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  • Lebanon:Untangling the Web
  • David S. Sorenson (bio)
In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi'ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon, by Max Weiss . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. $39.95.
Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon, by Tim Llewellyn . Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010. $16.95.
A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, by Thanassis Cambanis . New York: The Free Press, 2010. $27.
Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis, ed. by Barry Rubin . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. $30.

As revolutionary transformation swept through much of the Arab world in the spring of 2011, Lebanon stood out due to its absence from the headlines. There were no riots, no security forces massed, and no head of state on a plane headed for Saudi Arabia. Instead, after a few tense weeks of indecision and vacillation, Prime Minister Sa'd Hariri stepped down in January after Hizbullah engineered a loss of his parliamentary majority, and a new prime minister sat down in Hariri's former office and then reconvened Parliament. Even veteran observers of Lebanon were probably surprised, but Lebanon's very complexities and chameleon character has duped even Lebanese leaders. So, can anybody untangle Lebanon's interactive web of sectarian history, foreign influences, and lively, if often tragic, past? The four books reviewed here offer differing but useful insights into how Lebanon's past is bound to its present and the challenges that flow from its demographics, its location, and the power and vulnerabilities of its neighbors.

Max Weiss' In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi'ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon, a magisterial work on the Lebanese Shi'a challenges with Lebanon's sectarian identity, notes early in the book the traditional dilemma for Lebanon's Shi'a: "Yes, the Shi'a don't believe in sectarianism as an end in itself, but they believe in Lebanon ... so if they speak of sectarianism, and make demands in its name, they do so as a means of applying the constitution that stipulates it" (p. 2).

At the core of Weiss' book is the establishment of the Ja'fari court system. As Weiss argues, the Ottoman-imposed 1843 dual qa'immaqqamiyya (proportional confessional representation) was a major step in institutionalizing Lebanese sectarianism and employing it, as the French did later, for political ends, carving out Jabal 'Amil and the Beqa' Valley as Shi'a spaces. Under the new Lebanese rubric, Christians, favored by their French protectors, adapted more dexterously to modernity than did the Lebanese Shi'a, though Lebanese historiography also helped to marginalize their pace, as Weiss aptly demonstrates in his discussion of the orientalist misconceptions about Shi'a origins and narratives. Yet one path to modernity is the establishment of a court system, to remove disputes from tribal and family justice, and thus the founding of Ja'fari courts (named after the most significant form [End Page 501] of Shi'a law). Jabal 'Amil was an appropriate place to incubate such institutions, given the depth of the argument over the question of Ashura lamentations that occurred in the area during the 1920s and 1930s. Jabal 'Amil Shi'a scholars and clerics dissected the ritualistic practices of cutting (self-flagellation), portraying Islamic women notables, and weeping in a way that demonstrates the capacity for argumentation appropriate for the foundations of a court system. Perhaps more significantly, the dialogues revealed the discourse between public behavior mandated by clerics and personal choice on matters of religious practice, and the efforts by such clerics to, as Weiss puts it, "protect Shi'a identity and their own leverage over the lay population" (p. 88).

Weiss demonstrates that the establishment of the Ja'fari court system depended on the 19th century institutionalization of the marja'iyya (Shi'a scholars chosen for religious emulation), which elevated a previously informal and local process to the state level. That process also empowered French colonial recognition of Shi'a Ja'fari courts in Mandate Lebanon, partly in the hope that they would infuse sectarian modernity. This allowed the Ja'fari courts to become the "official face" of the Lebanese Shi'a community even as the...


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pp. 501-506
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