When Iraqi forces folded in 1991, at the end of the Kuwait war, American policymakers conjured with the prospect of the collapse of the Saddam Husayn regime and the possibility of Iraq's Shi`i majority coming to power. The idea of "radical Shi`a" dominating Iraq led to (ungrounded) visions of them then inviting Iran in to take over the country. This fear, which was also strong in Riyadh and Kuwait, as well as in Europe capitals, has remained until recently a key factor dampening enthusiasm for a democratic regime in Iraq.
The presumptions behind such a policy prompt us to ask just how "radical" the Shi`a might be; what the source of any such radicalism is; what the problem is between Arabs who are Shi`a and those who are Sunnis; and how this difficulty might be overcome.
A Sensitive Topic
To speak of the Arab world's Shi`i minority is to raise an issue that most Muslims would rather not discuss; for example, a government official in a Gulf country expressed surprise that the authors of this study should write on such a "sensitive" topic. The delicacy of the Shi`i issue runs deep and touches upon the earliest discords in Muslim society. More: it cuts to the heart of politics and society in the Middle East. Regardless of their numbers -- in Iraq and Bahrain they constitute a clear majority -- the dilemma of the Shi`a is in many ways more complicated than simply a minority issue, because it is far more subtle and challenging.
The umma (the totality of the global Muslim community) in theory is homogeneous and united, so that emphasis placed upon differences within it are often quickly condemned as schismatic. In the past, Arab and other Muslim governments have been loath to address this issue head on, preferring to ignore or disguise it as part of the "unfinished business of Islam." However, evasiveness does not serve to solve the problem and may no longer even be an option. Forces for change in the region, and the failure of most Arab governments to provide good governance -- one representative of all the people and accountable to them -- has moved most Arab states towards crisis in which the rise of Islamist ideology is but one manifestation.
At the heart of the "Shi`a problem" is a series of stereotypical beliefs in traditional Sunni thinking, many of which arise from the myth of the unity of the umma. From a Sunni perspective, Shi`ism is the dreaded "mother split" in Islam. The Shi`a represent a schismatic religious group, whose Islam is unorthodox and suspect, whose attitude towards the state is unreliable, who prefer to maintain a communal life separate from Sunnis, and whose spiritual (if not political) loyalty lies in Shi`i Iran. None of these stereotypes is accurate, but all have an element of truth in them at certain times and under certain circumstances.
The West also looks at the Shi`a in stereotypical terms, as a homogeneous group marked by religious zeal, violent methods, radical acts, and antagonism to the United States. This simplified picture is based on the most sensational manifestations of Shi`i self-assertion, which reached their peak in the years following the Iranian revolution, whose tidal wave, as it washed over Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf, understandably predisposed the West to view Shi`ism as fanatical and aggressive and to ignore the distinctions that exist between Iranian and Arab Shi`ism, and within Arab Shi`ism itself.
There are common denominators of religious beliefs, cultural lore, and historical memory which clearly create a sense of community among the Shi`a, especially those in the Arabic-speaking countries. But there is also a diversity of belief and purpose, and differences in adherence and commitment to the common denominators particularly reflecting the differing historical experiences and conditions that exist across the Arab world. Further, the Shi`a themselves are divided into several different major sects, primarily based on the number of imams after 'Ali who are regarded as divinely inspired.1
Constituents of Identity
"Twelver Shi`a" (so named because they recognize twelve Shi`i Imams as guiding the Shi`i community until the last went into occultation—or disappearance—late in the ninth century, to reemerge one day again according to God's plan) represent about 10-15 percent of the Muslim, predominantly Sunni, world. They form significant minorities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, a plurality in Lebanon, and a majority in Iraq and Bahrain. The Shi`a share with Sunnis a belief in the tenets of the Muslim faith as set out in the Qur'an, the Sira (account of the Prophet's life), Hadith (sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), and adherence to the five "pillars" of Muslim religious observance. However, significant interpretative divergences and devotional additions set Shi`i practices apart that focus particularly on veneration of the Prophet's son-in-law 'Ali and his blood line, and a rejection of the validity of the first three successors to the Prophet who are not of the Prophet's bloodline. To many Sunnis, these differences represent unorthodox accretions that defy the injunctions of Islam and border on the heretical, while in Shi`i eyes, the practice of Shi`i community life and ritual is an exceptionally rich and warm tradition.
