Revolting Shiites

By Malise Ruthven
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 practice.

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.

The 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.

The 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 identity.

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 Movement.

AR  Ruthven could have taken the opportunity to be more critical of this cult.