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The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule 1516-1788 (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 4, Autumn 2012
pp. 505-510 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0061

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The early modern history of the Shi'ias in what is today Lebanon and Syria has been a daunting lacuna for scholars of Shi'ism. This has been the case due to a widely held belief, which I myself have shared, in a debilitating dearth of sources. The task has been made all the more difficult due to the fact that much of the extant sources are heavily distorted by their authors' ideological prerogatives and trope-ridden nature. Stefan Winter's The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1788 is an important contribution to the study of Shi'ism which fills a gap in the literature. The work is made all the more important by the fact that Winter has examined a time and place usually examined through the lens of - or with a view to perpetuating - either the creation myths of a Druze-Maronite Lebanese polity or the trope of Ottoman persecution of Shi'ias. Winter's work moves beyond both of these myths by showing, on one hand, that the Shi'ias were the first group to unify much of modern Lebanon as a political unit and, on the other hand, that the Ottomans had neither a single policy towards Shi'ias nor was persecution their chief interest in decision making regarding the sect.

The thesis of the book is that the Shi'ias in Western Syria were very much a part of the social, political, and economic milieu of Mount Lebanon and its environs. Furthermore, their integration was not despite formal Ottoman policies against Shi'ism. Instead, certain features of Ottoman practices of power and of the Shi'a tribes meant the latter were actually favourable candidates for integration into local Ottoman administration. The Shi'as acted as tax collectors and administrators on behalf of the Ottoman authorities, were embroiled in the intra-confessional disputes of their Maronite and Druze neighbours, and generally played a far greater role than scholarship has given them in the early-modern history of Lebanon. Views to the contrary, according to Winter, are predicated on a variety of misunderstandings and ideologically motivated distortions and silencings.

Winter's book details the history of the Shi'a community in Western Syria from an Ottoman administrative perspective. His sources for the study are Ottoman administrative documents for Syrian provinces consisting of decrees compiled in Muhimmme Defterleri, Ottoman fiscal and tax records (Maliyeden Mudevver and Tahrir Defterleri, respectively), a limited use of complaints registers (Sikayet Defterleri), Sharia court registers from Tripoli and Sidon, French consular reports from Tripoli and Sidon, as well as travelogues and contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles.

Winter avoids much modern historiography, often referring to it in order to analyse his findings. As shall be shown below, the Lebanist and Shi'a views of history are both predicated, according to Winter, on mythologized histories and actually do more to reinforce one another than serve as opposing truths. By looking at how things occurred on the ground, as recorded in official documents, Winter shows the disjuncture between the Ottoman theory and rhetoric vis-à-vis the Shi'as, on one hand, and Ottoman pragmatism arising out of the need to maintain authority in the provinces and to collect tax revenues, on the other.

The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule begins by showing how the needs of the centralizing state eroded the Ottomans' initial tolerance of 'confessional ambiguity' (12). Tolerance of the Shi'as was further damaged, at least in theory, by the emergence of the Safavids through the previously Ottoman-based Kizilbash tribes. It is in the context of rivalry with the Safavids that a formal anti-Shi'a rhetoric emerged on the part of the Ottomans (15). Winter analyses the principle legal documents used for justifying the persecution of the Shi'a Kizilbash, namely, the fatwas of Ebu-Suud Effendi (d. 1574). Winter shows that despite the apparent severity of the fatwas - they declare that 'spilling Kizilbash blood is licit' (16) - the legal discourse actually provided leeway for the application of these rulings by subsequent scholars. After this initial exposition, the overarching theme in the remainder of the work is the demonstration that the religious ideology captured in Ebu-Suud's view...

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