At its origins the split among the Muslims occurred over the political question of who should succeed the Prophet in leading the umma of Muslims. The partisans (the literal translation of Shi`a) of 'Ali believed that succession should go to Muhammad's family via the Prophet's blood-line, represented first by 'Ali (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law) and subsequently by Ali's descendants by his wife Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. As Shi`ism took shape and crystallized, twelve descendants in particular were regarded as imams, and by right were owed allegiance as the leaders of the community in their lifetime and veneration after their death. The Shi`a believe in the infallibility of the Twelve Imams and their direct divine inspiration — doctrines which the Sunnis view as contrary to the teachings of Islam, some as even idolatrous or non-Islamic. Further, belief in the temporary occultation of the twelfth Imam in the ninth century led to the millenarian Shi`i Doctrine of the Return, when the hidden Imam will reveal himself and lead the faithful against the forces of evil. In the absence of the twelfth Imam, the affairs of the faithful are referred to surrogates, learned ulema (religious men), the marji` at-taqlids (literally "sources of emulation"), who have mastered Islamic jurisprudence and have the authority of interpreting Islam's texts and dicta in terms of contemporary life.
The principle of imamate stems from the belief that God would not leave his umma without guidance after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Those given the power to interpret God's law in its contemporary significance and relevance are known as mujtahids, or interpreters.
Every practicing Shi`i has to follow the directives of one or more mujtahid in key aspects of their life. Mujtahids are also venerated for their justice ('adl), the purity of their lives, and their personal piety; they serve as exemplars for devout Shi`a. As the representative of the Imam, the marji` also carry political weight, although the precise nature of this political role long remained somewhat nebulous. The Twelve Imams were regarded as the divinely ordained leaders of the umma in both the spiritual and temporal realms. Muslim rulers following 'Ali were illegitimate because they had usurped the leadership of the umma from the Imams and governed unjustly; these rulers can be tolerated by the Shi`a or not, but they cannot become the ultimate authority over their conscience.
Thus was the issue of who can have legitimate political authority over the Shi`a after the occultation of the Twelfth Imam left unsettled. The marji`s, as representatives of the hidden Imam, and because of their expertise and justice, were most suited to rule the umma in the absence of the Imam. The prominent role of the marji`s has emerged only over the past few centuries and has become an vital part of Shi`ism's ability to interpret modern conditions. Indeed, once a marji` dies, his interpretations and rulings are no longer binding upon his followers and can be reinterpreted by his successor; this and other features give Shi`ism, in principle, a more liberal approach than Sunnis have. Because the marji`s occasionally disagree both on secondary and even major issues, their divisions are reflected in divisions within the Shi`a community as a whole.
One of the salient examples of such differences was the activist political role adopted by Khomeini in the 1970s and 1980s, after he had published a landmark book that developed the concept of wilayat al-faqih (the governorship of the juristconsult). This contrasted with the apolitical stance of several senior marji`s, including ayatollahs Kho'i in Iraq and Ruhani in Qum. These senior clerics, who had a higher religious station and together commanded a far wider religious following than Khomeini, were never sympathetic to his concept of wilayat al-faqih.
Heresy, Sect – or Cultural Group?
Some observant Shi`a point out that Shi`ism in and of itself isn't a faith at all, but "a way to think about Islam." In other words, there is full agreement about the nature of the Prophet's revelations, but not about what happened after his death. The revelations are by definition sacred, but the history of Islam itself is not sacred, despite many efforts by subsequent Islamic scholars to equate their collegial interpretation of Islam with the faith itself. One may have differing views about the relative merits of the leadership of the early umma after the Prophet without departing from Islam. Implementation of Islam into the political order cannot be equated with revelation. This line of thinking further argues that the Shi`a have no political agenda for the future other than to protect the welfare and interests of the Shi`i community. This goal makes no reference to Sunni Islam and should not be threatening to Sunnis.
The central drama of Shi`ism is the tragic slaying of Husayn, the third Imam and grandson of the Prophet, at the hands of the Umayyads in a hopelessly uneven battle near Karbala in Iraq in 680. The "martyrdom" of Husayn, which Fouad Ajami calls the "Karbala paradigm"2 has become the leitmotif of Shi`a interpretation of the world, around which much of Shi`a ritual and iconography revolves. From this drama springs the double helix of martyrdom and dispossession that runs through Shi`a history, spreading offshoots of belief in 'adl (here, God's justice), a millenarian struggle at the end of time, and the deliverance of humanity by the reappeared Twelfth Imam. The tragedy of Husayn's martyrdom is literally revived and re-enacted yearly at the anniversary of the massacre, 'Ashura, when full vent is given to grief, remorse, and lamentation in processions, drama, and music.
