Shi‘i Theology in Iran: The challenge of religious experience by Ori Goldberg, 2012. (Culture and Civilization in the Middle East) London: Routledge, 229 pp., £80.00. ISBN 978-0-415-66423-3.
There is much interesting material in this book, but it mainly resides in what is reproduced from the Shi‘a and other religious thinkers who are discussed. The author is wedded to postmodern approaches to the study of religion, and this has some unfortunate consequences. This is not the place to debate those approaches, and clearly this reviewer is not in sympathy with those approaches, but it is the place to ask the question as to how useful the sorts of comments that the author makes are. He takes some relatively standard theological remarks in Islamic thought and succeeds in mystifying them. He brings in a range of non-Muslim thinkers and compares them with the Islamic theologians but the purpose of this is really obscure. I have no objection at all to what he says about Hans Urs von Balthassar or Rabbi Nachman of Breslav or Shagar or Barth, but what light they have to throw on Khumayni, Mutahhari, and Shabistari totally escapes me. The book has very much the flavour of a PhD dissertation, unfortunately an unrevised one, and I found it disappointing.
One excellent feature of the book is its determination to see Islamic theology as more than just a reflection of the hackneyed modernity vs. tradition dichotomy, so its heart is in the right place. It is also well situated within its particular Iranian context, with an acute purview of the cultural and political context within which its main thinkers operated. Goldberg is certainly right in thinking that transcendence is the key issue of Islamic theology, as it is in the theologies of the other Abrahamic religions, and the ways in which the gap between the human and the divine is resolved is clearly of immense significance for every religious thinker in Islam. It comes clearly into the texts he discusses, as do issues of how belief in God affects our actions, and relationships with others. He sees there as being a typical trajectory in Shi‘a thought which starts with crisis, moves onto anxiety and awe, and then ends with faith. This is certainly how many modern religious thinkers in the other [End Page 367] Abrahamic religions operate, but the Shi‘a theological passages he uses here seem to me to actually start with faith, and show how the various discordances which may be experienced as a result of trying to reconcile that faith with the other factors of the modern world can be reconciled and translated into human action. The trouble with the language of postmodern hermeneutics is that it is so loose and vague that it appears to be able to cover any particular theological discussion while in fact throwing light on very little. It also has a rather dramatic tone which seems to me to contrast with the language of Shi‘a theology, in particular the theology of the thinkers considered here, who certainly do not see the world as devoid of God’s presence and who do not regard theological language as paradoxical or even as especially problematic. The crisis in religious belief that has affected the religious theologies of Judaism and Christianity has not to the same degree characterized Islamic thought as yet, although it is difficult to believe that it will not in due course have an impact there also, and the problem with using postmodern hermeneutics for Islam is that it seeks to deal with an issue that has not yet arisen, and so is hardly very compelling. The author just assumes that the same problems that many Jews and Christians have with their religion is shared by Muslims, but certainly the authors he quotes do not apparently have those problems, from the evidence of their writings, so it is difficult to see what useful purpose there can be in the comparison.
University of Kentucky, Lexington, United States
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