Revivalism, Shi‘a Style

Revivalism, Shi‘a Style

Mini Teaser: Energized Shi‘a represent a powerful challenge to Sunni extremism and jihadism.

by Author(s): John O. Voll

Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 288 pp., $25.95.

"Can you tell a Sunni from a Shi‘a?" Many people cannot describe the differences between these two major Muslim traditions. However, battles between Sunnis and Shi‘a dominate news from Iraq, and Sunni-Shi‘a relations are critical to the future of that country. In Lebanon, a major Shi‘a organization, Hizballah, plays a significant role in politics and, as the Israeli-Hizballah battles during the summer of 2006 show, this Shi‘a group has an impact on regional and global politics. In addition, Sunni and Shi‘a characteristics are important to the self-identification of competing major states like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As a result, it is startling when people in important planning positions dealing with U.S. policy toward the Muslim world and with counter-terrorism admit that they do not know the differences between Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims.[1]Shi‘a are an increasingly visible and important force in the contemporary Middle East. Ignorance about Shi‘i Islam and about Sunni-Shi‘a relations can be dangerous for the interests of anyone in business, government and humanitarian work in the Middle East (and globally).

Vali Nasr argues that Sunni-Shi‘a relations are fast becoming a major dimension of Middle Eastern regional politics-a major "Shia revival" is transforming Middle Eastern politics. A critical element in this revival is the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq by the United States in 2003. This not only brought an end to Sunni dominance in Iraq, but it also opened the way for greater Shi‘a activism and influence throughout the region. Nasr argues that the sectarian battle in Iraq "will metamorphose into a broader struggle for power between the Sunni Arab establishment of old and the emerging Shia power." This book provides an analysis and guidebook for understanding the nature and importance of these relations in the contemporary world.

In this picture, most of modern Arab history involves the development of nationalist politics and states dominated by Sunni elites. As nationalist movements emerged, Shi‘a were often active participants. In states and societies where they were minorities, secular nationalism provided a possible path for integration into the "national" or majority identity. However, the modern independent states, as Nasr observes, "solidified Sunni rule and Shia marginality" as nationalist platforms and programs became the base for continuing Sunni control. Nasr notes that similar developments took place outside of the Arab world, with the experience of Shi‘a in the Indian subcontinent reflecting the same initial Shi‘a hopes and subsequent marginalization. Nasr's conclusion on this is important in the background that it provides for contemporary politics, especially in Iraq and Lebanon: "In the Arab world, the Shia learned the harsh lesson that secular regimes and ideologies may come and go but Sunni biases endure."

The contemporary Shi‘a revival represents, from this perspective, a conflict with the modern political elite establishments in the Arab world. Many of the organizations and ideas are new, and Sunni-Shi‘a competition reshapes regional politics. However, Nasr notes that this competition has deep roots and provides powerful historically based images of conflict. After his defeat but before he was captured, Saddam, for example, in a tape recording, accused the Shi‘a of collaboration with the American invaders and compared them to the 13th-century Shi‘a vizier who was alleged to have aided the Mongols when they destroyed Baghdad in 1258. In the same way, Shi‘a activists at times identify Sunni rulers with Yazid, a seventh-century Umayyad (Sunni) caliph whose army killed Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

In contemporary political debate, the mid-twentieth-century rhetoric of Pan-Arabism and "radical" Arab Socialism fails to arouse much support or mobilize followers. The basically anachronistic rhetoric of Ba‘athi Arab Socialists in Syria and Iraq at the beginning of the 21st century are probably the last show for the old-style radicalism. The truly radical ideologies of the early 21st century involve a revival of concepts that have provided powerful images and symbols for 14 centuries. This transition shapes the Shi‘a revival.

