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Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

On finishing Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness last weekend, I anticipated returning to the two books I was already some ways into before starting it, Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement or Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. Instead, I got distracted by the attraction of reading one of three recent novels (more about them another time), but before I could choose, the current New York Review of Books arrived with Malise Ruthven’s review of Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest. (Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.)

For years, I have wished to learn more about Shi’ism. Thus, the review caught my eye and was the first piece I read in the issue. Ruthven describes the book as “challenging and brilliant.” I then turned to Harvard University Press, whose blurb reinforced the notion that this was the book for me:

For a Western world anxious to understand Islam and, in particular, Shi’ism, this book arrives with urgently needed information and critical analysis. Hamid Dabashi exposes the soul of Shi’ism as a religion of protest—successful only when in a warring position, and losing its legitimacy when in power.


Shi’sm: A Religion of Protest attends to the explosive conflicts in the Middle East with an abiding attention to historical facts, cultural forces, religious convictions, literary and artistic nuances, and metaphysical details. This timely book offers readers a bravely intelligent history of a world religion.

Then I downloaded the opening of the book from Amazon and was less sure that this was what I needed to be reading. Not that it’s in any way bad. It’s personal and engaging in a way I didn’t anticipate, as Dabashi recalls from his childhood the celebration of Ashura in his home town of Ahvaz, in southern Iran.

What’s Ashura? Well, that’s the point of reading the book, isn’t it? We should all know the answer. From Wikipedia:

The Day of Ashura is on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram.

It is commemorated by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (680 AD).

You’ll learn a lot more from Dabashi, but not in a direct historical or scholarly exposition. Rather, at least so far, Dabashi weaves his personal account with history, Freud’s analysis of totem and taboo, the origin of religion, father versus son sacrifice, the murder of Ali, the sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael), Jesus and communion (son self-sacrifice in effect), and lots more. Dizzying. Brilliant indeed, though greatly condensed. Perhaps Dabashi will elaborate on some of these themes as the book progresses.

In any case, when I read the sample the other night, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. But then I read the news yesterday of Tuesday’s bombings in Afghanistan, became all the more convinced that I really needed to know more about Shi’ism, and downloaded the full book once I got home. From the NYT account of the bombings:

A Pakistan-based extremist group claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated bombings aimed at Afghan Shiites on Tuesday, in what many feared was an attempt to further destabilize Afghanistan by adding a new dimension of strife to a country that, though battered by a decade of war, has been free of sectarian conflict.

The attacks, among the war’s deadliest, struck three Afghan cities — Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif — almost simultaneously and killed at least 63 Shiite worshipers on Ashura, which marks the death of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr.

Targeted strikes by Sunnis against the minority Shiites are alien to Afghanistan. So it was no surprise to Afghans when responsibility was claimed by a Sunni extremist group from Pakistan, where Sunnis and Shiites have been energetically killing one another for decades.

I didn’t even realize that Ashura was upon us until I read this. And for that matter, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what Ashura was until I started reading Dabashi’s book.

Perhaps my ignorance can be excused. It would be nice to think that our presidential candidates know more about Islam. I suspect not.

Categories: Books, Religion
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