What is ambivalent is whether the lamentation is for Husayn alone or for the burden of all the Shi`a and their accumulated history of rejection and defeat.3 Because this complex reference system has taken root in the tradition, culture, and very social life of Shi`ism, its power to delineate Shi`i identity extends far beyond mere theological belief. Many "cultural Shi`a" participate in the rituals and folklore of the community not necessarily out of theological fervor but because these have become the vernacular of community self-expression — much as Jewish holidays have strong cultural hold over relatively secular Jews.
But for the strictly observant, Shi`ism is a religious faith and a way of life based on that faith. Shi`ism as an identity is inseparable from adherence to the religious faith, and it is the active practice of Shi`ism that expresses identity. In this purist definition, cultural and historical Shi`ism (for example, being a Shi`i by birth) which is not rooted in religious belief does not constitute sufficient ground for being considered a Shi`i. In this view, non-practicing Shi`a and "cultural Shi`a" are therefore outside the fold and cannot be considered part of the community. This conservative view is usually glossed over in the face of the indiscriminate pressures placed on the Shi`i community by the sociopolitical environment; but it nevertheless remains an incipient source of tension, already visible in countries such as Lebanon.
In geographic terms, Twelver Shi`ism has in one sense remained on the peripheries of the Arab world, but in another sense it lies in the absolute heart of the Persian Gulf with its communities clustered around the oil-rich shores in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, southern Iraq, Kuwait, and to a lesser extent the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman. Only Lebanon is the obvious exception to this regional clustering. In the twentieth century, Shi`ism has been absent from the centers where Arab history has been made: Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, or Jeddah. But this geographic proximity in the Gulf region has facilitated movement among Shi`a areas, resulting in intermarriage and ties of kinship. Indeed, many Shi`a refer to the Gulf coastal region as the Shi`i heartland, in which they live in a relatively consolidated fashion. While from the Sunni perspective the Shi`a seem to live on the periphery, even from the point of view of the Islamic empire, this is not so.
In addition to intrinsic elements of identity that develop naturally from common beliefs and practices, Shi`a also possess an ascriptive identity, that is, elements of identity which are ascribed by others to the Shi`a. As early as the ninth century the Shi`a were labeled ar-rafidha, or "rejecters," by mainstream Sunni Muslims. And it is only a short step from ar-rafidha, those who reject, to al-marfudhun, those who are rejected, indicating ostracism of the Shi`a from the main body politic, or umma, of Islam.4
Shi`a identity was thus formed as much by external pressure as by any intrinsic qualities. With only brief intermissions, the Shi`a have endured varying degrees of ostracism, discrimination, or persecution. Politically, the Shi`a are perceived as dissenters from the start, unwilling to endorse the system of succession (khilafa) and the established order; therefore, Shi`ism is a sedition (fitna), designed to tear apart the solidarity of the umma. At the extreme, Shi`ism came to be seen, not as a separate school of Islamic thought, but as a heretical movement that undermines the principles of Islam.
The engagement of the Shi`a in public affairs has thus been, and continues to be, constrained by these charges. The political participation of the Shi`a was limited to failed insurgencies under the early Muslim caliphates and to brief periods of tolerance under local sultans in the tenth-eleventh century; otherwise political estrangement was the norm for the Shi`a during much of Muslim history. The Shi`a consequently retreated from public life and affairs of states and were in turn marginalized in the affairs of the great Muslim empires, with the significant exception of Iran starting in the sixteenth century.
The implications, ramifications, and consequences of the status of the Shi`a as rafidha/ marfudhun (those who reject/are rejected) form the matrices of any study of the Shi`a identity in the Arab world today. The position of the Shi`a in the states and societies in which they live is the historical legacy of their rejection of the legitimacy of government, the reciprocal rejection by Sunni authority of the Shi`a, and their consequent sense of dispossession and alienation. The concepts of justice ('adl) and injustice (dhulm) figure prominently in Shi`i theological, social and political thinking. Politically, this is translated into the notion that the only legitimate government is one that follows the righteous will of God; social justice and the equality of Muslims are also manifestations of divine justice. By these standards, most Muslim fall well short of the ideal, frequently imposing oppression upon their peoples with unjust governance.