The evocative symbols of the Islamic resurgence during the last decades of the twentieth century raise old images of Sunni-Shi‘a conflict. One of the historic symbols of Sunni political legitimacy is the caliphate. The actual rulers of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad had the title of caliph (khalifah), and they were the core of the political structure of the great classical imperial systems of the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Although the caliphate ceased to be an effective executive office by the 13th century, the concept remained an important element in Sunni concepts of political legitimacy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman sultans had assumed the title of "caliph" as well as "sultan." When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the office of caliph as he established the modern secular republic of Turkey in 1924, some Muslims around the world, especially in British India, protested. However, modern movements of Islamic renewal like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt paid little attention to the idea of re-establishing the caliphate. More attention was given to the Islamization of law and the establishment of an Islamic state, often within the boundaries of already existing modern territorial states. The framework for debate during much of the twentieth century involved goals and programs defined by modernization reform programs and nationalism.

When movements of militant Sunni Muslim opposition began to emerge in the 1970s, they were composed of what Fawaz Gerges describes in The Far Enemy as "religious nationalists." Their first goal was to overthrow their secular "apostate" local rulers and Islamize society from the top down through control of the state. Establishment of a caliphate, if mentioned at all, was a distant vision. This situation changed with the emergence during the 1990s of more transnational militant Sunni movements and organizations. By the beginning of the 21st century, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups were clearly presenting the establishment of a global caliphate as their long-term goal.

The caliphate is, however, an explicitly Sunni conceptualization of political legitimacy. Nasr describes the long history of Sunni rejections of Shi‘a political claims and visions. The differences between Sunnis and Shi‘a are based on this tension that goes back to disagreement regarding who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community following the Prophet's death in 632 c.e. The caliphate is the institutional framework for the political system that developed in the Muslim community and it is the core political concept of Sunni Islam, defined by the consensus of the Muslim majority in the early centuries.

The faction (the Arabic word for "faction" is shi‘a) that supported Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin as the rightful successor, emerged as the major minority opposition to the Sunni consensus. In the Shi‘a political vision as it developed in the early centuries of the Islamic era, the rightful ruler of the Muslim community is the divinely-designated imam. As the Shi‘a traditions were articulated, most Shi‘a came to recognize a line of twelve imams who were descendants in the lineage of Ali and the Prophet. This Twelfth Imam is identified by these Shi‘a as the "Hidden" Imam who is expected to return as the divinely guided ruler, or Mahdi, to establish a reign of justice at the end of time. Until that time, states may be necessary but have no divinely based legitimacy and the scholars of the faith (the ulama) serve as the link to the Hidden Imam.

History provides the Sunnis and Shi‘a with contrasting visions of the ideal political society. The increasingly strong affirmations of the hope for a global caliphate, expressed by the militant Sunni extremists at the beginning of the 21st century, emphasize the differences. In the long run, the Sunni extremists make it clear that there will be no place for Shi‘a in the hoped-for caliphate. In the Shi‘a visions, the hoped-for state will be established by the awaited return of the Twelfth Imam, but until that time the religious scholars have the duty to guide the believers. Nasr points out that this situation means that until the return of the imam "there could be no true Islamic rule." In that context, "Shias would not recognize the legitimacy of Sunni rule, but they would not directly challenge it either. The final reckoning with Sunnism would come only at the end of time."

For some Sunni militants in Iraq, especially those under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "final reckoning" with the Shi‘a is to take place in the present. Nasr does not give much attention to the tensions that this created within the broader framework of global Al-Qaeda. One of the first indications of possible differences between global Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden and Iraqi Al-Qaeda led by Zarqawi came from a December 2005 letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leading ideologue associated with Bin Laden, to Zarqawi. In this letter, Zawahiri reaffirmed the Sunni position that Shi‘a Islam is "based on excess and falsehood" but warned Zarqawi that the majority of Muslims do not understand the difference. He noted that "many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shi‘a." The basic advice was to avoid sectarian fighting in order to avoid divisions among the people in the war against the foreign unbelieving forces. A letter captured by American forces in June 2006 and released in September reaffirmed this tactical position. However, even though tactically the Sunni militants might think that Sunni-Shi‘a conflict might need to be postponed, it is an inevitable part of current and future dynamics in the struggles for power and control in many parts of the eastern Arab world.

Essay Types: Book Review