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Review | The Fear of God

by GARETH SMYTH and NADER DIAB

14 Jul 2011 20:45Comments
lg9-1.jpgSaid Amir Arjomand The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion. Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi'ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890, University of Chicago Press, paperback edition first published 1987

Nir Rosen Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Middle East, Nation Books, New York, 2010

[ review ] Some speak now of Al A'ssifa Al Arabiyya, the Arab storm, rather than Al Rabi' Al Arabi, the Arab spring. Toppling a regime is one thing, but constructing a stable democracy is another. The self-doubt rooted in the defeats of 1948 and 1967, and the more recent mayhem in Iraq, have helped produce a sense in parts of Lebanon, for example, that the demise of the Baath party in Syria might unleash sectarian turbulence rather than usher in an Arab summer.

The dynamics in Egypt and Tunisia are different, and commentators, diplomats and activists alike have all applauded the "nonideological" nature of their revolts. This was a surprise because tyrannical governments had bolstered themselves relatively successfully, not least in Washington, by arguing popular upheaval would shift politics in favor of dangerous Islamists.

Instead, Islamic parties have played low-key roles in events and stressed their commitment to open elections and pluralism. Ikhwan, the Muslim Brothers, have set up a party to campaign in Egypt's September elections on a platform of reducing the budget deficit and attracting foreign investment. The militant Salafism of al-Qaeda and others has been conspicuous only by its absence.

True, back in February Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed the demise of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as the result of an Islamic Revolution inspired by the 1979 Iranian example, but Iran's leader became less vocal when revolt has spread to Syria.

Such a juncture makes timely the republishing of the paperback edition of Said Arjomand's The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam, and reading it yields a valuable opportunity to step back from daily events. In what was originally his Ph.D. thesis submitted to Chicago University in 1978, Arjomand surveys the history of Shiism up and sees "no dogmatic connection between God and political authority." Indeed, he contrasts the "political Yahweh of the Israelites" with the Islamic notion of God as a Being "not directly involved in mundane political events" nor one who "intervene[s] in worldly matters on behalf of a chosen people."

A divorce with politics

This tendency was reinforced within Shiism, writes Arjomand, by the 10th-century occultation of the 12th Imam: "the doctrine was, at least in part, an attempt to explain the fact that political power was not in the hands of the Shi'ites. As such it was premised on the divorce of imamate from actual political rulership. The doctrine of occultation, by postulating the necessary absence of the Imam, accentuated the divorce between imamate and political rule."

Before the occultation, many Shia revolts laid claim to the Imamate. The Fatamids were successful, but most rebellions brought nothing but trouble for the Shia. As Moojan Momen put it in his 1985 An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: "Any living Imam was bound to be the centre of Messianic fervor and therefore a potential political rival to the temporal authorities under which the Twelvers lived.... The problem was neatly resolved by occulting the Imam and thus effectively depoliticizing him while not violating the principle that the Imam must always exist."

But time passed. Already by the tenth century, Mohammad al-Kulayni, "the Renovator," believed, writes Arjomand, that the qualities of the Imams as the hujja (proof) of God "could be attributed only to Ali and his eleven descendants as figures in sacred history who were receding fast into the increasingly remote past."

So how were the Shiites to relate to dynasties and states? Arjomand charts the development over centuries of the relationship between an increasingly hierarchical class of clerics and political authorities. He analyzes the clear establishment under the Safavids of the Shia ulema as the shadow of the Imam on earth, as Shiism became Iran's religion of state and the authorities stamped upon "millenarian extremism." But the relationship of clerics to the state began to break down, Arjomand says, when kings failed to protect the "Shi'ite nation" from the encroachments of colonialists and the ayatollahs were drawn into politics in Iran, particularly over the tobacco concession granted in 1890 to the British.

Although his Ph.D. was completed before the 1979 Revolution, Arjomand did pen for The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam a brief afterword assessing Iran's Islamic Republic, noting the three-way "inconsistency" between juristic authority, the "mahdistic" authority expressed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the "legitimacy of parliamentary legislation" (once the new Majles was up and running). This, he pointed out, was something new, and in his later work The Turban for the Crown, Arjomand countered the widespread argument that Ayatollah Khomeini wanted a return to the Middle Ages by asserting that the 1979 Revolution was as "unprecedented in world history as the French revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917."