Indeed, the Shi`a regard themselves as living under injustice, reinterpreted into the very modern understanding of authoritarian government which denies their rights and practices discrimination. Their social identification as the poor and uneducated, the underclass of the Arab world stretching from south Lebanon to Bahrain, reinforces the cultural-religious dimension of Shi`i identity. They point to a pattern of neglect and poverty resulting from discriminatory practices of governments from Ottoman times through to the modern era. The Shi`a formed the peasantry and poor rural sector of their societies.5 For decades they remained outside the advance of urbanization and modernization that began in the Arab world after World War I and accelerated after World War II. The benefits of modernization, as manifested in education, health services, communications, job opportunities, and higher standards of living, reaching the Shi`i areas very late.
This sense of discrimination and the unfairness of their lot in society is a widespread and powerful feature of Shi`i self-awareness and solidarity, one felt even by those Shi`a with a minimal attachment to religious doctrine. One Shi`i scholar commented ironically that perhaps Shi`a "ought not to complain," that their doctrine has taught them that persecution will be their lot, that they are not destined to rule until the mahdi (the awaited redeemer) comes. This kind of belief poses a philosophical dilemma to Shi`a: Should they suffer passively in silence? Or should they "help history along" by building the strength of the Shi`i community and prepare the groundwork for the mahdi's arrival?
Many Shi`a who would otherwise identify themselves in non-sectarian terms understand that they are classified by others as Shi`a first. To the extent that this is a label that is stamped on them by the outside world, they are powerless to change it. On a popular level, this sense of ingrained discrimination extends into the popular imagination: in Lebanon, folklore claims the Shi`a have tails; in Saudi Arabia, they are thought to spit in their food before eating it and to harbor a secret desire to smear the Ka`ba in Mecca with human excrement during the hajj (annual pilgrimage). In Iraq, a newspaper article accused the Shi`a of sexual perversions and depravity.6
Although these are extremes of folk prejudice, they indicate the impasse that the Shi`i finds himself in: in the final analysis, it is not how he defines himself but how society defines him that determines his identity. As a result, Shi`ism has become a way of seeing the world as dominated by dhulm, where the Shi`a are destined to be the permanent outsiders, enclosed upon themselves and fearful of exposure. From this ensued a long tradition of political quietism and withdrawal from public affairs, confining the Shi`a to a physical and social hinterland where they could be forgotten in a dark corner of Arab consciousness.
Divisions among the Shi`a
As a community, the Shi`a are divided by external circumstances, the most obvious of which are the political borders between those states in which they live. Shi`i communities are further divided by the tenor of relations between the regimes of the countries in which they live. Tense relations between Iran and Iraq, leading to eight years of war between them in 1980-88, represent the most vivid example of this problem. In the Kuwait war, the Shi`a of Kuwait found themselves in conflict with the mostly Shi`i Iraqi army. Iran sought to use Iraqi Shi`a as a fifth column in the Iran-Iraq war, and Iraq may have hoped to at least neutralize the Kuwaiti Shi`a. In both cases, however, the Shi`a communities demonstrated overall loyalty to the state in which they reside.
The critical differences among the Shi`a derive from internal differences. The Arab Shi`i community is diverse and in some cases divided among itself, and has not been able to define, let alone achieve, common goals. Factors that bind the Shi`a can also separate them. While religious doctrine is a shared attribute, it can also be a subject of discord; the institution of marji` is both a tie and a source of clashes; class and economic status separate the Shi`a; and political orientation can be a cause for antagonism.
Since the 1970s, as part of an overall Islamic revival, there has been an increase in the number of Shi`a who observe the practical injunctions of Islam, such as prayer and fasting. As is the case among Sunnis, the increase in Shi`a religiosity is by no means universal or uniform. In addition, since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Shi`a have been subject to many influences more or less alien to Shi`ism. One is exposure to Western culture, institutions, and education. Another is the powerful influence that socialist ideologies exerted on Shi`a communities throughout the region from mid-century on. A third is the various forms of Arab nationalism espoused by large numbers of Shi`a: Nasserism, Ba`thism of different varieties, and other movements. These political constructs side-step religion and help explain why religious ties are much looser for many Shi`a today than a century ago.
