Faith and Politics in Iran, Israel and the Islamic State

Theologies of the Real

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Ori Goldberg
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ori Goldberg’s Faith and Politics in Iran, Israel and the Islamic State: Theologies of the Real is experimental—“between essay and reflection” (ix)—engaging with contemporary articulations of political theologies in two religions, Islam and Judaism, and in three different contexts: Iran, Israel, and the so-called Islamic State (IS). The aim of the book is to challenge and counter the secular bias of Western knowledge productions on political discourses in Islam and Judaism, which tend to discuss such discourses as irrational, archaic, fundamentalist, or anti-modern. Based on the modern separation of religion and politics, movements within Islam and Judaism that adopt a discourse and program of political action built on a particular faith perspective are perceived as a problem that needs to be explained and resolved. Goldberg, however, proposes a serious engagement with these political theologies in their own right. In this respect, Goldberg argues that these theologies do not just pursue a puritanical religious vision, and seek its political realization in spite of the complexities of the contemporary world; on the contrary, “these theologies share a profound commitment to realness. That is, these theologies emphasize their grounding in the real world, highlighting emergence, uncertainty and complexity as the main components of reality” (5.) 

The method Goldberg adopts for all three case studies is to select one or several texts from each context, to quote them in most cases in full, and to provide an exegesis in order to discuss the “theologies of the real” emerging from them. The discussion of these texts is preceded by relevant contextualization. In the Iranian context, the book discusses the 1988 letter of the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, in which he announces his agreement to a ceasefire to bring the war with Iraq to an end. Agreeing to a ceasefire has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the new regime and his leadership. In the letter, Khomeini accepts the military realities—that victory against Iraq is elusive—and perceives the inevitability of ending the war in light of these realities as part of God’s plan. In Goldberg’s reading, Khomeini’s theology of the real suggests that “God is actually speaking through reality” (49): it is the real through which God communicates His will, and puts limits on the agency of humans and the state.

The issue of the settler movement in Israel is the second case study in the book. Goldberg discusses the speech of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2003, in which he announces the unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians, which led to the evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon’s speech to delimit the extent of Jewish settlement presence in the Palestinian territories is contrasted to the vision of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), a chief figure in the emergence of religious Zionism in Israel. In his speech on the occasion of Israeli Independence Day in 1967, Yehuda sets out the theological vision of the settlement movement. As middle-ground between Sharon’s pragmatism and Yehuda’s expansionism, Goldberg positions Major General Gershon Hacohen who was the commander of the Israeli Defence Forces overseeing the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Hacohen, coming from a family of religious Zionists, sympathized with the political theology of the settlement movement. As commander in charge of the evacuation, he had to execute orders of the state. The book discusses an interview Hacohen gave in 2009. Therein, he explains how the strategy and tactics involved in the evacuation, and based on his own theology of the real, were meant to communicate to the evacuees that the state—despite forcing their removal—respects their political theology, and their place in Israeli society.

For the case study of the IS, excerpts from the organization’s declaration of the caliphate on 29 June 2014 are discussed. Goldberg challenges recent scholarship on the IS that perceives it either as driven by an apocalyptic vision to further the End-of-Times, or as a political project to realize a medieval Islamic worldview. Both interpretations unnecessarily “other” the IS, and detach it from the present. For Goldberg, the declaration of the caliphate is a document situated in the present; it recognizes the opposition to the caliphate from other Muslims, but suggests that such views are grounded in unrealistic absolutist moral imperatives that demand perfection: the IS argues that the realities on the ground provided an opportunity to establish the caliphate. 

Given the diversity of case studies involved in this discussion, Faith and Politics aims neither to provide a coherent narrative, nor to develop a neat interpretative framework. As Goldberg admits himself, this book does not intend to provide definite conclusions, but rather is conceived as “an exercise of engagement” (187), taking political theologies seriously. The merit of this book lies in its aim to challenge the “othering” of political theologies as irrational and anti-modern by illustrating their groundedness in reality and in the present: these theologies possess inherent pragmatics, which Goldberg seeks to reveal. They are not simply absolutists and rigorist, seeking to recreate an archaic past or ushering in an apocalyptic future. Theologies of the real engage with reality and accept, respond, and adapt to the ambiguities, uncertainties, and contradictions it contains.

At the same time, the comparative potential of the book is not fully exploited. Each case study stands on its own with the argument that they all articulate theologies of the real. Potential patterns and differences in these theologies of the real are not really explored. What does the groundedness of these political theologies in the present tell us about both their continuous appeal, and their success in creating political entities that can sustain internal and external adversity, as both the cases of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran illustrate? The method chosen in Faith and Politics also implies a textual bias, and leads to a certain theological reductionism: religious beliefs as articulated in the texts are the starting point and remain the main analytical focus. Such a perspective runs the danger of ignoring non-religious factors that determine political actions and decisions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oliver Scharbrodt is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ori Goldberg is Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. His research focuses on the interaction between religious faith and political behavior. His specialty is Shi'a Islam and Iran. His doctoral dissertation, published by Routledge in 2011 (Shi'i Theology in Iran: The Challenge of Religious Experience), dealt with the role of religious experience in the creation of revolutionary Shi'i discourse in Iran. He is the author of Lachshov Shi'it (Thinking Shi'a), published as part of IDF Radio's "Broadcast University" series. He is the co-author (with Shaul Mishal) of Understanding Shiite Leadership: The Art of the Middle Ground in Iran and Lebanon (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 


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