The sharia as a way of life

Of course the trajectory of Sunnism has been different. While early Shia jurists criticized Sunnism for the idea of "rightly guided caliphs" and the notion that a caliph could emerge through ikhtiyar (choice/election) -- since a divine appointment had already been made until the end of the time -- it was nonetheless the case that Sunnism, like Shiism, has been over time concerned less with politics than with the sharia as a way of life for the individual seeking to cope with an imperfect world.

Sami Zubaida wrote in his 1988 Islam, the People and the State: "No religious Sunni can fail to acknowledge and revere one or all of the great legal scholars and theologians, such as Al-Shafi'i (767-820), Abu Khanifa (died 798) or Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111); and yet the contributions of these figures to the legal and spiritual foundations of Islam did not include political doctrines which are relevant to the struggles of the present time."

Likewise Ernest Geller wrote in his incisive 1994 book Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals of the lack of attention paid by Islamic scholars throughout history to political institutions and forms of political organization: "Severe and fastidious about the implementation of the sacred prescriptions, they are not otherwise oversensitive about the internal organization of political authority.... Nothing else is expected of politics.... Long before the formulation of the modern ideals of the Separation of Powers and an entrenched Constitution, Islam in effect possessed a religious version of both: legislation was distinct from the executive because it had been pre-empted by the deity, and religion itself was above all the Constitutional Law of society."

Saving the nation

With the political pressures of recent centuries, the lack of focus on politics was contested, but Salafism, for example, was in its 19th-century origins far more concerned with saving individual souls than saving the "nation." Despite his assertion of Muslim independence against Western colonialism and dislike of "subservient" Muslim rulers like the Shah, Jamal El-Din Afghani wrote very little in detail about politics.

Ikhwan moved only gradually from social preaching towards direct involvement in politics. Hassan al-Banna never attempted to establish a political party. In Islam, the People and the State, Sami Zubaida wrote of al-Banna that he "strongly objected to political parties, arguing that they represent sectional and egoistic interests which divide and corrupt the body politic of the umma. The social and economic program for such a regime is even more rudimentary and vague than the political thought." Hence the notion that the whole of a political system should be sharia-compliant is a recent one.

Tensions between sects

If that is religion, what of politics? Unfortunately, it is easy when surveying the current Middle East to conflate religion and sectarianism. The tensions between sects in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion is documented through the personal reportage of Nir Rosen in his massive Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Middle East. Rosen charts the Shia-Sunni conflict that emerged after 2003, when he began reporting in Iraq, and he goes on to visit Lebanon and Afghanistan and describes some of the effects, or perhaps overspill, from Iraq in inciting sectarianism, especially among militants. Over many years, Rosen has not just broken with the prevalent currents in western media coverage but successfully found publishers who value his approach.

His commitment to remaining independent leads to a reluctance to analyze or use secondary sources, and this means he has little explanation of the role of the Arab Sunni establishment, especially the Saudis, or indeed of Iran in stirring the pot, consciously or not. Neither does he look into the ways Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party had incited sectarianism as tool of state power and so left a ticking social bomb.

For sure, this is a complicated area that merits more examination. Growing attention to the danger of Iran may be in part a maneuver of the ruling elite but it is nonetheless finding a popular echo. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained very popular in the Zogby International poll of the Arab world until 2009, when Nasrallah dropped from 27 percent to 6 and Ahmadinejad from 17 percent to 6 percent in answers to the question "Which world leader outside your own country do you most admire?"

Presumably this resulted from Hezbollah's assertion in 2008 of its military prowess in west Beirut and, perhaps to a lesser extent, from the impotence of both Iran and Hezbollah as Israel obliterated much of Gaza. The deadlock in Lebanon over the U.N. tribunal into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005, or even the popular unrest in Bahrain, may further undermine the standing of Shia leaders in the Sunni world.

The staking out of political positions on narrowly sectarian lines -- whether over Syria, Lebanon, or Bahrain -- runs against the universal aspirations of the Arab spring. But such closing down of debate and even violence cannot be justified convincingly, scholars like Arjomand tell us, in the name of Islam. It would seem reformers have little to fear from God.

Gareth Smyth has worked as a journalist in the Middle East since 1992. Nader Diab is research associate at Right to Nonviolence and is reading law at the Lebanese University, Beirut. Photos of Jamkaran by Babak Sarfaraz, 2008.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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