Overt agnosticism is rare because of the stigma and heavy penalty placed by Islam on apostasy. But while most Shi`i leftists accept the principles specific to Shi`a doctrine, they de-emphasize religion as a factor of cohesion and stress instead the importance of political repression in binding the community. Leftist are often skeptical about the religious basis of discrimination, attributing it instead to the need to preserve class interests and political supremacy. This doctrinally "lapsed Shi`ism" is often assailed by devout Shi`a, who maintain that religious commitment is an indispensable element of identity and that non-practicing Shi`a are not Shi`a at all and cannot be included in the vanguard of Shi`i liberation.
Opinions regarding the nature of the state, the prerequisites for the legitimacy of government and the role of Islam in politics form another matrix for dispute among the Shi`a. The strict Shi`i view holds that just, i.e. Islamic, government can only be instituted by a designated Imam with divine guidance and that all other governments are tainted.
Therefore, it is futile to call for or proclaim an Islamic government in the absence of the Imam, and the Shi`a have to make do with defective government until the fullness of time.
The most compelling reasons, however, to moderate Shi`i views on political Islamism are the practical obstacles arising from domestic and regional factors. Where Shi`a are the minority, they cannot hope to impose an Islamic state even if they as a community wish to. Where they constitute the majority, any effort at building a Shi`ite Islamic state stirs even more intense determination from the Sunni minority to block them from power. Furthermore, political platforms of secularists and Islamists express their difference in attitude towards the state. Islamists hold to a specifically Shi`i platform that emphasizes the grievances of the community and calls for redress and reparations, although it is often linked to such national issues such as adequate representation, equality under the law, and equal opportunity. Secularists, while not denying Shi`i grievances, are less prone to adopt a specifically Shi`i rhetoric and situate the problem in the broader context of overall state failure affecting the entire population.
What at first glance looks like a subtle difference of nuance is in fact a deep split in the political approaches of the two Shi`i groups on how to solve Shi`i problems. However, it is noteworthy that there is an emerging third platform on the Shi`i political scene — in both Kuwait and Lebanon — that advances a Shi`i secularist, or at least non-Islamist agenda, but nevertheless is committed to promoting Shi`i interests and redressing grievances. This remains a pioneering platform trying to break new ground, and it is not clear whether it can acquire legitimacy or following, but it further splits the Shi`a political position.
The Rise in Shi`a Political Awareness
The revival of Shi`ism's political dimensions in the 1960s is a variant of the revival of political Islam as a whole and shares with the Sunni Islamic revival some of the same causes and objectives. Both Sunni and Shi`a share a disillusionment with modernity and Western-style ideologies, the defeats of Arab governments over the issue of Palestine, and the fracturing of society as a result of urbanization and bureaucratization — without corresponding tangible benefits to the mass of the people. All of these helped stimulate the rise in Shi`i adherence to religion both as personal creed and as political ideology.
But unlike Sunni Islamism, the Shi`i version from the start had a strong component of clerical leadership, a natural consequence of the prominent role played by the ulema in guiding the community. Although Shi`i spiritual leaders have historically maintained a studied aloofness from political life, there has always existed a strand of activism among the Shi`a as a whole, erupting periodically in the early Islamic era, and thereafter whenever conditions of weak government permitted such expression.. The legitimacy of activism is based on verses in the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet and Imams that exhort Muslims to resist unjust and ungodly rulers.7 Some Qur'anic verses and Hadith are interpreted as placing a personal duty on the individual Muslim to deny cooperation to unjust authority and to actively resist unjust government.
The struggle for political recognition embodied Shi`i frustration at their exclusion and second-class status and provided an alternative to the cross-current of political ideologies. The emergence of Shi`i assertiveness has not been uniform but has varied from one country to another according to domestic and external conditions.
Despite widespread Western perceptions, Shi`a social and political activism in the Arab countries is not a by-product of the Iranian revolution of 1979; its causes are complex and largely homegrown. Certainly the revolt in Iraq in 1920, spearheaded by Shi`i notables and ulema, was theologically justified by the marji`s as resistance to non-Muslim (British) governance over a Muslim people. Indeed, already in the 1960s, a confluence of factors boosted the momentum for Shi`i political awareness and self-assertion. The drain on Shi`i resources by secular ideologies and the decline in the clerical institution triggered a backlash among religious Muslims and prompted the re-entry of Shi`a clerics into public life. Shi`a found an alternative inspiration in the writings, guidance, and charismatic presence of Shi`i figures like Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr and Sayyid Mahdi al-Hakim in Najaf, Iraq, and Sayyid Musa as-Sadr, who arrived in Lebanon from Iran in 1959.
