Worm in the Sunni
The Shi'a Revival by Vali Nasr
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Typical Western reference points for the Muslim world harp
on such themes as authoritarianism, fundamentalism and
women's rights but miss the basic fault line of
sectarianism. Iranian scholar Vali Nasr's new book shatters
this myopia through a masterly analysis of Shi'ite-Sunni
rivalries that go back to the founding days of Islam and are
currently playing out in the blood-stained streets of
Pakistan and Iraq. Its central thesis is that the Shi'ite
challenge to Sunni dominance will reorder the future of the
Middle East and South Asia.
The book opens with Nasr's visit to the headquarters of
Pakistan's Sunni-fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami in 2003,
just after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The
Jamaatis were aghast to watch on television defiant and
jubilant Shi'ites near Imam Husayn's shrine in Karbala. The
Iraqi Shi'ite challenge to Sunni power and monopoly of what
it means to be a "true" Muslim opened fresh sectarian wounds
periods of co-existence, Sunni-Shi'ite antagonism has lasted
long and retains urgency in the form of a contemporary clash
of identities. It is "a very old, very modern conflict" (p
The war in Iraq threatens the millennium-long ownership of
the Muslim world by Sunni establishments operating from
"power towns" such as Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. For
centuries, Sunni popular prejudices and stereotypes of
Shi'ites and their "wrongheaded" Islam have generated an
iniquitous distribution of power. In Lebanon, Shi'ites are
ridiculed for "low-class, tasteless and vulgar ways". In
Saudi Arabia, shaking hands with a Shi'ite is considered
polluting, necessitating ablutions. In Pakistan, Shi'ites
are dehumanized as "mosquitoes". Violent Sunni extremism
breeds on anti-Shi'ite bias that is neither imaginary nor
irrelevant. Nasr warns against papering over genuine cracks
in the name of pan-Islamic unity.
The actual bones of Shi'ite-Sunni contention are control of
state resources and wealth along communal lines. Prophet
Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, is the font of
spirituality for the Shi'ites, who claim that the former
anointed the latter as his successor at Ghadir Khumm.
Initial usurpation of Ali's right to govern by the caliphs
Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman is an affront to Shi'ite notions of
ideal Islamic leadership. The martyrdom of Ali's son Husayn
at the hands of Yazid in the battle of Karbala (AD 680) is
confirmation to Shi'ites that the Umayyad and Abbasid
caliphates were illegitimate and oppressive. The Husayn
story is often invoked to define Shi'ite troubles in modern
times. Saddam Hussein is, for instance, likened to Yazid.
Shi'ism's ideal is fighting for security against Sunni
Shi'ites are not content with Sunni-style dutiful observance
of laws. They emphasize rituals associated with charismatic
imams and saints who are intermediaries for healing,
blessing and forgiveness. They love visual imagery and
accord a higher status to women in piety, characteristics
that anger puritanical Sunnis.
The fear of revolts that Shi'ite imams instilled in the
Sunni caliphs was met with persecution, imprisonment and
killings of members of Islam's minority sect. Condemned as
"the enemy within" and as "rejecters of the Truth" (rafidis),
Shi'ites were branded as "a bigger threat to 'true' Islam
than Christianity and Judaism" (p 54). Blaming Shi'ites for
the decline of Sunni worldly power was the norm. For
survival, ordinary Shi'ites had to hide their affiliations (taqqiya),
and their imams escaped to Iran and India to seek refuge.
The sufferings of the imams lie at the heart of the Shi'ite
version of martyrdom (shahadat). Unless Sufism
intervened in Sunni societies, tolerance for Shi'ites was
Shi'ism tasted political power for the first time in the
16th century when the Safavids, who traced their ancestry to
the seventh Shi'ite imam, consolidated their reign in Iran.
They competed with the Sunni Ottomans for control of the
Muslim heartland and patronized Shi'ite culture and
learning. Shi'ite ulama attached themselves closely
to the Safavids as landowners and courtiers and received
elevation in status. It is unsurprising that when Saddam
Hussein fell in Iraq, Shi'ite clerics emerged as the real
Shi'ism underwent schisms over time and space into various
offshoots such as Zaydis (Yemen), Ismailis (India, Egypt and
Afghanistan), Druze (Lebanon), Yazidis (Iraq) and Alawis
(Syria). Its spread was "inevitably tied to the way the
faith has fared in the halls of power" (p 79). Wherever
Shi'ite dynasties ruled, they shielded their flock from
Sunni discrimination and assault. Once the Safavids fell in
1722, Shi'ites could not sustain their political
confrontation with Sunni preponderance.
