Shia Islam and Politics

Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon

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Jon Armajani
  • New York: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , May
     2020.
     252 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781793621351.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jon Armajani’s Shia Islam and Politics: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon aims to provide “a chronological, historical country-by-country study of the role [of] Shia Islam in religion and politics in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon” and “argues that ever since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 . . . that country’s religious and political leaders . . . have used Shia Islam as a crucial way of expanding Iran’s objectives in the Middle East and beyond” (2–3). Although, broadly speaking, the book accomplishes these goals, it advances its central argument at the expense of a sufficiently nuanced consideration of its subject matter’s historical background, making errors when discussing central events of early Islamic history and overstating the Revolution’s discontinuity with the past.

Before discussing the particulars of the Iranian Revolution or its impact upon Iraq and Lebanon, Armajani’s introduction aims to offer background information on Islam and its sectarian distinctions. This section, unfortunately, suffers from some basic errors. For example, when introducing parties in the succession crisis that laid the groundwork for the subsequent division between Sunni and Shi‘i, he writes, “Abu Bakr’s special status was reconfirmed by Muhammad granting Abu Bakr permission to marry Muhammad’s daughter Aisha” (6). Here, Armajani appears to reverse Abu Bakr and Muhammad’s roles in the arrangement: Aisha was Abu Bakr’s daughter, not Muhammad’s, and therefore married Muhammad rather than Abu Bakr. Given her centrality to subsequent events, this is a difficult error to overlook.

Later, regarding the battle of Karbala and martyrdom of Husayn ibn ‘Ali (Shi‘ism’s Third Imam) in it, he writes that Husayn died “fighting against the Sunnis, who killed him” (8). This is deeply anachronistic: “Sunni” was not in yet use as a marker of religious identity at the time of the battle. Indeed, the schools of law that would come to be understood as Sunni would not even take shape until generations after the battle.

More broadly, though, the book’s treatment of clerics’ views regarding the legitimacy of the state (a fundamental question for a study of the relationship between Shi‘ism and politics) suffers when Armajani’s framing of the Revolution as a historical rupture intersects with its shortcomings regarding the wider doctrinal background. The book’s chapter on the Revolution notes, “Khomeini’s politically activist position stands in sharp contrast to the positions of Shia quietists, who believe that Shias should separate themselves from politics, while remaining religiously observant, until the appearance of the Twelfth Imam” (54). This contrast is indeed notable.

However, Armajani appears to overlook its background and its significance. The stance Armajani glosses as quietism is usually understood to be the position, among Shi‘i scholars, that, during the occultation of the Imam, no government can be truly legitimate. This quietism was indeed a majority position among scholars prior to Khomeini, but did not entail a wholesale withdrawal from politics; instead it simply imposed limits on scholars’ expectations of actually existing states. However, by framing this quietism as a wholesale separation from politics and contrasting it with Khomeini’s position, it gives the impression that pre-Khomeini clergy abstained from political involvement (in spite of examples to the contrary, like scholars’ administrative positions in the Safavid period and their roles in the Tobacco Protest of 1893 and Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, cases Armajani discusses).

Armajani’s treatment of the political mobilization of the Lebanese Shia adds an international dimension to the excesses of the book’s presentation of the 1979 Revolution as a break with the period preceding it. While he does highlight that such mobilization predated the Revolution, recognizing the role of Musa al-Sadr and the Amal Movement prior to both the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) and Iran’s Revolution, Armajani does not begin discussing the Iranian relationship to Amal until the Revolution, first mentioning an Iranian influence on Amal when he notes that the revolution “strengthened Amal’s political mobilization and influence” (169). While the revolution likely did prove inspiring and thus help mobilize the movement, it bears noting that Iranian engagement with Amal did not begin with the Revolution. Research demonstrating that SAVAK (Iran’s main Pahlavi-era intelligence agency) had cultivated relationships with Amal’s leadership has been available in English since at least 1997 (when Middle Eastern Studies published Abbas William Samii’s “The Shah's Lebanon Policy: The Role of SAVAK”) and became more prominent with the 2018 publication of Arash Reisinezhad’s The Shah of Iran, the Iraqi Kurds, and the Lebanese Shia (Palgrave Macmillan).

While Armajani identifies “the historical contexts” of “conflicts between Shias and non-Shias, including Shias and Sunnis” as one of the major themes on which Shia Islam and Politics concentrates, its errors regarding basic historical background and excessive focus on the 1979 Revolution as the sole determinant of the events that followed it undermine its claims of attention to historical context (3). Armajani’s defenders may claim that the book’s aim to explain its subject matter in “a manner that assumes little or no prior knowledge on the readers’ part” limits the amount of detail one can expect, but we need not assume that such an audience is incapable of appreciating complexity (3). Nonspecialists, in fact, may be most in need of a more nuanced treatment of the relationship between Shia Islam and politics than the popular press offers. Sadly, such a treatment is not available in Shia Islam and Politics: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ames is an adjunct assistant professor of liberal studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon Armajani is professor in the peace studies department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and is the author of Modern Islamist Movements: History, Religion, and Politics.

Keywords: 

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