The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr

Although, the title of Nasr’s book might give his reader the impression that he will focus on how Shias have been able to revive their position (either politically, religiously, geographically, and so on) within the world community, he in fact devotes the majority of the book describing the strain between the Sunnis and Shias. Aside from his occasional anecdotes about this sensitive and complex relationship, Nasr finds a way to connect the topic of each chapter to this sectarian issue. Furthermore, when he does discuss the Shia revival, the examples he provides – which will be examined within this paper – demonstrate that the Shias themselves did not initiate any type of movement that contributed to their “revivalism”. In fact, it was mainly a result of an external force that assisted in the Shia community advancing in power and influence, regardless of the level (domestic, regional, and/or international) or domain (political, social, economical, etc.).

With that said, this paper will investigate these issues in two parts. The first half of the paper will review the author’s presentation of the sectarian divide, followed by an examination on whether this problem is as serious as Nasr depicts. The second half will review Nasr’s examples of how there has been a Shia revival and then examine whether his assessment of said revival is founded on a Shia premise. The importance of such an investigation is due to the fact that when an argument like a Shia revival is presented it should not be taken lightly and needs to be examined beyond the general arguments.

Sunnis versus Shias

Nasr’s discussion of the tension between Sunnis and Shias begins at the origin; with the split that occurred following the death of the prophet and upon deciding who the rightful successor should be. From there evolved over time the different beliefs that left his followers divided into two camps. On the one side there is the Sunnis, who believe “that the prophet’s successor was succeeding only to his role as leader of the Islamic community and not to his special relationship with God or prophetic calling”. They were led by Abu Bakr and a long line of Caliphs who for better or worse were the face of Islam throughout history. On the other side there is the Shias, who claim “that God would not entrust His religion to ordinary mortals chosen by the vote of the community”, and instead it is Muhammad’s blood line that carries with it the special relationship with God and the prophetic-like calling. This sect was led by Ali and followed by eleven (according to the most prominent sect of Shi’ism, Twelver Shi’ism) of his descendents. Nasr goes on to discuss Ali’s struggles with a number of Caliphs, including Muawiya, and how this tension resulted in the assassination of Ali and the death of a number of Sunnis. And although it can be argued that during the time of Ali the idea of Sunnis and Shias was a vague concept, there nonetheless was a clear distinction between these two sects that we today can categorize as Sunnis and Shias. In any case, Nasr describes how there was constant tension between the two sects as well as constant killing of one another.

The epitome of this tension and killing can be seen at the events at Karbala, where the prophet’s grandchild Husain and his family and companions were killed by Sunnis. Nasr outlines the events of Karbala and the rituals, beliefs, and practices that arisen from it. He emphasizes the importance of this event for Shias, and how they (Shias) take this moment to remember the constant struggles and suffering of Shias at the hands of Sunnis – among other things. Nasr also discusses the Sunni view on said Shia rituals and practices in regards to Karbala and other holy Shia events. The self-flagellation, play reenactments, art works and imageries, as well as the saint like emphasis on the twelve Imams are seen by the majority of Sunnis as a deviation from Islam or even outright heresy. Understanding the importance of the events at Karbala, not only historically but religiously, is vital in understanding the differences between Sunnis and Shias, and Nasr really focused on these differences throughout his book. So much so, that it can be argued, and it has been, that he (Nasr) focused too much on the negative aspects of this sensitive relationship, and in fact the tension between the two is not as severe as Nasr portrays it.

Nonetheless, Nasr moves on to further explain the many differences between the two sects. Such as: their theological, practical, political, metaphysical, educational, and liturgical differences. Many of the examples Nasr provides can be connected to the disagreement on whether or not the Imams are the rightful leaders of the umma. For example: Sunnis emphasis on community and Shias on leader (which can be seen as the Imams as their leader); Sunnis emphasis on the Islamic message but Shias also emphasis on the vehicle for that message (and the Imams are that vehicle). Although Nasr’s points are valid, he mentions nothing of the different occasions where Sunnis and Shias came together – either politically, culturally, or educationally – to bridge the gap between the two sects. Instead, the vast majority of examples he provides focuses on their differences with a connection to the conflicts that arise from those differences.