The rise of modern states fostered secular trends among
middle- and upper-class Shi'ites in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and
Pakistan. Urbanization loosened the grip of tribal leaders
and motivated the masses to demand a direct voice in
politics. Turbaned Shi'ite ulama such as Hezbollah's
Hassan Nasrallah and the Azeri Abol-Qasem al-Khoi benefited
from this radicalization and became prominent. After World
War I, Shi'ites also embraced nationalism, imagining a
community where sectarian divisions would not matter. This
proved to be an illusion, as old institutionalized
viciousness against Shi'ites continued under the guise of
Arab nationalism and secularism. Discarded as disloyal
agents of Iran, Shi'ites remained quasi-outsiders, "an
undesirable and heathen minority" who were never admitted
into bureaucracies or officer corps of Sunni-ruled states.
Sunni fundamentalism lent new intensity to the anti-Shi'ite
bias. Condemnation of Shi'ism was a part of the Saudi-led
revivalist project of regaining lost Sunni glories. Jihadis
in Afghanistan and Kashmir were viscerally anti-Shi'ite.
Massacring Shi'ites in Gilgit was a "practice run for
attacks on India in Srinagar" (p 160). The polemics of even
Sunni modernizers was openly anti-Shi'ite in Arab countries
and Pakistan. "Sunnification of the political sphere"
renewed repression of Shi'ites in the late 20th century.
Once Shi'ites abandoned their blind subservience to the Arab
cause and organized their own militias and parties, Sunni
suspicion of their "treason" worsened. Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini's 1979 revolution in Iran rang big alarm bells for
Sunni fanatics by converting Shi'ite ulama into the
ruling class of a state. Sunnis did not buy Khomeini's
attempt to be the paladin of a global Islamic awakening.
Incensed by Tehran's support for Shi'ite demonstrations,
riots and militant movements against Sunni ruling regimes,
"they saw mostly Shi'a mischief and a threat to Sunni
predominance" (p 144). Khomeini's frontal face off with
Saudi Arabia was framed as a "Shi'a plot" to take over Mecca
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was "a Sunni-Shi'a sectarian war
cast in national terms" (p 141). The Saudi-Pakistani
strategic relationship that underwrote the Taliban and
jihadis in Kashmir was formed to "eliminate Iran's
ideological influence" (p 157). Pakistan's state-financed
"green fundamentalism" eulogized Sunni caliphs who killed
Husayn and damned the Shi'ite festival of Ashoura as a
heathen spectacle. Since 1989, Sunni-Shi'ite violence in
Pakistan has claimed more than 4,000 lives as the "lines
between jihad within (against Shi'as) and jihad outside (in
Afghanistan and Kashmir) blurred" (p 167).
Sunni anxiety deepened in the face of recent gains by
Shi'ites in Iraq that changed the sectarian balance of
power. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's moderate style set the
tone for Shi'ite ascendancy based on shared identity of
millions of Iraqis, Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and
Afghans. Nasr argues that a transnational Shi'ite consensus
is forming around the need to defend their power and
identity. This is being enhanced under the onslaught of
Sunni terror in Iraq. Today, Shi'ites demand more and get it
through the democratic ballot box. Although pluralism within
Shi'ite ranks exists, "there is a basic shared vision of
regional Shi'a interests" reflected in the "Nasrallah-Sistani-Khamenei
axis" (p 184). Illuminating the broadness of this vision,
Sistani's aide, Ahmad al-Safi, dared the ulama of al-Azhar
in Egypt (citadel of Sunni beliefs) to break their silence
and condemn the insurgency in Iraq.
Iran's present-day political and clerical brass are more
anti-Sunni and anti-Wahhabi than usual and see opposing
Sunni hegemonism as central to Tehran's regional ambitions.
Riyadh, Amman and Kuwait (but not Damascus) have their
national interests aligned with the Sunni insurgency's goal
of wrecking the Shi'ite-led Iraqi state. The breadth of the
al-Qaeda in Iraq network attests to the regionwide web of
Sunni linkages. Despite US accusations, Nasr portrays
Syria's Alawi leadership as a victim (not facilitator) of
the growing Sunni extremism in Iraq.
A primary source of conflict in South Asia and the Middle
East is sectarian, underlined by unequal allocation of power
and resources that do not square with demographic realities.
Nasr's forecast is that the worm in the Sunni apple, Shi'ism,
will build on the grievances of its past suppression and
cannot be prevented from getting its due share. The dust
from the sectarian war will not settle until the underdogs,
the Shi'ites, obtain justice.
The Shi'a Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape
the Future by Vali Nasr. W W Norton, 2006, New York.
ISBN: 0-393-06211-2. Price US$25.95, 287 pages.
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