December 5, 2011


The Revolutionary Shias: a review of Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest by Hamid Dabashi (Malise Ruthven, 12/22/11, NY Review of Books)

In the Sunni tradition the 'ulama, or 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 as recorded in hadith reports or "traditions." The eventual division of the mainstream Sunni tradition into four main schools of law allowed for considerable variations in interpreting these canonical texts. The mystical or "otherworldly" aspects of the Prophet's legacy became the province of the Sufi or mystical orders that grew up around the myriads of "saints" or holy men.

The Shias, by contrast, institutionalized the Prophet's charisma by investing their imams with special sources of esoteric knowledge to which they, through their religious leaders, had exclusive access. Hence Shiism, arguably, presents a more unified approach to Islam than Sunnism, though one that (like Protestantism) is opposed to the mainstream. 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. After the twelfth imam in the direct line of Muhammad finally "disappeared" in 940, Shiite authority came to be exercised by a formidable clerical establishment--comparable to the Catholic priesthood. These religious specialists were assumed to be in possession of the esoteric knowledge and interpretive skills necessary for the community's guidance. The parallels with Christianity are striking. For the people called Ithnasharis, or Twelvers (who comprise the majority of the Shia), the disappeared or "Hidden Imam" is a messianic figure who will return (like the resurrected Jesus) to bring peace and justice to a world torn by strife. [...]

Popular expectations surrounding the Hidden Imam and his return are central to this struggle. Khamenei, who represents a part of the clerical "old guard" that took power after the revolution, has gone so far as to suggest changing Iran to a parliamentary system, without an elected president--a move that former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has stated would "be contrary to the Constitution and would weaken the people's power of choice." Ahmadinejad has responded by giving the debate an eschatological twist, stating that ordinary Muslims do not need the intercession of clerics to contact the Hidden Imam. For Ahmadinejad, populist expectations surrounding an imminent return (an attitude described as "deviant" by conservative clerics) serves to boost his presidential ambitions.

At the heart of this debate lies the problem of legitimacy, based, as Dabashi sees it, in a long tradition in which the revolutionary impulses born out of historical dispossession of the right to succeed Muhammad compete with compulsive anxieties about proper social behavior:

    The more volatile, unstable, and impulsive the charismatic outbursts of revolutionary movements in Shi'ism have been throughout its medieval and modern history, because of its traumatic origin, the more precise the exactitude of the Shi'i law has sought to regulate, to the minutest details, the affairs of Shi'i believers--from their rituals of bodily purity to the dramaturgical particulars of their communal gatherings, to their political suspicions of anyone's claim to legitimate authority.

Rituals of bodily purity serve to reinforce communal identities. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her classic work Purity and Danger, rules about pollution of the body are substitutes for morality: "They do not depend on a nice balancing of rights or duties. The only material question is whether a forbidden contact has taken place or not."

At the same time, as Dabashi suggests, the notion of having been wronged by the existing powers, which lies at the heart of Shiism, contributes to the notion that

    the veracity of the faith remains legitimate only so far as it is combative and speaks truth to power, and (conversely) almost instantly loses that legitimacy when it actually comes to power.

A logical resolution to this paradox would be a formal separation of powers between religion and state, where the religious leadership "speaks truth to power" without exercising executive authority. Such was the position of the clerical class during the regime of the Pahlavi shahs and for the most part under their predecessors of the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925), when there existed what Said Amir Arjomand has called an "unspoken concordat" between the state and the clerical establishment, with the latter refraining from criticizing the dynasty's policies.

It was Khomeini who radically upset this de facto concordat with his doctrine of Vilayet e-Faqih--the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult--whereby the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council appointed by him approve parliamentary candidates and have veto power over legislation (as well as control over much of the bureaucracy and armed forces) in competition with the elected president. The contradiction at the heart of the Islamic Republic exemplifies Zubaida's "contradictory duality of sovereignties" and constitutes a major obstacle to reform. It was the Guardian Council, for example, that effectively defeated the reformist agenda of President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) by rejecting his proposals--overwhelmingly approved by the parliament--for constitutional changes that would reduce the council's power and boost those of the presidency. Constitutionally speaking, Khatami's struggle was similar to Ahmadinejad's, although his social outlook (as a moderate with liberal instincts and advocate for international dialogue) was the diametrical opposite of Ahmadinejad's.

The messianism makes Shiism a far better basis for liberal democracy than Sunni Islam, better than secularism for that matter, so long as they ditch the immanentizing and gnosticism.

Posted by at December 5, 2011 6:10 AM

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