the second largest branch of Islam, Shiites currently account for 10–15% of all Muslims. Shiite Islam originated as a political movement supporting Ali (cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam) as the rightful leader of the Islamic state. The legitimacy of this claim, as initially envisioned by Ali’s supporters, was based on Muhammad’s alleged designation of Ali as his successor, Ali’s righteousness, and tribal customs, given his close relation to the Prophet. Ali’s right passed with his death in 661 to his son Hasan, who chose not to claim it, and after Hasan’s death, to Husayn, Ali’s younger son. The evolution into a religious formulation is believed to have been initiated with the martyrdom of Husayn in 680 at Karbala (today in Iraq), a traumatic event still observed with fervor in today’s Shiite world on the 10th of the month of Muharram of the Muslim lunar year.
The Shiite focus on the person of the Imam made the community susceptible to division on the issue of succession. The early Shiites, a recognized, if often persecuted, opposition to the central government, soon divided into several factions. The majority of the Shiites today are Twelve-Imam Shiites (notably in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, and Pakistan). Others are Zaydis (in Yemen), and the Ismailis (in India, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen). The central belief of Twelve-Imam Shiites is the occultation (or disappearance from view) of the 12th Imam. The 12th Imam is considered to be the only legitimate and just ruler, and therefore no political action taken in his absence can be fruitful. While this position has provided Shiite clerics with the means to survive an often hostile environment, the need for an alternative formulation capable of framing political militancy has fostered activist movements within the Shiite tradition, occasionally leading to dissidence: see Babism.
Obviously the great unanswerable in the Middle East right now is whether Islam offers any coherent basis for liberal secular democratic government. It would seem that Shi’ism, at least based on the above, does provide such a basis, though we and they would need to cultivate some of these ideas.
Two elements here are key:
(1) That Shi’ites have not historically run states: when Christ said to render unto Caesar, it made clear that there is no theological imperative that the State in which a Christian resides be Christian itself. In fact, Christianity was a religion of slaves, not of masters. Judaism likewise was a slave religion and, for thousands of years, until the founding of Israel, had control of no State. No religion which has so little experience of governance is likely to craft a doctrine that requires theocracy or religious totalitarianism.
This contrasts sharply with Islam, which in the Prophet’s own life time became not merely a faith but a politics, as it took control of government. This allowed Islam to stray into a very destructive error, the adoption of the view that religion, politics, economics, etc., are all part of one seamless whole. It is by nature totalitarian, a statist religion.
However, the Shi’ites background, not entirely dissimilar to that of Christians and Jews, suggests that they could be susceptible to the same ideology of separation. Indeed, many analysts argue that the Khomeinism of Iran was an aberration–the seizure of state power by the clerisy–and, with the Republic tottering after just 25 years, they’d appear to be right. That so many in Iran–the great white hope of Islamicism–are now demanding liberalization and closer ties to the West, holds out the possibility that this experiment in Islamic rule could evolve into a state that, though it would certainly retain a distinctly Islamic identity, more closely resembles what we think of as a liberal constitutional democracy, with consensual government tempered by restrictions on government power and protections for the rights of citizens, including non-Muslims.
(2) The imperfection of the State, until the Hidden Imam returns: this closely parallels the Christian belief in the Second Coming and the Jewish faith in a Messiah. Added together with the defining sinfulness of human nature, you get a politics that assumes that Man is incapable of perfecting his own society. By way of contrast, the secular/humanist/rationalist creeds–Nazism, Communism, socialism, etc.–tend towards Utopianism (but achieve dystopias) precisely because they believe in the perfectibility of human affairs.
Eric Hoffer explained well the importance of believing that politics won’t render perfection, in his True Believer
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
It is the very disdain for Man that makes Judeo-Christianity the perfect growth medium for decent societies of free men. expecting less of us, they are happy with as much as we manage to achieve. Rationalists, believing that problems have solutions and that their own minds can render them, tend to an absolutism that justifies making men mere parts of social experiments.
