Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam

Hizbullah's Institutional Identity

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Mohanad Hage Ali
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     249 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How is Hizbullah’s identity produced and how modern is it? This is the main question guiding Mohanad Hage Ali’s intriguing and well-researched book, Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam. Ali makes his intention clear from the very beginning. He wants to stay away from two approaches to the Lebanese Islamist party, one reinforcing the claim that Hizbullah is a “terrorist label” and another which vehemently refutes the claim. There is a need for a nuanced approach, he insists, which can be applicable to other Islamist organizations, such as the Islamist State and its identity project. 

Ali situates his argument in theories of nationalism. In other words, this organization is not just a fundamentalist project. It has significant ideological and political dimensions. Ali understands that some may object to his unconventional approach to Hizbullah. Many scholars consider nationalism a secular post-enlightenment category, an ideology that insists on human independence from divine control and seeks salvation in human auto-emancipation. Hizbullah is a party based on a religious ideology, which aligns itself with transnational Iranian Shi’i political Islam, centered on the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (the guardianship of the Islamic Jurists). 

The above notwithstanding, Ali taps into the theoretical arguments of Ernest Gellner and Anthony Smith, among others, and argues that Islam, or rather political Islam, can serve as a functional equivalent of nationalism. It mobilizes historical resources through modern means, reconstructs a historical narrative, and constructs in the process a new identity. 

The key to this reconstruction is systematic efforts to create an ethnic consciousness based on a sectarian Shi’i identity, generating what the author calls a “minority nationalism”—that is, a sectarian form of nationalism.

The book, divided into seven chapters, including the introduction and conclusion, lays the groundwork for this argument and bases its findings on extensive fieldwork, interviews, and a content analysis of the party’s publications. Each chapter could be published separately and provides ample evidence for the book’s main argument. 

Chapter 2 illustrates how Hizbullah institutions’ delivery of welfare and education, and the traditional Shi’i ceremonies, are intertwined with the promotion and dissemination of a sectarian identity specifically targeting Lebanon’s Shi’i community. While Hizbullah is positioned as an alternative to the failing Lebanese state, the control it exercises through centralized organizational structures is reminiscent of a Marxist-Leninist model. 

Chapter 3 and 4 trace earlier historical works, especially that of Mohamad Jaber Al Safa (1875-1945), which remodeled Lebanese Shi’i history into a collective of sectarian consciousness. Hizbullah’s historical narration is in fact a reconstruction of this modern construct. But it glosses over dimensions deemed not fitting of its reconstructed history—such as the feudal system, which dominated Shi’i history, and the role of other Lebanese groups in its history. It provides instead a polished holistic version of history. It is a version persistently connected to the present, with an emphasis on the central role of the Ulama (clerical leaders) and “Islamic resistance,” that is, jihad.

Chapter 5 provides a deeper look into Hizbullah’s dissemination of supernatural narratives about Shi’ileaders and jihad in Lebanon’s Shi’i community as a means to sanctify its mission and actions. It makes use of transnational links, such as Iranian accounts of the Iran-Iraq war and the supernatural powers of Shi’i leaders to subtly establish its own direct and indirect connection with the divine. 

Chapter 6 traces the historical development of the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih and how it transformed a quiet religion into a political form of Shi’i Islam. This pillar of Hizbullah identity is a modern development, which dates back to the 19th century, when the advent of print technology helped bolster the powerful position of the Shi’i clerical establishmentThe chapter focuses on how it was promoted or constrained on a transnational level, and the tension between Iran’s realpolitik and religious ideological ties. In Lebanon, the author argues, Hizbullah managed to develop strong relations with Iranian leadership through lobbying efforts, accommodating in the process its internal goals with Iran’s agenda. 

Ali’s book breaks a new scholarly ground and provides a convincing argument about the sectarian nationalism constructed and propagated by Hizbullah. Within Middle Eastern studies there may be a parallel with the manner in which the Sunni doctrine of Wahhabi Islam was used by the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1875-1953). He sent missionaries in the early decade of the 20th century to Najdi Bedouin tribesmen to join the sect, settled them in hijar, or colonies, and provided them with military and religious training, turning them into an army of Wahhabi warriors—the Ikhwan army—which he used to expand his territory. Ibn Saud found a receptive audience. Wahhabism provided these tribesmen with a “definite directional tendency”—that is, it channeled their Bedouin warfare drive into a religious “holy war.” In other words, this Sunni sect was also used in the construction of an identity project. It is no coincidence that the army’s name means “the Brothers,” as in a religious brotherhood—an identity transcending their Najdi tribal affiliations. 

One dimension that was missing in this solid work were the consequences of Hizbullah sectarian nationalism on the Lebanese political system (mentioned fleetingly), social cohesion, and regional stability. That said, this book fills a gap in the research on Hizbullah. It uses an original approach and succeeds in revealing a detailed account of Hizbullah’s systematic reconstruction of the Lebanese Shi’i minority’s identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elham Manea is Associate Professor at Zurich University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mohanad Hage Ali is Lecturer at the Lebanese American University, Byblos, Lebanon. He is also Director of Communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut, Lebanon.



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