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Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest by Hamid Dabashi (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 347-354 | 10.1353/isl.2013.0023

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I once met a lady of Shi‘a extraction who swore that Shi‘a fast during the month of Ramadan to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam ‘Ali. A practising Shi‘a myself, I politely suggested that the ‘real’ reason that Shi‘a fast is because the Qur’an says to do so, and I pointed out that Muslims had been fasting long before the martyrdom of Imam ‘Ali. However, she was unconvinced; this is what she had gleaned from her childhood, and now, at the age of forty, this is what she believed. Plus, she insisted, she knew Shi‘ism better than I since she was Iranian, and I am not.

Apart from being mildly entertaining, this anecdote raises the serious question of who has the right to define the soul of a religion. Certainly, everyone’s personal perspective is legitimate in terms of being their own personal perspective; however, not everyone’s personal perspective can be said to be shared. This question is central to any discussion of Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest, in that the author, Hamid Dabashi, presents very creative and unique interpretations of Shi‘ism; as he puts it, he aims to ‘discuss Shi’ism in a language and latitude, tone and trajectory, yet unheard of’ to cross the ‘rigid boundaries between the sanctimonious and sacrilegious’ (xvii). This, he undeniably does, particularly with regards to ‘unheard of’ and ‘sacrilegious’. I respect the validity of his worldview as one of many understandings of Shi‘ism, and I suspect it will resonate with a minority of Shi‘a – a secularized bourgeoisie who grew up when Marxism was in fashion and can quote Waiting for Godot. Nonetheless, I would question whether the majority of the world’s Shi‘a, past or present, would actually see themselves in his portrayals.

To give credit where credit is due, Dabashi’s childhood recollections of popular Shi‘a piety in Ahvaz are thoughtful and of human interest, although I was slightly concerned when he termed some of them ‘half-remembered’ or even ‘imagined’ (26). As a Muslim, I am always curious to hear how other Muslims live their faith; and, as a Shi‘a, I could relate to the apparent paradox of enjoying religious ceremonies that are supposed to be sorrowful. I also found his speculations that East African customs had influenced Ahvaz’s ‘Ashura traditions (4) to be most plausible. The other area where he shines is when he discusses pre-Revolutionary twentieth century Iran, particularly when he discusses how, among some of his generation, Shi‘ism became intermingled with Marxism (3). His observations on how the American agenda in the Middle East affects the production of knowledge on Shi‘ism in the American academy are also astute. And so, were this book meant to be a memoir, or a study of contemporary Iran, I would have declared it a job well done and ended the review here.

However, the problem is that the book is not presented as a book on Iran; instead, it is presented as a book on Shi‘ism. By far, my central objection to the book is the unspoken assumption that Shi‘ism is Iranian, and, hence, anything Iranian is relevant to Shi‘ism. From the beginning, where he talks about the possible Zoroastrian origins of some popular Iranian ritual expression (9), to the end, where he concludes with the Green Movement, the book is essentially about Iran. Non-Iranians are discussed infrequently and through the lens of the paradigm which he develops from his interpretation of Iranian Shi‘ism. Since every Shi‘a region has its own characteristic approach to Shi‘ism, and Iran is no different, a paradigm drawn from Iran should not be assumed to apply to all other Shi‘a. The focus on Iran is also communicated more subtly, such as by providing Persian transliteration of Arabic names (like ‘Mokhtar Saqafi’) and by a preference for quoting classical authors who wrote in Persian. And by declaring the Safavid period as the ‘normative’ period of Shi‘ism (24) – even though the Safavids did a great many things that cannot really considered ‘normative’ – and by reducing the pre-Safavid scholarly tradition to a ‘handful...



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