We see this same tendency in classical Islam, as Karen Armstrong explains it:
In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Koran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political wellbeing of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossibly difficult to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again.
Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims’ frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Islamic society. If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy. Every effort had to be expended to put Islamic history back on track, or the whole religious enterprise would fall, and life would be drained of meaning. Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function effectively in the world. Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community–political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling dynasties-were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vision. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of their time and upon past history as a Christian would contemplate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the hidden divine kernel. An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore be of mere secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.
This belief that Man is capable of living in accordance with God’s will probably has to be broken before Islam generally can support liberalized politics. It creates the preconditions where any divergence from societal norms and beliefs must be seen as endangering the souls of all. This can never be compatible with broad freedoms.
However, if, as the Shi’a believe, society can not be perfected until the Hidden Imam reveals himself–if all of our efforts to create perfect government are doomed–then the kind of compromise and tolerance that free men require for the decent life can be achieved consistent with Shi’ism. Let the Shi’ite state start from the premise that the best it can hope to achieve is “half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect” and you have a healthy basis for liberal democracy. This is not to say that will happen, but it must be our hope and our efforts must be directed toward spreading this message, that the political system we’re urging on them is implicit in their own faith.
-ESSAY: The Shiite Factor: How Will Iraq’s Persecuted Majority Behave When the Saddam Era Is Over? (Mark LeVine, ABC News)
-ESSAY: The Shiite Choice: Will they learn the lessons of their history? (Amir Taheri, July 11, 2003, National Review)
Are the Shiites about to commit the mistake they made in 1920, when they excluded themselves from the government of the newly created state of Iraq? The question is not fanciful. At that time, Shiite religious and social leaders divided the community in two camps: one favoring negotiations with Britain, then the mandate power in Mesopotamia, and the other preaching a boycott of the “crusading power.”
The latter won the day after being endorsed by senior Shiite clerics in both Najaf and Qom.
The British, determined to transform the mandate territory into a new state, ignored the Shiites and shaped the Iraqi state as they pleased. They imported a king from the Peninsula and set up a bureaucracy based on a few wealthy Sunni families and clans, many with Ottoman antecedents.
The Iraqi Shiites found themselves in a strange situation. Their leaders told them that they owed no loyalty to the new state because the Hidden Imam did not create it. When the British set up the new Iraqi army, the Shiites again decided to stay away.
Those early errors meant that the Shiites, though they accounted for more than 60 percent of the population, never received the share of political power they deserved. Of the 24 men who served as prime minister in successive Iraqi governments between 1921 and 2003, only seven were Shiites (and their total period of service did not exceed six years).
The few Shiites who attained major positions in government often got hostile receptions from their own community. More importantly, none of the six men who became heads of state in Iraq was Shiite. The Shiites were also excluded from many key positions in the state apparatus and its decision-making organs.
The decision to stay out of the army was equally disastrous. While the bulk of the army consisted of Shiite recruits, Sunni Muslim Arabs and other minorities dominated the officers’ corps.
Under the monarchy, Shiites were able to pretty much live their own lives, at least as far as religious rites were concerned. After the 1958 coup d’état, however, successive military regimes tried to control all aspects of Shiite life. In the final years of Saddam Hussein, the Shiite community experienced its darkest days.
Millions of its members had been expelled from Iraq by Saddam or had fled into exile. Inside Iraq, most senior Shiite clerics were either in prison or under house arrest, many of their seminaries disrupted or permanently shut by the Baathist party. It is important for Iraqi Shiites to remember their tragic experience before they are plunged into another historic mistake by shortsighted and selfish leaders.
-ARCHIVES: Middle East Article and Report Archive (Center for Security Policy)
-DISCUSSION: Islam and Democracy: Possibilities, Challenges, and Risks of Bringing Democracy to Islamic Nations, Government, and People (Presentation at the Secretary’s Open Forum, Washington, DC, June 16, 2003)
-REVIEW: of The Arab Shia: The Forgotten Muslims, by Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke (Robert Brenton Betts, Middle East Policy Council)