With fervent fundamentalists of the Sunni and Shia stripe battling each other in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, sectarianism has become a buzzword for those watching the Middle East. To examine the roots of this worldwide sectarian war, it is important to reconsider Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future. Although the book was published almost 10 years ago, it’s a drop in the bucket when examining a 1,500 year-old conflict. Moreover, Nasr, a prolific writer and foremost expert of Shi’ism, is the authoritarian source to consult on this matter.
Nasr starts with a brief history of Shi’ism, starting at the very beginning of the schism. The divide in Islam can be traced back to the passing over of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, for the role of Caliph, as well as his later assassination. The murder of Husayn—the Prophet’s grandson—by the hated Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Karbala, was the final nail in the coffin. The Shia believed that Caliphate should have passed to the Prophet’s family all along and with the blood of the Prophet’s family spilled, the Shia retreated and formed their own communities under the leadership of the Imams.
For centuries the Shia remained a persecuted minority, a few Shia dynasties came and went, and for the most part the history of Islam was one of Sunnism. That changed with the first great Shia political revolution, the rise of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia in the 16th century. The Safavids converted most of modern-day Iran to Shi’ism, they accepted a partial pledge of fealty from the ulama (clerics), and the ulama flourished and evolved into the modern ayatollahs. The second Shia political revolution came when one such ayatollah, Ayatollah Khomeini, influenced by Sunni fundamentalism and political Islamist thought, overthrew the weakened Iranian monarchy and established a new Islamic Republic in 1979. He called his rule velayat-e-faqih or “guardianship of the jurist.” Shias the world over felt reverberations from the revolution, but the main results of the velayat remained in Iran.
The final Shia political revolution, what Nasr dubs “The Shia Revival,” came about accidentally with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The United States removal of the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein from power and the call for democracy opened the door for the persecuted Shia majority to take power. Ayatollah Sistani rose to prominence, quietly preaching a more reserved role for the ulama as teachers and defenders of the faith rather than the rulers. Most importantly he advocated for a radical policy, one that would ensure Shia dominance in Iraq: one person, one vote. With this democratic principle, a united Shia front took power in Iraq and their success resonated across the region, leading to similar methods being tried in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia by the time the book is published in 2007.
In some ways Nasr’s predications are eerily accurate. The democratic principles and the spirit of empowerment that Nasr sees in Iraqi Shias in 2007 would lead Iranians to protest election results in 2009, Bahrainis to revolt in 2011, and Yemeni Zaydis to seize power in 2015. The fear Nasr predicted this would spark in Sunnis led to the disintegration of Iraq and Syria and the funding of extremists in Syria and Yemen by Sunni states around the world. By revealing a perspective that is too often ignored in the world of Sunni/Arab-centric experts of the Middle East, Nasr—a Persian Shia—sees what others gloss over as unimportant in the grand scheme of history.
There are points, however, where Nasr overplays his hand. Take for example his assessment of Ayatollah Khomeini. For Nasr, Khomeini was a Sunnified Shia, a cleric who, having been oppressed by Sunni fundamentalists for so long, took on their characteristics. The litigious and rigid nature of Sunni fundamentalists and Islamists was antithetical to the spirit of freedom and mysticism that permeated Shiism. Yet Nasr fails to connect the belief that the ulama, along with saints and blood descendants of the Prophet, were successors to the Twelfth Imam and therefore God’s intermediaries with the potential for that authority to naturally evolve into political authoritarianism.
In casting the Sunni-Shia schism as a 1,500 year conflict which constantly pits the two ideals at odds, he ignores the tradition of coexistence in many parts of the Muslim world and plays into the worst Western stereotypes. Take for example Syria where on the communal level, Sunnis, Shias, and Christians lived together peacefully for centuries. It was only with the emergence of the French colonial doctrine of “divide and rule” that the disenfranchised Sunnis began to battle the empowered Shia. Nasr alludes to this aspect of the schism, saying “theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so today’s concerns with power.” But this fact gets drowned out in the waves of information on the differences between Shias and Sunnis. It is the power-hungry leaders of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other nations that are informing popular sentiment, not the other way around.
Despite these two caveats, Nasr’s The Shia Revival is an excellent history of the Sunni-Shia conflict, one which will illuminate both experts and novices to Islamic history even nine years on. By challenging the Sunni-centric hegemony of the establishment of Middle East experts, Nasr performed a great service to his field with this book.