The Cultures of Shi‘ism

In 2004, anticipating the victory of the Shi‘ite parties in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a ‘Shi‘ite crescent’ stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that would be dominated by Iran with its large majority of Shi‘ites and Shi‘ite 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 USA was supporting mainly Shi‘ite groups there after overthrowing Saddam’s Sunni regime. President Mubarak of Egypt claimed that Shi‘ites living in Arab countries were more loyal to Iran than to their own governments. In an article published in The New York Times in November 2006, Nayaf 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 Shi‘ite majority comprising more than 65 per cent of the Iraqi population.

Shi‘aphobia is nothing new for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s legitimacy derives from the Wahhabi sect of Islam, a Sunni Muslim group that attacked Shi‘ite shrines in Iraq in the nineteenth century, and today systematically discriminates against Shi‘ites. 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-Shi‘ite. We also know that the Saudi King venomously urged his US allies to cut off the ‘head of the snake’ by attacking Iran (Guardian newspaper, 12 January 2010).

In Bahrain, democratic protests by the Shi‘a, who make up around 70 per cent of the population, have suffered decades of suppression by the government with the aid of Saudi troops and Sunni mercenaries from Jordan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Saudis are terrified that the unrest will spread to the oil-bearing Eastern Province where their own Shi‘a minority resides.

Syria, just a few hundred kilometres across the desert to the west, presents an even more brutal picture. Here, the protestors - many of them Sunnis, who make up three-quarters of the population - are being killed in their hundreds, even thousands, by security forces dominated by a Shi‘a sectarian group - the Alawis - who have held power for more than four decades and are refusing to relinquish it. The European Union says that Iran has sent senior commanders of its Revolutionary Guards to help the Assad regime quell the unrest, a move that must add to anxieties that a sectarian conflict, comparable to Iraq’s, is developing in Syria. According to human rights activists, Sunni minorities in Iran - in Khuzestan and Baluchistan provinces - have also been subject to attacks, with dozens of protestors killed.

Some of those involved in the recent Arab uprisings claim that sectarian anxieties are deliberately being stoked by authoritarian regimes to maintain their grip on power. The Assad regime is widely accused of frightening Syria’s minorities - Christians, Kurds, Ismailis and wealthier Sunni clans - by raising the spectre of a take-over by Sunni fundamentalists or ‘takfiris’ (extreme Sunni groups who denounce others as ‘infidels’). In Bahrain, the protests rapidly took on a sectarian dimension.

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 article in The New York Times, 28 May, 2011, most of them do not appear to have a distinctive ideology or coherent, disciplined organisations. The exception is the highly disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice party stands to gain in the forthcoming Egyptian elections through the strength of its organisation and popularity of its informal welfare programmes. The Brotherhood’s top-down structure, which combines features of the traditional Sufi (mystical) order based on graded levels of initiation with modern methods such as bussing supporters to polling stations, makes it a formidable contender for power in the absence of other organisations standing between the individual and the state.

The weakness of civil society organisations that characterises many Muslim societies means that power is liable to fall by default to the military or, as in the case of Syria, to 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 spectre of sectarian conflict, but 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 Shi‘a majority and recently dispossessed Sunnis, has exposed the fragile foundations of national identities in the modern Middle East.

Shi‘ism, 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 60s without unambiguously naming a successor. His closest kinsman, Ali - his younger first cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima, whom the Shi‘a minority came to believe had been designated to succeed him, was passed over three times for the caliphate before being murdered by a disillusioned supporter after a brief and contested tenure. Ali’s younger son, Husain, 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 the Prophet’s legitimate line. Though the Umayyads were replaced in a Shi‘ite-inspired revolt in 750, the victors were not direct descendents of Muhammad, but of his uncle, Abbas. Like the pro-Stuart Jacobites in Britain who mounted unsuccessful rebellions against the Hanoverian monarchy in 1715 and 1745, the Shi‘a were revolutionary legitimists. Believing that the cause of true Islam had been betrayed by the usurping Umayyads, and later by the Abbasids, they originally looked to their dispossessed ‘pretenders’, the imams of the House of Ali, to restore both true religion and legitimate government.

Shi‘ite-inspired revolts were frequent during the early centuries of Islam. Unlike the Catholic-Protestant division that emerged after 15 centuries of Western Christianity, the contested legacy of Muhammad reaches back to the time of Islam’s origins.

