[Marxism] Books on Shi'ites

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
mentioned here.

—from a sermon by Sheikh Saalih al-Wanyyaan delivered in the Saudi province 
of Qasim, circa 1987[1]


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 
communal weeping.

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 imminence—for 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

 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 control—Ayatollah Khomeini's doctrine of Velayat 
al-Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent—has 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.[7] 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, then—which Nasr and Nakash do not—that 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.

[1] The source is www.alminbar.com/ khutbaheng/695.htm. This Web site 
features model sermons, mostly by Saudi preachers espousing rigid Wahhabism.

[2] 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.

[3] Some accounts say the Saudis forced Shia residents of Medina to carry 
out the deed themselves.

[4] 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 

[5] 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.

[6] Saddam Hussein was to repeat the slur shortly after his overthrow. In a 
tape released on April 28, 2003—Saddam's birthday—he 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.

[7] 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.

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