[Marxism] Books on Shi'ites
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Wed Jul 26 16:46:22 MDT 2006
NY Review of Books, Volume 53, Number 13 · August 10, 2006
The Time of the Shia
By Max Rodenbeck
Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World
by Yitzhak Nakash
Princeton University Press, 226 pp., $19.95
The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future
by Vali Nasr
Norton, 287 pp., $25.95
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
from a sermon by Sheikh Saalih al-Wanyyaan delivered in the Saudi province
of Qasim, circa 1987
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
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 imminencefor 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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 controlAyatollah Khomeini's doctrine of Velayat
al-Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudenthas 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. 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, thenwhich Nasr and Nakash do notthat 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.
 The source is www.alminbar.com/ khutbaheng/695.htm. This Web site
features model sermons, mostly by Saudi preachers espousing rigid Wahhabism.
 For the sake of completeness, the resting places of the remaining imams
are, respectively, Najaf in Iraq for Ali, the first imam; Karbala in Iraq
for Hussein, the third imam; and Mashhad in Iran for Ali Rida, the eighth
imam. The shrine of Ali's daughter Zaynab near Damascus is also greatly
venerated, as are numerous lesser tombs in the Iranian city of Qom.
 Some accounts say the Saudis forced Shia residents of Medina to carry
out the deed themselves.
 Under Saudi rule, scores of other monuments in the Muslim holy cities
have been defaced or demolished. Most have succumbed to property developers
and urbanization schemes, but puritan religious motives are also evident.
Photographs from 2002 of the dynamiting of a minaret near Medina, which was
attached to a mosque associated with one of the sons of the sixth Shia
imam, show Saudi religious police raising their hands in exaltation at the
 Offshoots of Ismailism include the Druze and Alawites of the Levant.
Purer Ismaili sects include the Sulaymanis of southern Saudi Arabia, the
Bohra of Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the Nizaris, once known for their
skill as assassins but now best known as the followers of the Agha Khan.
 Saddam Hussein was to repeat the slur shortly after his overthrow. In a
tape released on April 28, 2003Saddam's birthdayhe compared the Iraqis
who had helped the American invaders with Ibn al-Alqami, the Shia vizier of
the last Sunni caliph of Baghdad, who was said to have betrayed his master
to the Mongols.
 An excellent study of Sistani: Reidar Visser, "Sistani, the United
States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism?," Norwegian
Institute of International Affairs, Paper No. 700, 2006.
More information about the Marxism