In the early 1960s, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr published his landmark book, Our Philosophy.8 In it he rebutted both communism and capitalism as foreign ideologies that degrade the human being and held up Islam as a political philosophy based on the benevolent will of God and an Islamic humanist ideal. He followed with Our Economy, the elaboration of an Islamic economic system.9 Although these treatises were not addressed to an exclusively Shi`i readership, they and their author became magnets for the Shi`a and a springboard for the rise of Shi`i consciousness. For many, a religious revival was essential to Shi`i political commitment, although it is difficult to say whether there was a causal relationship between the two; by all evidence, religious faith and political activism were part of a newfound Shi`a pride.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war shook Arab certainties and left a gaping vacuum of belief waiting to be filled by competing ideologies. It strengthened the belief that only an indigenous, "authentic" alternative can empower people and yet remain close to the people's culture and beliefs. In Iraq, the Islamic backlash to the failures of Arab regimes, to secularism, socialism, and Arab nationalism (all deemed inauthentic and alien) contributed to the formation of the Islamic Da`wa Party in 1967 (or perhaps earlier). Though not conceived or presented as a Shi`i party, in practice its adherents were young Shi`is, and although its membership was largely non-clerical, it looked to Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr and Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Hakim, the son of the senior Iraqi marji`, as their political and spiritual mentors.
At about the same time Sayyid Musa as-Sadr, the cleric from Iran who claimed Lebanese descent, organized and led Harakat al-Mahrumin ("the movement of the deprived") to protest the poverty and deprivation that the Shi`a in southern Lebanon endured. The Haraka was primarily a call for justice and a repudiation of oppression, but its implications went beyond economic redress. The movement became an expression of Shi`a self-worth and assertiveness in a country where the political system of proportional representation failed to acknowledge their increasing numbers, and where the Shi`i feudal landlords upheld their own private interests rather than those of the community. Again, as education spread among the Shi`a and immigrants returned with greater wealth, the system was closed to social and political advancement. Harakat al-Mahrumin tapped into a large and deep reservoir of frustration and inferiority felt by the Lebanese Shi`a.
The causes espoused by the two Sadr clerics were not identical, and the goals of the movements they inspired differed: in Iraq it was a revolutionary political movement based on the tenets of Islam; in Lebanon it was a movement of social protest which eventually got caught up in the maelstrom of the civil war. But they had similar results: both created a platform for the Shi`a distinct from other opposition movements and produced a hitherto unknown Shi`i empowerment that raised political aspirations. Furthermore in both cases, Shi`i clerics returned to the foreground in the political and social leadership of the community, giving them a prominence they had lacked for several decades. The impact of these two indigenous movements had reverberations to the south in the Gulf countries with sizable Shi`a communities.
In a further evolution of independent Arab Shi`i ideological thinking, Sayyid Husayn Fadlallah, a rising Lebanese marji` and also the spiritual mentor to Hizbullah, wrote a treatise in 1976 — three years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran — on Islam and the Logic of Power, arguing the necessity of active struggle against iniquitous government and citing the example of Imam Husayn.10 The emergence of Fadlallah as an independent Arabi Shi`i thinker has raised the status of the Lebanese Shi`i community, whose leaders' interpretations sometimes rivals thus coming from Qom.
Thus the Iranian revolution did not spawn a Shi`i revival but provided a focal point for a Shi`i political identity that was already in formation. After the Iranian revolution, it was no longer an embarrassment to declare one's Shi`i identity.
The Shi`i identity is an admixture of religious belief, political experience, social isolation, developed cultural heritage, and communal grievance. These elements of intrinsic and attributed identity create the common factors that tend to unite the Shi`a on an abstract level. Identity and solidarity are sharpened and radicalized by negative state policies and the social conditions that prevail in each country. But because these components of identity are variable rather than fixed, they are also factors in dividing the community. The degree of religious adherence and differences in political belief and social status create rifts among the Shi`a and often hinder effective unity. Additionally, geography and local conditions differentiate the experiences of the Shi`a, creating variations within the larger community.
