Hey! Randy

The Shia Revival

Posted by heyrandy on October 13, 2008

The Shia Revival How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, Vali Nasr, W.W. Norton, New York, 2007.  310 pages, index, end notes.

The subtitle is really the essence of the book: the 1300 year old conflict between the two main divisions of Islam will shape the future of not only Islam but also that of much of the rest of the world.  Events in the Middle East as well as the “War On Terror” (such as it is) have brought Islam to the attention of many in the West.  Until recently, in this country Islam was only vaguely known. There is still much that is unknown by westerners about Islam, and much of what is known is not well understood.  The divisions within Islam are as profound and deep as any in Christianity.

Nasr begins the book with a survey of Islamic history.  It seems that Islam was designed to divide.  The founder of Islam, Mohammad, did not leave any instructions as to how his successor should be chosen.  Nor did he leave any surviving male heirs.  The only direction Mohammad gave was that the Muslim community would not err when it collectively decided upon something.  It seems that Mohammad erred in this belief.  The community was very divided about the succession of Mohammad.  This division resulted in the major division of Islam into the rival Sunni and Shiite camps.

The issue of succession is only the beginning of the differences between the two groups.  It seems that the Shia are much more given to pageants, shrines and ceremonies than the Sunnis.  These practices have lead the Sunnis to regard the Shia as either misguided brothers to be gently corrected and brought back to the pure Islam of the Sunnis or arrant apostates and heretics to be destroyed.  This has lead to periodic pogroms of the Shia in the area dominated by the Sunni.

There is little chance of a major reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shia, the two major sects.  Their differences are severe, their customs too diverse.  The Shia seem to tolerate the Sunnis better than the Sunnis tolerate the Shias.  In the history of Islam, the Shia have always been the minority.  The Shias have always been considered not pure Muslims.

It is the major goal of the author to present the Shia as not representing the major threat to the West.  The author believes that it is the Sunnis who will be the real problem the West must face.  He points to the only elected government in the region of Iraq: Iran.  Iran is the Shia’s stronghold.  Iran is the only major country where Shia dominate.  It also the only country where a President stepped down at the end of his term in office and lives in peace in his own house inside Iran.

As the book’s title implies, the Shia are poised for a major revival.  The author thinks that the three major factors in this revival are the emergence of Iran as a major (i.e., the major) regional power; the Shia majority in Iraq; and the empowerment of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and the UAE.  He is probably right.  Just what this does for the stability of the region, Western interests (oil, what else?), and “the war on terror” is not mentioned.

This book will be useful to all who seek to understand the events in Iraq and Iran.

Author, an Iranian (a Shia, perhaps?) educated in U.S. (Ph.D. Harvard), teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an Adjunct Fellow at CFR.

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One Response to “The Shia Revival”

  1. slacker said

    How precisely is the claim that Shia’s are not the major “problem” for “The West” founded? Realistically they have no real reason to love westerners as far as I can tell; are they not as fractious and tribalistic as everyone else in that region?

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