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  • The Shi͑ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism and Hizbullah’s Islamists by Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab
  • Jehan Saleh Al-Azzawi
The Shi͑ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism and Hizbullah’s Islamists, by Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, 2014. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, xxxvi + 350 pp., ills., $49.95. isbn: 978-0-81563-372-3 (hbk).

In The Shi͑ites of Lebanon, the Abisaabs provide an important corrective to the modern history of the Lebanese Shi͑a, which brings to the fore this community’s historical association with the Lebanese left, and communism in particular. The relationship between communism and the Shi͑a is well known to scholars of Lebanon’s Shi͑a, but has not previously been subject to the detailed analysis provided by this book. The book highlights the formative role played by secular ideologies in the political mobilisation of the Lebanese Shi͑a, which predated the activities of the more well-known Shi͑i political actors: Imam Mūsā Ṣadr, Amal, and Ḥizbullāh. The most significant and intriguing contribution of this book is its analysis of the transnational interrelationship and intellectual exchange between communism and Islamism, which took place at the heart of Shi͑ism – in the religious seminaries (ḥawzah) of Lebanon and Iraq.

The rationale for the book is based on a significant claim about the status of scholarship on Lebanon in general, which is that the role played by secular actors in both the public and private spheres of the Lebanese has largely been rendered peripheral and inconsequential. The authors argue that Islamist approaches to communism and religious modernism have also been overlooked, particularly the role played by secular ideas and processes in shaping these phenomena. The book proposes to revisit sectarianism, the Lebanese state, and the Shi͑i community’s relationship to it by viewing the secular and religious spheres as an overlaying, interactive space. In so doing, the Abisaabs provide a nuanced analysis of the meaning of secularism, as well as new insights into the origins of clerical opposition to communism. [End Page 109]

In examining the interplay between communism and Islamism, the Abisaabs reject the conventional binaries associated with secularism and Islamism to make way for the influence of modernist ideas over both. Thus, secularism does not automatically denote a non-religious disposition. Likewise, Islamism does not always denote a return to a distant, idealised past. For the communist Shi͑a, secularism means the privatisation of religion and anti-clericalism. Neither the Lebanese Communist Party, nor the Iraqi Communist Party adopted atheism as a primary theoretical commitment, and they did not seriously attempt to implement it. On the contrary, the Abisaabs argue that ‘Shi͑ite communists expressed varied engagements with religion, drawing links between Marxism, Shi͑ite doctrinal and eschatological traditions’ (83). In Iraq, where most forms of public gatherings were banned, the communists frequently utilised Ashura rallies to communicate their leftist ideas. The Abisaabs argue that this was not mere opportunism on the part of the communists but rather a practical adaptation to the local (Shi͑i) culture. Thus, communism was not just a programme for secular political change and economic improvement, but also a moral system resonating with Shi͑i emancipatory and spiritual symbolisms (51).

The Shi͑ites of Lebanon begins with a historical overview of the Shi͑i community’s political development under the Ottoman Empire and early colonial period. The authors highlight the ambivalence with which the Shi͑a greeted the imposition of ‘Grand Liban’ (1918-20), which marginalised the Shi͑a in political, social, and economic terms. The Abisaabs also draw attention to the impact of Britain’s colonisation of Palestine, which was felt strongly among the southern Shi͑a, who sympathised with the Palestinians’ experience of dispossession. The Palestinian factor becomes an important component of the Shi͑i community’s attachment to both the communists and Islamists later in the book.

In Chapters 2 and 3, the Abisaabs link the appeal of communism among the Shi͑a to a variety of local, regional, and international factors. In particular, they emphasise the impact of modernisation processes on the local Shi͑i economy and educational institutions. The harsh working conditions and...