation-state of Lebanon in 1926. After the arrival of the Iranian cleric Mūsa al-Ṣadr in 1959, whose family had immigrated to Iran during the Ṣafavid period, the Lebanese Shī‘a formed their own political and social organizations, most importantly the AMAL movement, that agitated successfully for their greater inclusion in national politics.

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the senior Twelver Shi'i scholar in Lebanon. He has presented himself, justifiably, as a leader for "modern Shi'is," a leader who is knowledgeable in both religious and temporal issues. Fadlallah is often erroneously described in Israel and the U.S. to be the "spiritual leader" of Hizbullah, a claim denied both by the grand ayatullah and the party. This claim is based on an ignorance about the modes of Twelver Shi'i religious authority and clerical structures.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and subsequent 18-year occupation of a large part of southern Lebanon, which came in the midst of a brutal civil war (1975-1990), radicalized large segments of the country’s Shī‘ī population and resulted to the formation of Hizbu’llah (Party of God) between 1983 and 1985. Through its constant attacks on the Israeli military and its Lebanese proxies Hizbu’llah forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally in May 2000. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century Hizbu’llah has participated in the Lebanese political process and in May 2005 the party won a record 14 parliamentary seats. In July-August 2006 the party emerged from a short but devastating conflict with Israel with renewed popularity amongst the country’s Shī‘a, now its largest single sectarian group as well as large segments of the country’s non- Shī‘ī population.

The location of several major Shī‘ī shrines, Iraq has been home to Shī‘ī communities since the mid seventh century. After the signing of the Treaty of Ama
sya in 1555 in which the Ṣafavids ceded control of Iraq to the Ottomans, the public practice of Shi‘ism was curtailed and the Shī‘a were subjected to Sunnī rule. In response to Ottoman attempts to forcibly sedentarize Iraq’s nomadic southern tribes, the Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ successfully converted many of them and by the early twentieth century available data suggests that the Shī‘a formed the majority of Iraq’s population.

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid al-Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a key activist against Saddam Husayn's autocratic rule, who was executed by the Iraqi Ba'th in April 1980, along with his sister, al-Shahida Zaynab bint Haydar al-Sadr. They came from a well-known Iraqi Arab clerical family. He is arguably the most important Twelver Shi'i scholar, and one of the most influential and prolific, in modern history. His many books, including the acclaimed Iqtisaduna (Our Economics), Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy), al-Islam yaqud al-Hayah (Islam Guides Life), and his several textbooks on jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), are widely read today by both Shi'is and Sunnis.

Under the Iraqi Hāshimīyya monarchy (1932-1958),
the republic (1958-1968), and particularly under the Iraqi Ba‘th Party and its leader Saddam Ḥusayn (1968-April 2003) the Shī‘a, who made up upwards of 60 percent of the population, were marginalized and oppressed despite their numerical majority. After the collapse of the Ba‘th following the American and British-led invasion in March 2003, the Iraqi Shī‘a experienced a political and cultural revival. Since 2003 an internal leadership struggle has developed between the traditionalist ‘ulamā’ represented by Grand Āyatu’llāh ‘Alī al-Sīstānī, the populist radical leadership of Muqtada al-Ṣadr, and powerful Shī‘ī political parties like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Ḥizb al-Da‘wa al-Islāmīyya over who should lead the country’s Shī‘a.


Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York, 1989.

Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York, 1993.

Halm, Heinz. Shi‘ism, 2nd ed. Translated by Janet Watson. New York, 2004.

Jaber, Faleh A. The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq. London, 2004.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi‘ism. New Haven, 1987.

Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi‘is of Iraq, rev. ed. Princeton, 2003.

Shanahan, Rodger. The Shi‘a of Lebanon: Clans, Parties and Clerics. New York, 2006.

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