The great sociologist, 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 the Prophet Muhammad embraces both categories, with different consequences for the two main traditions that flow from his mission. While the vast majority of Muslims assimilated his exemplary character - along with the Qur’anic teachings - into the systematised doctrines of the four main Sunni schools of Islamic law, the Shi‘a ‘did not want to let go of their Prophet’s exemplary character and thus sought to extend his charismatic presence to their imams’. For them ‘exemplary prophethood will continue to need the exemplary presence of an imam to sustain its charismatic condition’.

The differences between Sunni and Shi‘a are less concerned with matters of doctrine than with ideas of spiritual authority. In the majority Sunni tradition, the legal scholars or ulama came to act as a rabbinical class charged with the task of interpreting the Qur’an and the ethical teachings derived from the prophet’s exemplary conduct as recorded in the hadith reports or ‘traditions’. The eventual consolidation of the Sunni tradition into four main schools of law allowed for considerable variations in interpreting these canonical texts. However, the legalistic approach of the Sunni ulama reproduced and extended the ethical aspects of Muhammad’s mission to the Muslim majority without accommodating their devotional needs. Among the Sunnis, the articulation of the more spiritual or mystical aspects of the Prophet’s legacy was the province of the Sufi or mystical orders that grew up around the ‘saints’ or holy men who reproduced the Prophet’s charisma.

The Shi‘a, by contrast, institutionalised the Prophet’s charisma - at source, as it were - by investing their imams with additional sources of esoteric knowledge to which their ulama or religious specialists had exclusive access. Shi‘ism arguably presented a more ‘integrated’ approach to Islam than Sunnism, though one that (like Protestantism) was oppositional to the mainstream tradition. During Islam’s formative era most of the imams in the line of Muhammad were deemed to have been martyrs or victims of the Sunni caliphs, who were seen by the Shi‘a as usurpers. After the Twelfth Imam in the direct line of Muhammad finally ‘disappeared’ in 940, authority came to be exercised by a clerical establishment - comparable to the Catholic priesthood - assumed to be in possession of the esoteric knowledge and hermeneutic skills necessary for the community’s guidance. The parallels with Christianity are compelling. For the Twelvers, the disappeared or ‘Hidden Imam’ is a messianic figure who will return (like Christ) 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 death of the Imam Husain - the prophet’s grandson - at Karbala is re-enacted annually in the popular passion plays performed in every Iranian town and village. For ordinary Shi‘a he is the archetypical martyr for justice and truth; for Marxist writers such as Khosrow Golsorki (1944-74) and Ahmad Shamlou (1925— 2000) Husain is both Christ-like victim and revolutionary icon. For Ali Shariati (1933-75), 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 initial ‘disappearance’ of the last Imam in 874, a lifetime before 940, when his four chosen deputies are supposed to have lost contact with him, initiated a scholastic tradition ‘in which the sanctity of the letter of law became a simulacrum of the charismatic presence of the Shi‘a imams’. The crucial difference with Sunnis is not so much in the letter of the law, which the Sunni legal scholars interpret in accordance with a hierarchy of sources embracing the Qur’an, the Prophet’s custom (sunna), consensus and analogical reasoning. It lies rather in the quasi-mystical authority with which the Shi‘a legal scholars are invested. These do not quite constitute a church in the Christian sense, since there are no formal sacraments and the scholars are not a corporate body endowed with powers to save Muslims from sin. Their senior leaders, the ayatollahs (‘signs’ of God), are not organised into a top-down hierarchy, but acquire their followers - and considerable wealth - through public recognition of their learning, reinforced by the payment 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 social powers have diminished considerably since Ottoman times, with the rise of the modern state and secular education), they still dispose of formidable social capital.

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 Shi‘ism prevails in Iran (90 per cent) and its immediate neighbours, Azerbaijan (85 per cent), Iraq (65 per cent) and Bahrain (75 per cent), with substantial minorities in Kuwait (40 per cent), Saudi Arabia (around 8 per cent), Afghanistan (30 per cent) and Pakistan (30 per cent). The Gulf rulers have good reason to be nervous. Numerous revolts throughout Islamic history were fuelled by the prospect of the Imam’s expected return, or justified by reference to the Prophet’s dispossessed progeny, before Khomeini’s triumphant arrival in Tehran in February 1979. Though Khomeini was too canny - and religiously correct - to formally claim to be the Hidden Imam, he allowed populist expectations surrounding the Hidden Imam’s return to work on his behalf.

