The party of the martyrs
The Shia branch of Islam was born in violent death and has suffered from centuries of persecution. T
Baghdad is suddenly like pre-revolution Tehran: the Shia mosques have become the focus of dissent. After Friday prayers, protesters pour into the city, chanting anti-American slogans, demanding "Islamic government". Throughout Iraq, there are demonstrations and marches. De-votees are making the pilgrimage, banned for decades by Saddam Hussein, to the holy city of Karbala.
Moreover, a leading liberal cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, exiled in London for several years, has been murdered. Is this an indication of long-submerged factionalism? A mob supposedly forced Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to leave Najaf for issuing a pro-American fatwa (though both the fatwa and the departure were subsequently denied). Armed militia of another group, led by the young militant Moqtada Sadr, are patrolling the streets of Baghdad and preparing for a revolution.
Who are these Shias? What do they believe? And what do they actually want?
Shia Muslims share all the fundamental beliefs of Sunni Muslims - such as belief in one Omnipotent God, the Prophethood of Muhammad, the day of judgement and life after death. As many exasperated Iraqis point out, the Shia and Sunni distinctions mean little to ordinary people. But they have been significant for western powers, both in the past and in this war. In the 1920s, when Britain was trying to engineer a compliant Iraq, Gertrude Bell, a member of the British administration, found the Shias "grimly devout", "violent and intractable", "fanatical and conservative". As the Shias were in a majority in Iraq, democracy would be out of the question. The problem was solved by supplying a Sunni monarch.
Iraq is a complex country created by British imperialism. Britain always rather liked countries where it could identify divisions, manipulate them and present its imposed order as the only hope of stable rule. We may have reached just such a moment in the advance of a new imperium. But what we are witnessing on the streets is a strong indication that Iraqis know and remember their own history much better than the US expected. It is also proof of the basic truth of Muslim existence. In a crisis, Iraqi Shias, like all Muslims, turn to the mosque as the hub of civic society, as the sole institution that has the moral authority, when all else fails, to provide some semblance of organisation.
Shia means the party of Ali. The figure of Ali is central to the Shia faith. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (he married the Prophet's daughter Fatima), is considered by Sunni Muslims to be the last of the four "Rightly Guided Caliphs". But for Shias, Ali is almost as important as the Prophet Muhammad himself.
The Prophet Muhammad left it for his followers to decide who should succeed him as the ruler of the Muslim community. Immediately after his death in 632, his closest companion, Abu Bakr, was unanimously elected as the First Rightly Guided Caliph (632-634). He selected Omar as his successor, and Omar (634-644) got the approval of the community. But Omar, instead of nominating a successor, established an electoral council of seven companions of the Prophet. Not without considerable difficulty, they chose Uthman as the Third Caliph (644-656).
Throughout this period, a strong and vocal minority argued that Ali should have been the First Caliph and that the caliphate should thenceforth pass to direct descendants of the Prophet through Ali and Fatima. Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate after the murder of Uthman. But he was opposed by the formidable figure of Aisha, wife of the Prophet, who accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. The dispute led to the Battle of Camel in 656: Aisha's forces were defeated; she apologised to Ali and retired from public life. But the incident spread bitterness towards Ali's rule.
A few years later, in 661, Ali was murdered. The Muslim community split into three distinct groups. The majority argued that the rulers should be elected on the basis of consultation and consensus. A minority favoured hereditary rule of the Prophet's family. And an even smaller, secular-minded minority, with political ambition and military might, simply wanted to usurp authority. This last group won, and Muawiya, who had been governor of Syria for two decades, declared himself to be "the first king in Islam". There would be more caliphs but none of them, in the view of devout Muslims, would be "rightly guided".
The "democrats", essentially the forerunners of today's Sunnis, threw in the towel. Those who supported hereditary rule gathered around Ali's sons, Hasan and Husayn. Hasan, who agreed not to pursue his claim to the caliphate and accepted a pension, died soon afterwards, allegedly poisoned; Husayn was persuaded to put his claim to the caliphate on hold until the death of Muawiya. But when Muawiya died, he was succeeded by his son Yazid; Husayn rebelled immediately. In the Battle of Karbala (680), Husayn, his family and his small band of followers were all massacred by Yazid's army. Yazid was then able to establish the hereditary Umayyad dynasty.
