Friday, October 03, 2008

[Book Review] The Shia Revival

The Shia Revival is a book first published in 2006 by Vali Nasr and is an attempt to describe the revival of Shiite influence in both the Islamic world and beyond. This easy to read book does a pretty good job of briefly covering the historical evolution of Shi’ism and its nascent political/religious revival in the last several decades.

Nasr’s introduction to Shi’ism is fairly traditional. He correctly notes that the Sunni-Shiite split is the biggest division in Islam and began right in the aftermath of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He notes that at the time of the Prophets death, most Muslims followed the tribal tradition of picking a leader best qualified to rule the Ummah. Abu Baker was the consensus choice for the first Caliph; however, a small minority of believers argued that Ali ibn Ali Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, was more qualified and that he had been chosen by the Prophet. In the end, Abu Bakr’s rule was accepted including by Ali.

Following Abu Bakr’s death, the next three Caliphs were Umar, Uthman, and finally Ali. The era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, or Rashidun, spanned three decades from 632 to 661 and was filled with tumult. Both Umar and Uthman were assassinated. Ali took over the Caliphate in 656 and the murder of Uthman plagued his administration. During this period of time, known as the First Fitna, Ali faced a number of mutinies—such as one from Abu Baker’s daughter and the Prophets wife, Ayesha—with the most significant being the rebellion of Uthman’s cousin Muawiyah who wanted Ali to seek justice for Uthman’s assassination. Eventually, Ali was assassinated by an independent group of extremists and the Caliphate was turned over to Muawiyah.

Muawiyah established the Umayyad dynasty with a base in Damascus. Under the Umayyads the caliphs became both pope and caesar, delegating authority over religious matters to professional religious scholars and functionaries, the ulema (Nasr 36). The Umayyad rule was accepted by the majority of Muslims, i.e. the Sunni Muslims, and Sunni Islam became the dominant version of Islam throughout the world of Islam. However, not all Muslims accepted this new order. Ali’s murder, the transformation of the caliphate into a monarchy, and the de facto separation of religious and political authorities under the Umayyads led a minority of Muslims to argue that what had come to pass was the fruit not of God’s mandate but of man’s folly (Nasr 36). These dissenters rejected the legitimacy of the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs and believed that the leaders of Islam should come directly from Muhammad’s family. They believed that Ali should have been the Prophet’s successor and for support they argue that the Prophet anointed Ali during his last pilgrimage to Mecca while at Ghadir Khumm. The Sunnis, however, argued that the Prophet had said to choose the best leader from among the Muslims and hence the succession process was acceptable.

It is at this point that I expected a deeper analysis of the roots of the conflict between the followers of Ali and those of Muawiyah. Unfortunately, Nasr does not cover this vital conflict at all and does not discuss this critical issue. First off, the first conflict between Muawiyah and Ali had initially been over gaining justice for Uthman. But more broadly, other aspects—such as doctrinal issues in Islam—also played a part. After Ali’s death, there appears to have been an agreement made between Muawiyah and Ali’s son Hasan that when Muawiyah died, the Caliphate would return to the family of the Prophet. However, Yazid, the son of Muawiyah, became Caliph in 680 after his father’s death. Hussein, the brother of Hasan and son of Ali, challenged Yazid’s legitimacy based on the agreement made between Hasan and Muawiyah. Yazid refused to accept Hussein’s legitimacy and his soldiers massacred him and seventy-two of his companions and family members at Karbala. The Ashura festival, celebrated by Shittes, marks this vicious event. This affair officially split the Sunnis and Shiite’s and the people of Kufa, Ali’s former capital, rose up in revolt against Yazid. The period between 680 and 692 is known as the Second Fitna and these revolts were eventually suppressed when the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan killed the major revolt leader Ibn al-Zubair.

This discussion would have helped but what would have helped even more would have been a discussion about the final split between the Sunni’s and Shiitees. In 747, a revolt broke out across the Muslim world. Various groups joined together to challenge the Umayyads, most notably Shiite Arabs and Abbasids. The Abbasids had some lineage to the Prophet and were supported by the Shiites who thought that they would eventually gain ascension to the Caliphate if their combined forces defeated the Umayyads. The Shiites were led by their sixth imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, and the Abbasids were led by As-Saffah. In 750 during the critical Battle of Zab in Egypt, the Umayyads suffered a crushing defeat and the entire Umayyad lineage was wiped out except for Abd ar-Rahman I who escaped to Al-Andulas (Spain) and established and independent Caliphate there.

