The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest
By Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi says Shiism is a perfect foil for power but unimpressive as a
modern state ideology. Its origins lie in the disputed succession to
Muhammad, who died in 632 without naming a successor. His closest kinsman
was Ali. The Shiite minority came to believe that Ali had been designated to
succeed Muhammad before being murdered.
Ali's younger son Husayn was
killed at Karbala in 680 in an unsuccessful attempt to restore the
caliphate. The victors were descendants of Muhammad's uncle Abbas. While the
majority Sunnis included Ali as the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs,
the minority Shias rejected the first three of Muhammad's successors and
looked to their imams to restore true religion and legitimate government.
The crucial difference between Shias and Sunnis lies in the
quasi-mystical authority of the Shiite legal scholars.
In the Sunni
tradition the legal scholars came to act as a rabbinical class charged with
the task of interpreting the Koran and the ethical teachings derived from
the Prophet's exemplary conduct. A division of the mainstream Sunni
tradition into four main schools of law allowed for considerable variations
in interpreting these canonical texts.
The Shias invested their
imams with special sources of esoteric knowledge to which they had exclusive
access. During Islam's formative era, most of the holy and sinless Shiite
imams in the line of Muhammad were deemed to have been martyrs or victims of
the usurping Sunni caliphs. For the Twelvers (who comprise the majority of
the Shia), the Hidden Imam is a messianic figure who will return to bring
peace and justice to a world torn by strife.
Shiite scholars do not
constitute a church in the Christian sense. Their ayatollahs are not
organized into a hierarchy but acquire their followings through public
recognition of their learning. They differ on matters of doctrine and
The eschatological time bomb wrapped in the myth of the
Hidden Imam's expected return packs a formidable political charge. Shiite
revolts were frequent during the early centuries of Islam, and numerous
social or tribal movements were fueled by the prospect of the Hidden Imam's
expected return. Ayatollah Khomeini did not claim to be the Hidden Imam, but
with his triumphant arrival in Tehran in February 1979 he let populist
expectations work for him.
Dabashi argues that the tension between
Shiite scholarly legalism and its revolutionary Úlan produces a precarious
equilibrium. This is exemplified in Iraq by, on the one hand, Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 81, a scholastic jurist, and, on the other, the
radical militant leader Seyyed Moqtada al-Sadr.
The same tension is
visible in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is challenging the
authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Popular
expectations surrounding the Hidden Imam and his return are central to this
struggle. Khamenei suggests changing Iran to a parliamentary system but
without an elected president. Ahmadinejad says ordinary Muslims do not need
the intercession of clerics to contact the Hidden Imam. The contradiction at
the heart of the Islamic Republic is a major obstacle to reform.
Dabashi sees Safavid Persia as the apotheosis of Islamic civilization. The
Safavids, who ruled Persia and the adjoining lands between 1501 and the
1730s, made Shiism the state religion. According to Dabashi they succeeded
in integrating the mystical and practical dimensions of Islam on Shiite
foundations while maintaining a philosophical approach consonant with the
idea of God as the cosmic intellect or ultimate consciousness.
Safavid vision succumbed to Afghan invaders, imperial rivalries between
Russians and Ottomans, and the colonial machinations of the French and
British. Internal forces of dissolution also played their part. By the end
of the eighteenth century Shiite Iran had returned to forms of tribal
governance, along with a restored religious scholasticism.
nomadic tribalism under the Qajar dynasty that endured from 1785 until 1925
needed "a clerical class of turbaned jurists and their feudal scholasticism
to shore up its precarious legitimacy." The Usuli school of jurists enhanced
clerical authority at the expense of the public and cosmopolitan aspects of
Shiism that had been encouraged by the Safavid state. The clerical
establishment became the guardians of tradition and bearers of popular
Dabashi is fascinated not just by the rise of Khomeini, the
fall of the Shah, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic but also by
its manifestations in the Shiite psyche. He acknowledges the influence of
his teacher and mentor Philip Rieff.
According to Rieff, the neurotic
symptoms Freud identified in his patients were a reflection of the decline
of traditional moralities: as the anchors of religion were loosened,
instinctive desires became less easy to control. Freud failed to recognize
that the underpinning of the repressive myths that inform human action lie
in the sacred.
For Rieff, authority rooted in the sacred infuses our
creativity with the guilt without which we cannot manage our instinctive
impulses. Desire and limitation, eros and authority, are intimately
connected. The tension between them provides the energy for all artistic
endeavors. Rieff: "A culture without repression, if it could exist, would
kill itself in closing the distance between any desire and its object. ...
In a word, culture is repressive."
Dabashi does not subscribe to the
current repression in Iran. He is a supporter of the reformist Green
AR Ruthven could have taken the
opportunity to be more critical
of this cult.