Dabashi shows how the dialectic between the tradition’s scholarly legalism and its revolutionary elan produces a precarious equilibrium. This was exemplified in Iraq by the 81-year-old Grant Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a scholastic jurist, on the one hand, and Seyyed Moqtada al-Sadr on the other - ‘two Shi‘a at opposite 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 Shi‘ite balance along with Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities.

Dabashi’s description applies all the more to the current situation in Iran, where President Ahmadinejad is challenging the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in an effort to boost the office of president in advance of elections in 2013. The struggle between the president, who has openly been 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) reflect what the sociologist Sami Zubaida has neatly described as ‘the contradictory duality of sovereignties’ - between God and the people - embedded in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Popular expectations surrounding the Imam and his return are central to this struggle. While Khamenei, who represents a part of the clerical ‘old guard’ that took power after the revolution, has gone so far as to suggest that Iran should change to a parliamentary system, without an elected president - a move that former president Rafsanjani has stated would ‘be contrary to the Constitution and would weaken the people’s power of choice’ - Ahmadinejad has given the debate a theological twist by saying that Muslims do not need the intercession of clerics to contact the Hidden Imam. For the clerical establishment, a Return that would put them out of business must be endlessly deferred. Their attitude is similar to that of the Christian clergy, according to the ‘amillennialist’ vision promoted by Saint Augustine when the church reached the conclusion that Jesus would not return in the foreseeable future. For Ahmedinejad, 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, on a long tradition in which the revolutionary impulses born of historical dispossession compete with compulsive anxieties about social behaviour:

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 precisely 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.

Paradoxically the notion of having been wronged by the existing powers, which lies at the heart of Sh’ism, 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, of course, would be a formal separation of power 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 Qajar predecessors. There existed what Said Amir

Arjomand has called an ‘unspoken concordat’ with the clerical establishment refraining from criticising the dynasty’s policies. Later, even though the clerics led the famous tobacco boycott against business concessions made to foreign entrepreneurs, leading to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, the majority of the ulama had no objection to the replacement of the Qajars by the Pahlavis in 1925. As Heinz Halm, a leading German scholar of Shi‘ism, observes: ‘the preservation of a monarchy in traditional form seemed most likely to offer them a guarantee that there would be no lay experiments such as those in Turkey’.

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 a veto on legislation (as well as control over elements of the armed forces) in competition with the elected president. This struggle, as I see it, is the direct consequence of Zubaida’s ‘contradictory duality’ of sovereignties. Dabashi sees it in broader terms:

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 Shi‘ism, from doctrinal issues arising out of historical events to artistic manifestations of the faith, including literature and architecture:

At the heart of Shi‘ism as a religion of protest written into the fabric of the history that it occupies, is the miasmatic manner of its inconspicuous transmutation into alternative modes of resignifying itself, of sublating itself, of speaking in a multitude of languages.

The question that arises is how such a comprehensive vision of the faith can retain its distinctive Shi‘ite labelling, since many of the features Dabashi 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 - Nasir Khusraw (1004-c.1088), whom he sees as being a Shi‘a revolutionary activist ‘of uncommon convictions and determination’; the great mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi (1307-1273), 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 (c.1320-89), 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‘a, nor does it matter.’ In line with this approach, he argues that Shi‘ism 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 the world’. Yet it is also the ‘hidden soul of Islam, its sigh of relief from its own grievances against a world ill at ease with what it is’. This comprehensive vision of the faith can perhaps be accommodated with his earlier statement that Shi‘ism is ‘morally triumphant when politically defiant but morally fails when it politically succeeds’ (a formulation that may also be true of Catholicism, whose direct political interventions are often disastrous, as in Franco’s Spain). Yet this view of Shi‘ism as a counter-cultural moral force or conscience embedded in Islam at its roots seems to contradict his historical account of Safavid Persia, which he sees as the apotheosis of Islamic civilisation, when variegated elements of Shi‘ism 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 1500 and the 1730s, made Shi‘ism the state religion. According to Dabashi, they succeeded in integrating the mystical and practical dimensions of Islam on Shi‘ite foundations while maintaining a philosophical approach consonant with the idea of God as the cosmic intellect or ultimate consciousness encompassing both being and essence. Dabashi sees the architectural splendour 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’.

