Skip to comments.The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future (book review)
Posted on 08/06/2006 6:53:26 PM PDT by Lorianne
The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future. Vali Nasr. Norton. 304 pages. $25.95.
Shiite Muslims have a saying: ''Every day is Ashura, and every city is Karbala.'' The adage evokes the murder of Husayn, the prophet Mohammed's grandson and, according to Shiites, his rightful successor. More generally, the phrase recalls Shiites' collective identity as the underdog, a neglected and often persecuted minority.
Every year, on the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shiites worldwide mark Ashura, the day that commemorates Husayn's death in the Iraqi city of Karbala in 680 A.D. From Beirut to Karachi, they gather in mosques and fill the streets, thumping their chests, chanting dirges and sometimes cutting themselves with blades to collectively relive Husayn's suffering. The ritual has come to symbolize the modern-day struggle of Shiites, who make up roughly 10 to 15 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.
Vali Nasr's revealing look at the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims captures how intensely the Shia historical narrative hinges on tragedy. With Shiites' rise to power in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon -- where the militant Shiite group Hezbollah holds seats in the 128-member Parliament -- centuries of Sunni dominance may be coming to an end, Nasr argues. He predicts the sect will launch a religious and political revival that redefines the faith and reshapes power structures throughout the Muslim world.
Nasr, an Iranian-born professor in the department of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School, makes little effort to conceal his bias toward the Shia. But while his analysis at times seems clouded by his pro-Shia stance, his book offers a useful corrective to a body of recent popular scholarship that deals largely with Sunni Islam. Nasr makes a strong case for the emergence of Shia political block stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.
Whether or not Shiite leaders become as powerful as Nasr suggests, the depth of the Sunni-Shia divide remains indisputable. Anyone hoping to make sense of the tangle of sectarian violence in Iraq, the defiant posturing of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the growing influence of the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon must acknowledge the split as the source of much of the region's violence, Nasr writes.
The roots of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions date to the death of Islam's prophet on the Arabian peninsula in 632 A.D. After Mohammed's death, the Muslim community was divided between two leaders: Ali and Abu Bakr. The term Shi'a -- Arabic for partisan -- came to describe Muslims who supported Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law. Sunnis, whose name derives from the word sunnah or ''way'' of the prophet, rallied behind Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed's closest associates, who became the first caliph.
The Shia's religious identity was solidified at the battle of Karbala in the seventh century when the Husayn, Ali's son, and 72 of his family members and supporters were murdered by the caliph Yazid. In the centuries that followed, the political and theological gap between Shias and Sunnis widened. Today, some Sunni extremists regard Shias as heretics who are farther removed from the faith than Christians and Jews. Nasr compares the split to the rift between Protestants and Catholics, with the Shia being akin to Catholicism in their emphasis on religious hierarchy, mysticism, worship of a holy family (in this case, the prophet's descendants) and clerical intercession. The Sunni, meanwhile, lack a unified clerical establishment and rely more heavily on the Koran and the Sunnah, the way of the Prophet, as the sole authority on religious questions.
Political divisions between the sects are far more complex and difficult to characterize, and Nasr for the most part provides a cogent summary of Shiite political movements in Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. He loses some credibility, however, in taking such a hard line against the Sunnis. While few serious scholars would dispute that Shiite Muslims have suffered under Sunni governments, Nasr's characterization of the current conflict in Iraq seems to suggest that Shiite militias arose as an inevitable outcome of Sunni oppresssion.
In Nasr's view, such a revolution ought to be welcomed by the United States and other Western powers, as Shiites who oppose Sunni domination may be more likely to work with foreign democratic governments. But if the anti-American rhetoric espoused by Iran's mullahs, Hezbollah's leader and Iraqi Shiite militia members are any indication, not all Shiites welcome a Western-style democracy.
Nasr devotes little space to Shiite philosophy, ritual or religious law, which is unfortunate, since many of the most sophisticated arguments for the compatibility of Islam and democracy have come from such contemporary philosophers as Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush, a seminal thinker Nasr only briefly mentions.
But as an historical and cultural narrative of Shia experience, Nasr's book offers a crucial overview of the sectarian forces dividing the Muslim world. In Nasr's vision, Shia-Sunni tensions have not only delivered us to the current state of chaos, violence and civil war, but will drive future conflicts. If his prediction proves true, efforts to nurture democracy and security in the Middle East will falter so long as this basic fault line dividing Muslim society is ignored.
Alexandra Alter is The Miami Herald's religion writer
Ping for later
Dear Nasr, there is one HUGH difference!
Christians don't worship satan, unlike slimes of any variety!
The whole belief system is false from it's plagarized beginnings.
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