But the tragedy of Karbala also led to the formation of the Shia sect. The central, and the most distinctive, institution of Shia Islam is the imamate. The Imam, belonging to the Prophet's family, is regarded as not only the legitimate leader of the Muslim community, with both spiritual and political leadership in his hands, but also as being totally innocent and incapable of error. Ali was declared the First Imam, followed by his sons, Imams Hasan and Husayn. But the lineage of Prophet Muhammad became extinct in 873 when the 12th and last Shia imam, Al-Askari, who had no brother, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the tender age of four. The Shias refused to accept that he had died, and developed the theory of occultation. The 12th Imam is said to be "in hiding" and will return at the end of time.
There are many divisions even within Shi'ism itself. But the majority of Shias in Iraq and Iran are Ithna'asheris or "Twelvers", the followers of the 12 Imams. As a persecuted minority within Islam, the Shias developed a highly organised and structured religion - unlike the Sunnis, who totally reject any notion of an organised clergy. Spiritual power passed to religious scholars, mujtahids, from whose ranks emerge ayatollahs, pre-eminent leaders capable of making authoritative interpretation in religious matters, and therefore capable of wielding enormous social and political influence and power.
But Shi'ism is distinguished not only by its veneration of Ali but also by its emphasis on martyrdom and suffering. Most of the Shia Imams were murdered. A great deal of importance is thus placed on their deaths, particularly the deaths of Ali and Husayn. The tragedy of Karbala is commemorated every year on the tenth of the Islamic month of Muharram, the anniversary of Husayn's death. Through a period of ten days, wailing imams whip the congregation into a frenzy of tears and chest-beating. In the streets, ritual flagellation, involving knives, swords and chains, is performed by groups of marching men. All this has given the Shias their fearsome reputation among western observers.
The Americans should heed the warnings. The Shias look like an easy scapegoat for outbreaks of anarchy and unrest. But although Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, not even he could abolish politics or political consciousness among Iraqi Shias. The Shias, a minority within Islam, have survived more than a millen-nium of persecution; their very inception was based on martyrdom and opposition to secular power, backed by military muscle.
And differences in theology and practice may distinguish the Iraqi Shias but they do not disconnect them from the rest of the Muslim community. Indeed, the structure of Shi'ism enabled it to be more adaptive in the face of modernity than Sunnism.
Debate among Shia intellectuals on contemporary problems and issues is highly influential and widely read among all Muslims. In the light of the Iranian experience, virtually all reformists reject theocracy as having any relevance to modernity. Progressive Shia scholars, such as the Iranian academic Abdul Karim Soroush and Ayatollah Sayyid Fadhil Milani of Iraq, argue that Islamic law needs to be reformed to incorporate modern notions of human (including women's) rights. Similarly, the role and power of religious scholars is being questioned. And the place, form and nature of democracy in a self-determining, independent Muslim nation is now a topic of much concern to Iranian Shia reformers and dissidents, just as it is to Iraqi Shia exiles.
Confronted with the anti-American rage of the Iraqi Shias, President George W Bush has fallen back on inanity. "Isn't freedom wonderful," he said, suggesting that events in Iraq represent a merely temporary exuberance, a phase that will soon pass - making way for US plans to award contracts to American corporations, to establish long-term military bases in Iraq, and to impose the compliant kind of government that it understands.
Bush was nearer the mark when he added that "a basic instinct of man is to be free". Shia or Sunni Iraqis are not lacking in such instincts. Bush's problem is the likelihood that the Iraqi vision of freedom - freedom from misery, impoverishment and dependency - will lead to a kind of democracy he simply does not recognise. If that vision relies heavily on Islam it is neither certain that Iraq will become another Iran nor necessary that it do so. As Shia thinkers have made clear, other options are abundantly available.
The message from the streets of Baghdad and other cities is that Iraqis are determined not to be caught in a replay of their history - a replay for which all the pieces are in place. Instead of being bemused, affronted, frightened by stereotypes labelled Shia, we should help all Iraqis to attain the kind of freedom they choose for themselves.
Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: a Ziauddin Sardar reader edited by Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell is published by Pluto Press (£14.99)
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