Other examples referred to the teaching style of both camps: Shias centering on philosophy and theology, Sunnis more on the literal meanings of sacred texts. Nasr also discusses how during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, learned Shias were imprisoned in order for the Sunni orthodox to strengthen and the Shias to weaken. The Hanbali school, for example, formed a rhetoric and practice against Shias to where they (the Sunnis) were forbidden to eat their (the Shias) meat or marry their women. Such Sunni schools engrained these ideas into the minds of the youth from a very young age in order to continue the propagation of their agenda. And Nasr focuses a great deal of attention on the negative aspects of this relationship and does not address any of the positives.

Upon discussing the teaching methods of both sects, Nasr transitions into the role of the State. Rightfully so, given the fact of how much influence a given regime has on its educational system, as well as other institutions. Therefore, he discusses the sectarian tension on a national level. He centers on a number of countries (Iraq under Saddam, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, India) and how the Sunnis within each respected country negatively treats their native Shias. In Pakistan, Shias would be marginalized and eventually politically disenfranchised as the Sunnis gained power. In Iraq, similar events occurred while Shias were also given fewer job opportunities. In Syria, Shias were always seen as unequal regardless of the sacrifices they made for their country. Ibn Taymiya, for example, had a profound intolerance for Shias and declared them heretics and sanctioned violence against them. And long after Taymiya’s time, when Sunnism was in relative decline, they (the Sunnis) were still considerably harsh towards their Shia counterparts. In Saudi Arabia, Shias were also marginalized and stripped of their public role; they were tolerated but not accepted by the state; and they were seen as the undesirable and heathen minority. It is at this point where Nasr shifts his focus on the sectarian tension to the international level, and more specifically, on the long and troubling relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Similar to his approach on previous topics, where he would first discuss an issue and then make connections to the sectarian conflict, Nasr begins the discussion of Iran-Saudi Arabia with a historical overview of the tensions and problems the Sunnis and Shias had during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. With descriptions of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rhetoric versus the Saudi backed anti-Shia sentiment, Nasr continued to show that he only wanted to focus on the negative aspects between these two sects and magnify their quarrels in order to later present the Shia revival as this great movement that has and will change the tone of the Middle East. Examples of Khomeini challenging King Faysal’s legacy; Saudis support of Iraq against Iran during the war; Iran’s support of Syria against the pan-Islamic rhetoric of the Sunnis; both regimes trying to expand their version of Islam on a global level through education and mosques; among many others were provided by Nasr to stress the tension between the Sunnis of the Arab world and the Shias of Iran. Also, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq led to the Saudis and Iranians to once again compete – this time for regional leverage through and within Iraq.

Although the information that Nasr provided is valid, he does not devote nearly the same amount of attention to the positive aspects of the Sunni-Shia relationship and this alone must raise some questions to his objective and why he chose to approach this delicate relationship in such a manner. Moreover, Nasr’s description of the tension between the two sects has been argued by many scholars as being exaggerated or bias, and the “hatred” between the two is not as severe as Nasr portrays it. But all this goes without saying that Nasr focused too much on the negative aspects of Islam’s intrafaith relationship, and this concentration appears to only make sense in connection to his claim of a Shia revival – which can also be criticized for its shortcomings.

A Shia Revival?