The philosophical correlative of this great physical monument is the work of Mulla Sadra of Shiraz (1571-1640). His metaphysical ontology, building on Gnostic, mystical and rational insights of earlier Islamic thinkers, asserts the primacy of being over essence, with reality conceived as a single homogeneous continuum. Mulla Sadra’s system still holds sway in Qom and other centres of Shi‘ite learning. It challenges the presumption that there is a knowable reality ‘out there’ distinct from the knowing subject. No conceptual barrier exists between the subject and the object: the knowing subject and the known object are ontologically indistinguishable - an approach that confers validity on non-empirical happenings such as visions and revelations. As Hossein Ziai has observed, Mulla Sadra’s system embraces ‘the primacy of practical reason over theoretical science ... “Living” sages in every era are thought to determine what “scientific” attitude the society must have, upholding and renewing the foundations using their own individual, experiential and subjective knowledge’ (New Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 5, p. 569).

As Dabashi sees it, Mulla Sadra’s vision has contemporary relevance, as it challenges the distinction often made between ‘good’ Muslim philosophers and ‘bad’ Muslim revolutionaries:

Islamic intellectual history does not allow for such bifurcations, for there the most serene, sedate and sophisticated philosophers, safely tucked away at the comfortable court of kings, caliphs and conquerors, seem to have a running dialogue with rabblerousing rebels, sleepless and wounded in the remote battlefields of history.

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, Shi‘ite 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 1795 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 counter-intuitive, since the use of independent reasoning would seem to allow more room for individual initiative and public reason. But in the context of a 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 Shi‘ism 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 rulership in exchange for clerical privileges. An inward-looking, xenophobic clerical establishment, obsessed with the 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.

Dabashi is fascinated, not just by the intellectual and political ramifications of this process - the rise of Khomeini, the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic republic - but what might be called its manifestations in the Shi‘a psyche. In exploring this landscape, he acknowledges the influence of his teacher and mentor, Philip Rieff (1922-2006), author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic and a major interpreter of Freud.

According to Rieff, the neurotic symptoms Freud identified in his patients were a reflection of the decline of traditional moralities: as the anchors of religion were loosened, instinctive desires became less easy to control. Freud’s solution was to provide his patients with a technique that would enable individuals to manage their instinctual lives in a prudent and rational manner. The flaw in Freud’s atheistic approach - according to Rieff - lay in his failure to recognise that the underpinnings of the repressive myths that inform human action lie in a supra-empirical or transcendental source of authority - namely, the sacred.

In Rieff’s view, authority rooted in the sacred infuses our creativity with the guilt without which we cannot manage our instinctive impulses. Desire and limitation, eros and authority, are intimately connected. The tension between them provides the energy for all artistic endeavours. Yet if we deconstruct them by unmasking, as it were, the secret police, as therapists would have us do, our culture will lose its vigour. ‘A culture without repression, if it could exist,’ Rieff wrote in a passage cited by Dabashi, ‘would kill itself in closing the distance between any desire and its object. Everything thought or felt would be done, on the instant ... In a word, culture is repressive.’

Adopting an approach that builds on Rieff’s ideas, Dabashi proceeds to analyse two works by well-known Iranian artists. In Close-up (1990), Abbas Kiarostami created a film about an actual person - Hossein Sabzian

- who in real life impersonated the celebrated activist turned film-maker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In making his film, Kiarostami has Sabzian re-enact this real episode for the camera. The film, according to Dabashi, is driven by ‘the aesthetics of formalised representation’: Kiarostami plays with the irony or double-mirror effect of having a real person playing himself in a fictional re-creation of an actual event. Any possible political implications are left unexplored. Dabashi sees Kiarostami’s film as exemplifying the deep cultural split or bifurcation within Shi‘ism between art and politics, with art disengaged from politics, and politics assuming

an increasingly one-sided ideological disposition, banking almost exclusively on the feudal scholasticism at its roots at the heavily expensive cost of denying, rejecting, or destroying its non-juridical heritage - from philosophical and mystical to literary, poetic, performative and visual.

