Shi‘ism: Waiting for the Hidden Imam
by Said Bakhtaoui and Mohammad Ballout
First Run/Icarus Films, 2005. 53 min.
Reviewed by William Harris
University of Otago
Middle East Quarterly
Shi‘ism: Waiting for the Hidden Imam, a film, presents a fine portrayal of the origins, defining features, and contemporary impact of Twelver (or Imami) Shi‘ism. Bakhtaoui and Ballout represent the emergence of the Shi‘ites to great effect by deploying images of Caliph Ali, cousin and son-in law of the prophet Muhammad, and his son Hussein, as well as a filmed reenactment of the massacre of Hussein and his followers at Karbala in 681.
The film's major contribution is the collection of interviews with prominent Shi‘ite religious scholars and intellectuals in Iran and Lebanon, including ayatollahs Mussa Zein al-Abidin in Qum and Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut. These personalities powerfully convey the significance for Shi‘ites of the imams, the line of twelve saintly figures from Ali to the twelfth "hidden" imam, who will return to set the world right in preparation for the final judgment. It is fascinating to hear of the imams in such vivid terminology as "divine light" and "speaking Qur'an"—interpreters of God's message who were human yet infallible. Bakhtaoui and Ballout give a well-rounded impression of a dynamic, self-confident faith with a painful but proud past.
Inevitably, the film has a few problematic features. First, the title "Shi‘ism" is to a degree a misnomer—the Isma'ili and Zaydi Shi‘ites do not even get a mention. The topic is not Shi‘ism in general but the predominant Twelver branch. Second, the narrative gives the impression that Iran had a strongly Shi‘ite dimension from the time of Islamic conquest with merely a declaration of Shi‘ism as the state religion under the Safavids. It does not adequately portray the major shift—the conversion of the majority of Iran's population to Twelver Shi‘ism—in the sixteenth century. Third, the emphasis is heavily on Iran and Lebanon with less attention to contemporary Shi‘ism in Iraq. There is an excellent foray into the teaching of religion and philosophy in the Qum seminaries, but a pairing of Qum and Najaf would have enriched the offering.
Overall, given the constraints of the 53-minute documentary format, Bakhtaoui and Ballout deserve praise for what they have managed to incorporate while preserving a coherent main line. In Iran, the interviews with believers at tombs and shrines are deeply moving. In Lebanon, the producers do not allow the generally sympathetic overview of Twelver Shi‘ism to get in the way of unflattering pictures of Hezbollah's regimented, armed retainers. The film also avoids getting into Lebanon's demographic one-upmanship, soberly describing the Shi‘ites as 30 percent of the population, and does not shrink from noting Hezbollah's reprehensible record of kidnappings and suicide-bombings alongside its liberation exploits. These are commendable details in a documentary thoroughly to be recommended for educational purposes in universities and elsewhere.
Related Topics: History, Iran, Islam, Lebanon | William Harris | Fall 2006 MEQ
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