- The Emergence of Modern Shi’ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran by Zachary M. Heern
The Emergence of Modern Shi’ism derives from a University of Utah 2011 PhD dissertation on the Usuli variant of Twelver Shi‘i Islam. The author took up the challenge of trying to situate Usulism, particularly as associated with the figure of the Isfahan-born Vahid Behbehani (d. 1791), within “a global context” (p. xiii), in the process adding and deleting much from the original.
Chapters 1–3 set out the background methodology and historical context.
In the first chapter Heern argues that the traditional notions of “modernity” are overly “Eurocentric” in nature (p. 23), unsuitable for discussion of the Islamic movements of the 18th century, including Idrisid Sufism and Wahhabism. One must, he argues, allow for “multiple modernities” (p. 24).
Chapter 2 recaps the religious terrain of Safavid Iran, noting that Usulism was in intellectual competition with Akhbarism, Illuminationism and exaggerated (ghuluww) Shi‘ism. Akhbaris “charged [Usulis] with adopting Sunni methods of jurisprudence, maintained a reliance on the texts (16)” and held that Usuli use of ijtihād (independent reasoning) produced only “conjectural knowledge” (p. 17; also p. 45). Citing the example of Mohammad Baqer Maljesi (d. 1699), Heern argues that as central authority weakened clerics began to create “a powerbase outside the state” (p. 47). He refers to the 1722 fall of the Safavids and the rise and rule of Nader Shah (d. 1747). In these years many clerics fled to the Iraqi Shi‘i shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Chapter 3 portrays 18th century Iraq as heavily tribal and outside the control of the Ottoman center in Istanbul. By the century’s later years, the two shrine cities were even outside the control of the provincial capital of Baghdad. This independence allowed “the rise of the Usuli movement” (p. 63). [End Page 349]
Chapters 4–6 look at the rise of what Heern calls neo-Usuli discourse among the first generation of its scholars. Chapter 4 focuses on Behbehani himself, noting that in the Safavid period the Akhbari/Usuli “debate” was mainly an “intellectual” one, absent any violence. Heern discusses Behbehani’s early life, his arrival in Karbala in the 1760s, his recruitment of students, his maintenance of Iranian connections and his confrontation with the Akhbari Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772). The latter’s death and the onset of plague created a vacuum in which Behbehani’s uses of takfir (the pronouncing someone as an infidel), “mafia-type ruffians” and executions dealt a “serious blow” (p. 82) to Akhbarism.
Chapter 5 addresses the Iraqi and Iranian networks developed by Behbehani. Heern argues that “one of the primary reasons for the longevity of the Usuli school…is the network of disciples” who became so powerful in both countries. The move of Behbehani’s followers back to Iran reversed the post-1722 flow of Iranians to Iraq. In Iran these granted de facto legitimacy to the Qajars but upheld their de jure illegitimacy (p. 91). Heern lists Behbehani’s Iraq- and Iran-based students and notes they “revived and reformed” such concepts as niyaba ‘amma (the general deputyship of the cleric during the absence of the Hidden Imam). This, and their own networks, gave these figures practical independence from contemporary political institutions.
Chapter 6 outlines the methodology by which Behbehani argued for the authority of the mujtahid (practitioner of ijtihad) as the interpreter of the Qur’an, the hadith, consensus (ijma‘) and reason (‘aql). Behbehani questioned the authority of many hadith texts and the literal reading of Qur’an and the hadith, thereby undermining Akhbari discourse and arguing that it resulted in takfir (113). This ruling legitimized a sometimes-violent anti-Akhbari campaign that cemented Usuli control over both the Iranian and southern Iraqi spheres of religious discourse, economic and political activity.
The final chapter compares Behbehani’s Usulism with the contemporary movements of Wahhabism and neo-Sufism to argue these are the key enduring trends in modern Islam. Heern notes that...