The new Caliphate in the Muslim world was established by the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Shiites had hoped to gain the Caliphate under Ja’far, but Al-Mansur (who succeeded As-Saffah in 754) refused. This ensured a permanent split between the Shiites and Sunnis across the Muslim world.

The Shiites had some limited political success (for example, the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt was Shiite) but, for the most part, did not hold much political sway until the rise of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. The Safavid dynasty adopted Shi’ism in a strategic political move to distinguish itself from the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Shah Ismail I established the dynasty in 1501 and made Shiite Islam the state religion. As a result, current day Iran is Shiite and some parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq have large Shiite populations.

Nasr also describes some of the key doctrinal differences between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunni’s do not believe in any hierarchical interpretation of God’s message while Shiites believe that the Imams interpret God’s message. The Shiites believe in shrines while Sunnis do not. There is a long and varied list of differences between the two branches; suffice it to say that Nasr does a good job of appreciating the nuances between the two groups and within the Shiite community itself.

With all of this being said, the focus of his book is not on the historical record but rather on the impact of Shi’ism on the current political dynamics in the Muslim world. He notes that there has been a Shiite ascendancy across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq, and all of this culminates with Iran. This “Shiite Crescent” has meant that the Shiite religion and its politics have gained a new height across the Muslim world that has never been seen. That means that of the estimated 1.3 billion Muslims of the world, the 10 to 15 percent that are Shiite (roughly 130 million to 195 million people) have a new say on global and regional politics (Nasr 34). Since so much of the world oil resources are in Shiite hands, their influence on global events is significant. In regional terms, Israel and the United States have tried to work to reduce their influence, particularly by ratcheting up pressure on Iran and attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Sunni Arab autocracies have voiced some concerns about their ascendancy as well, both because of some misplaced religious concerns as well as strategic interest. Since Iran has gained a lot of influence as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan War’s, and Hezbollah defeated Israel in their 2006 war, the impact of Shiites on global events will determine a lot of issues in the future.

While I think there are some deficiencies in terms of this books discussion of history as well as some analysis, it is still a good introduction to the impact of Shi’ism on contemporary politics. It’s a good, quick read that I would recommend to those interested in the impact of Shi’ism on the world today.

-Nausherwan Hafeez, 10-3-08

Thursday, October 02, 2008

[Reaction] Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid? is a fantastic article, written by Nicholas Carr, whose central premise is that our technologies change us, often in ways we can neither anticipate nor control. In particular, with the advent internet and Google which provide massive amounts of information on demand have reduced our capacity to think and read deeply. The net distributes information swiftly and so the brain comes to expect information via this way. Hence the capacity to read deeply diminishes in favor of strict utilitarian efficiency.

One of the most important points is that many people who have traditionally been big book readers are now finding it difficult to get through books because of the way we have become accustomed to reading on the Internet. I consider myself a big book reader and I too have found it to be increasingly difficult to read books; so if it is this difficult for me, it must be infinitely more difficult, perhaps nigh on impossible, for the layman to read books nowadays.

Another point that Carr makes is that anytime there has been an evolution in the way we think, there have been tradeoffs. In ancient times, Socrates railed against writing because it diminished one’s capacity to remember and gain wisdom. With the advent of the printing press, the value of books decreased in favor of mass distribution and what used to be the abode of the few now gained mass consumption. The typewriter, as shown by the example of Friedrich Nietzsche, made his writing style more utilitarian. With the advent of the computer and word processor, the entire way we write has changed.

I think that the overall point Carr is making is that the internet is a mixed blessing. Yes it is great to get massive amounts of information at the click of your fingertips but sometimes this information doesn’t provide enough necessary depth and insight. Thus the internet often lacks both the need and capacity for deep contemplation. The point he makes about Frederick Winslow Taylor is excellent in that the maximization of efficiency in factory production inevitably turned workers into automatons. Similarly, I have come to notice that anytime I have an intellectual discussion with someone, I often hear parroted back to me arguments that I have either already or heard or read somewhere on the internet. The need to create new lines of argument supported by facts is, more often than not, too cumbersome of an activity for most people to do and hence most discussions have become echo chambers for the discourse that is going on in the Internet. This is troubling and I think the example of HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a very telling indicator of how we, as a society, are losing many aspects of what makes us human in favor of quick and immediate gratification.

All that being said, I think (rather ironically) that I will not have the time to read the book that this article was adapted from: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. Still, definitely read the article Is Google Making Us Stupid?