For many Shi`a, religion is indispensable to identity and to their political struggle for recognition and equal rights. This has given clerics a large role in the Shi`i awakening, but that role is not acceptable to secularists and even to some Islamists who are reluctant to grant authority to the religious hierarchy to shape the Shi`i future. Despite these differences, the Shi`i identity is strongest in the current "period of struggle" as a response to external repression and serves to bind the Shi`a in a common pursuit.
Indeed, in the contemporary world, where issues of identity everywhere have gained greater salience, the Shi`a may be in the process of re-inventing themselves — through a process of conscious self-definition, without which identity does not exist. Does the very concept of Shi`ism have new meaning in today's Middle East, where community identity is becoming more assertive? Do the Shi`a have something special to say about democracy, politics, and political culture? There is nothing any more valid about the Shi`i view of Islam than the Sunni one, but in an age when authority is being challenged, the classic pre-Khomeini Shi`i view of greater separation of faith from state power may gain a larger following. (The rule of the clerics in Shi`i Iran is indeed seen by many Shi`a as a radical departure from mainstream Shi`ism introduced by Khomeini and is widely unpopular.)
Almost drawing a leaf out of the historical vision of the Shi`a, Sunni Islamist movements today are moving to distance themselves from the oppressive state and denouncing "suborned clergy" who serve the interests of the state and not of Islam. The debate, of course, is not simply about theological, legal, and governmental principles but also about communities and power; thus the purely theological issues are often shrouded by other more concrete and competing interests of the differing communities. In this sense, once again, Shi`ism perhaps should not be thought of as a religion or a political agenda but as a body of interests with the goal of community welfare and self-preservation.
In the long run, as the Shi`a eventually attain integration into their national societies and gain equal rights of citizenship — religious, economic, and political — the issue of their Shi`i identity may become less pressing and less dominating to their lives. On the other hand, some constants of a common culture and history will remain, debates over who is a Shi`a and who has the right to represent the community are apt to intensify as the social and political pressures for solidarity ease. Under improved conditions, as Shi`a move out of the status of being a beleaguered community, normal competing focuses of loyalty will emerge — professional, regional, class, ideological — that will weaken the idea of a homogeneous community kept together by hardship.
An eventual solution to divisions between Sunnis and Shi`a requires as a first step the integration of Shi`a as citizens with full rights in the states in which they live. True Shi`i loyalty will only appear in the presence of just and equitable governance that deserves loyalty and that includes them -- a condition that will not emerge until present aging authoritarian rulers and repressive regimes are replaced by more representative governments.
Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident senior political consultant at RAND. Rend Rahim Francke is the director of the Iraq Foundation in Washington DC.
1 This article deals only with the "Twelver" Shi`is who dominate in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and Iran. Other, smaller communities of Shi`is include the "Fivers" (or Zaydis), who are mostly in Yemen; and the "Seveners" (or Isma'ilis), mostly in South Asia.
2 Fuad Ajami, The Vanished Imam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 138.
3 Ajami, The Vanished Imam, pp. 138-141.
4 Although this term fell into disuse, it has been revived in Saudi Arabia, as evidenced in a paper entitled, "Waqi'ar-Rafidha fi Bilad at-Tawhid," presented to the Council of Higher Ulema in Saudi Arabia in 1993. The paper, written by a fundamentalist Wahhabi, is a dogmatic condemnation of the Shi`a (the Rafidha) in Saudi Arabia (Bilad at-Tawhid) and a call to impose further restrictions on their activities.
5 Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 44-45.
6 Ath-Thawra, Apr. 1991, reprinted in Iraqi File (Surrey, England: The Centre for Iraqi Studies, Sept. 1993).
7 Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 92-94; Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, Al-Islam wa Mantiq al-Quwwa (Beirut,1985), pp. 49-62; Sayyid 'Abdullah al-Gharifi, At-Tashayyu (Beirut: Dar al-Mawsim lil-I`lam, 1990), pp. 335-346.
8 Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, Falsafatuna (Beirut: Dar at-Ta`arruf lil-Matbu`at, 1986).
9 Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, Iqtisaduna, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Lubnani, 1977).
10 Fadlallah, Al-Islam wa Mantiq al-Quwwa.