In contrast to Close-Up, Dabashi finds a redemptive grace and a ‘singular act of visual piety’ in Tuba (2002), a video installation by the artist Shirin Neshat. In this work, the face of a woman fades on to a perfectly matched landscape of rocky hills, and pilgrims stop at the threshold of a sacred space before transgressing, or desecrating, its boundaries. Dabashi’s lengthy description traces the archaeology of Neshat’s installation, from its ambiguous origin in a Qur’anic phrase, by way of its elaboration in early commentaries, to a Gnostic invocation of a female deity and vanishing paradise in the novel Tuba and the Meaning of Night (1988) by Shahrnush Parsipour. His commentary suggests that the psychic split afflicting Shi‘ism, between the scholasticism of the ayatollahs and the aesthetic formalism he lamented in his critique of Kiarostami, may only be temporary. In a typically Rieffian passage, he writes that while a culture may fancy itself to be ‘secular’, ‘its sacred memories are nevertheless busy thinking its ideas and populating its dreams’.

An American-Iranian well known for his hostility to Israel and America’s Middle East policies, Dabashi makes no concessions. He attacks Seyyed Vali Nasser, author of the popular Shia Revival, for being a ‘native informant’, who reduces the ‘multifaceted, polyvocal, worldly, transnational and cosmopolitan culture of Shi‘ism’ to a ‘one-sided, divisive and sectarian system’, a perspective that serves to ‘facilitate the U.S. military domination of a strategic area’, while confirming the Shi‘ite religious class in their ‘belligerent clericalism’. In the case of Noah Feldman, legal adviser to Paul Bremer, whom he accuses of writing sectarianism into the Iraqi Constitution, his criticism seems misplaced, particularly in view of the nuanced lengths to which Feldman has gone in arguing against ‘imposed constitutionalism’.

A larger criticism of the book lies in Dabashi’s failure to address Shi‘ism as comprehensively as his project demands. For example, while he celebrates the Ismaili variant of Shi‘ism in the work of Nasir Khusraw, he is silent on the survival of this tradition for nearly a millennium in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia (now Tajikistan) followed by seven decades of communist rule. He is also silent on the remarkable spread of Ismailism in South Asia (mainly Sindh, Gujarat and Mumbai). With its unique language and literature, for which the Khoja Ismailis of India invented a special language and script, and its genius for translating Hindu concepts and symbols into the Islamic religious vernacular, Ismailism may be seen as a significant inheritor of the Safavid version of Shi‘ism that Dabashi admires. An impressive model of an enlightenment tendency within the Islamic fold, Ismailis are engaging creatively with contemporary architectural practice, commerce, public health, women’s rights, social empowerment and a range of contemporary concerns, not just in the developing world, but in Europe and North America.

I suspect that Dabashi neglects this quiet Islamic revolution because it does not fit his theme of a tragic bifurcation between artistic creativity and juridical scholasticism that afflicted Iranian Shi‘ism in the post-Safavid era. As a Shi‘ite minority living in the diaspora but with a strong centralised leadership, the Ismailis have preserved the integrity of their tradition while advancing public engagement with the countries in which they reside. They have achieved this by running with the flow of political power - with the British in India, East Africa and Canada; with the Portuguese in Southern Africa; with the Soviets in Central Asia; and - until the current crisis - with their former Alawi rivals in Syria. Dabashi’s somewhat cliche-ridden, anti-imperialist model is based essentially on Iranian historical experience. It would have to be modified considerably if he were able to accommodate the Ismaili story of social and educational advance, business success and significant cultural achievements.

On balance, however, his swipes at academic colleagues, unfair or ill-judged as they sometimes appear, are the obverse of a generous and comprehensive vision, not just of Shi‘ism, but of a reality that transcends any neat or limiting categorisation of ‘Islam’ as a distinct field of reference. In pursuit of this vision he combines his meditations on Islamic culture with an impressive grasp of Western thinkers (including Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Weber and Habermas), and above all of Freud, as refracted through the important but neglected prism of Philip Rieff. His extraordinarily rich and powerful book takes Shi‘ism out of the sectarian ghettos to where it was largely confined when it became an ideological weapon of the Persian empire in its rivalry with the Sunni Ottomans. By emancipating Shi‘ism from its instrumental use by the Islamic Republic of Iran, he has performed a vital cultural - and political - service to his readers.

Published in The New York Review of Books, 22 December 2011.

The book reviewed was:_

Hamid Dabashi (2011) Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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