I believe Nasr chose such an approach in order to amplify the Shia revival into something great, which in fact can be argued to have been a result of a number of circumstances that almost fortuitously went in favor of the Shias. On page 184, Nasr lists the reasons why he thinks the Shia revival was and is successful: “the Shia revival rests on three pillars: the newly empowered Shia majority in Iraq, the current rise of Iran as regional leader, and the empowerment of Shias across Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Pakistan”. The first pillar can be credited to the 2003 US lead invasion of Iraq. A Shia majority government in Iraq would not have been possible were it not for America’s invasion. If the US did not attack Iraq in 2003, the Shias, more than likely, would not have risen up against Saddam and the Shia revival as Nasr explains it would be a weak claim to defend. Even the first Gulf War which saw a Shia uprising only occurred because (a) America attacked Iraq first and (b) the US told the Shias they (the United States) would support and encouraged them (the Shias) to rise up – but as history showed nothing changed. In other words, without the United States in both instances, Iraqi Shias would have done nothing to revive their position inside their own country. On this first pillar, a Shia revival must be credited to the United States.

The second pillar should be examined from its origin, the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The ability for Iran, according to Nasr, to currently rise as a regional leader can be attributed to the revolution. However, if it was not for the multitude of organizations all equally involved in the uprising and protests that led to the fall of the Shah, the Shias would not have been able to gain control of Iran in the first place. The Shia community did not act alone and was not the sole apposing force against the monarchy. They were, however, able to take control of Iran after the Shah’s departure by debunking their rivals. But this does not preclude the hardships of the many other organizations and thus, similar to the US in ’03, other forces outside of the Shia community assisted and allowed the Shias to rise in power and influence. Therefore, the second pillar can be accredited to the 1979 social revolution in Iran; which saw Marxists, Secularists, Communists, and Shias come together for change.

In regards to the third pillar, only time will tell if there genuinely is an empowerment of Shias across the Arab world and Pakistan. However, having the luxury of hindsight, from the time of Nasr’s book to the present, it appears that an empowerment of Shias is not the current “threat” for certain Arab regimes (like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen) but rather the threat of democracy, peace, justice and equality. For example, the current events in Bahrain have shown that although the majority of protesters are Shia, the purpose of their uprising is not solely based on sectarian issues, but mainly social issues – similar to the many other Arab revolts. On the one hand, however, it will be ill-advised to believe that there is no sectarian tension that is, in some shape or form, helping to drive the protests in Bahrain. But on the other hand, one cannot claim that this is the main force behind said protests. With that said, one must be mindful of such a delicate issue and should not make claims in haste. Therefore, the third pillar remains to be seen, but thus far does not show any sign of fruition.

Conclusion

In closing, I am somewhat reluctant by Nasr’s claim of a Shia revival because I envision this as something that has and will be brought into existence by the Shias themselves, not the West or America or by a social revolution. As stated earlier, America helped with the Shias gaining power in Iraq; groups like the Mujahideen, the Islamist left, the Muslim People’s Republican Party, and the Tudeh Party of Iran helped the Shias gain ultimate power inside Iran; and the current Shias in the Arab world have done nothing significant to garner a revival. Furthermore, focusing on only the negative aspects of the Sunni-Shia relationship raises two concerns. First, Islam will be presented in a negative light which is the last thing it needs right now considering all the scrutiny it has been under since 9/11. Scholars like Nasr should be careful in explaining this highly sensitive and complex sectarian relationship because newcomers to Islam will be reading about this religion for the first time and they will believe that all Sunnis and Shias hate each other – when that is not the case.

Secondly, with such a focus, it shows that the author has a clear objective and bias in trying to prove his point; and the inclusion of the counter argument will more than likely harm the authors claim. Therefore, ignoring the counter argument, as Nasr did – which is discussing the positive examples and anecdotes of how Sunnis and Shias get along – raises immediate questions as to the legitimacy of his argument. Leaving that aside, if Nasr’s objective was to magnify the importance of the Shia revival he should have first reexamined the events he used that led to a Shia revival and see that it was more of an external force providing the “revivalism” and not the Shias themselves. As a result of (a) Nasr focusing only on the negative aspects of the Sunni-Shia relationship and (b) providing questionable Shia “revival” examples, one must be more cautious when labeling certain events as a Shia revival.

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