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Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History

May 8, 2021 at 1:55 pm

Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History
  • Book Author(s): Laurence Louër
  • Published Date: February 2020
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691186610

I’ve read several books on Islam’s Sunni-Shia split, with each having provided informative insights on this ancient schism steeped in both theology and politics. The latter is the primary focus through which Laurence Louër’s Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History attempts to explain how this division has manifested throughout the ages and across different landscapes.

Louër, who has previously authored books on Islam, and in particular Shia identity politics, begins by making the point that the conflict between the two sects “was never just a mere quarrel over the Prophet of Islam’s successor”, but about the very nature of what constitutes legitimate political authority. These doctrinal ideas would develop over time and continue to inform the ways that both Sunnis and Shias express themselves politically.

The book makes an interesting point very early on that such disputes were either “activated” or “deactivated” depending on the political context at the time and place, essentially forming the basis of the book’s central argument. According to the author, after a prolonged period of revolutionary deradicalisation among Twelver Shias to one of peaceful coexistence with the Sunni-dominated political establishment, the caliphate and the emergence of the Safavids in the sixteenth century in what is today’s Iran reactivated the conflict through creating lasting fault lines in the Middle East.

The first part of Sunnis and Shi’a covers the history of the sectarian divide over the succession of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] and the early formative years of Islam. By the time we reach the Abbassid caliphate (the ninth to thirteenth centuries), we learn that a series of radical Shia protest movements that began in the preceding Umayyad period helped usher in the crystallisation of what would become the Sunni and Shia orthodoxies, which were: “As much a matter of political and religious rivalry as it was of convergence.”

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By this time, the caliphate had virtually lost the theocratic element it had in the early Rashidun era and had become only a political institution, with increasing religious authority bestowed upon the ulama or scholars. This subsequently led to the establishment of the main schools of jurisprudence. We read that both the caliphate and the imamate of the Shia would experience their own respective crises; the former with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, rendering the title of caliph a mere symbolic title, and the latter with the belief in the “minor” and “major” occultation of the twelfth Imam (874 and 941, respectively). In a similar fashion to the growing role of the Sunni ulema in doctrinal and legal development, the Shia ulema also took on a more prominent role, even exercising some of the Imam’s powers in his absence.

It was interesting to read of the intersection in scholarly developments. For example, on the one hand, Shia ulema borrowed extensively from their Sunni counterparts on religious exegesis. Yet, on the other, the sixth Shia Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq, who effectively disengaged from politics, helped pave the way for: “The emergence of a body of religious scholars among those who would later become known as the Sunnis.”

The author also contextualises the Safavid’s establishment of Shi’ism as the state religion of Iran by highlighting the dynasty’s Sufi roots and its political rivalry with the Ottomans. Sufism was already dominant in Persia at the time and blurred the boundaries between Sunnis and Shias: “Though Sunnism was dominant in this context, there was widespread popular worship of Ali and the family of the Prophet.” This development would have long-term effects on the recurrent sectarian conflict in the region.

Moving into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries amid European expansion and colonialism into Muslim lands, Louër sheds light on the intellectual movement of Islamic reformism, as Muslim thinkers tried to explain and react to the decline of the Islamic world. Islamic unity and sectarian rapprochement thus took precedence over intra-Muslim divisions, culminating with the 1958 Al-Azhar fatwa by Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, recognising Twelver Shi’ism as a fifth school of Islamic jurisprudence.

However, with the onset of a plethora of events across the next couple of decades, Islamism would become an enduring feature of the region’s politics. Whereas reformism was an intellectual movement, “the Islamists introduced militancy and turned Islam into a modern political ideology,” which did nothing to dispel the Sunni-Shia divide. As these became transnational networks, the author traces the respective roots to Sunni Islamism and Shia Islamism to Cairo in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Najaf seminaries and their scholar-activists, respectively. The book explores important themes, including the aspiration for an Islamic state and the return of sectarian conflicts, especially following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the efforts by Saudi Arabia to contain it.

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The second part of the book delves deeper into the Sunni-Shia divide and looks at country-specific cases where these conflicts have intensified depending on domestic and regional contexts. In Lebanon, for example, we learn about the once-marginalised Shia community’s rise to political prominence after the Civil War, at the expense of the Sunnis. Similar to other countries’ cases, they seem to have consistently failed to mobilise as effectively and homogenously compared to Shias whenever they have become a religious minority. The influence of the clergy appears to be more prominent in the case of the Shias, and could be a reason behind this.

However, in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, which “transformed the Sunnis’ relationship to the state as well as to themselves,” the author argues that the emergence of Daesh was: “Less a consequence of the massive spread of jihadist Salafist ideology in Iraq than a symptom of Iraq’s failed political transition.”

I found the chapter on Yemen to be especially interesting and what Louër described as the “Sunnisation” of the Zaydi Shias starting in the eighteenth century. Yet through more recent conflicts preceding the ongoing war, there occurred what could be described as a Zaydi revival and rapprochement with Shi’ism. I have previously discussed the closer alignment with Zaydis and Twelver Shias, although this could have been discussed in more detail. The proliferation of Salafis in the 1990s also helped: “Reactivate what had become a largely latent sectarian division between Zaydis and Sunnis.”

A chapter on Saudi and Iranian pragmatism in how they approach the treatment of their respective sectarian minorities was quite revealing. Despite discrimination in both countries, the Shias of Saudi were able to maintain their own religious courts and “large scale integration of Shi’a in the petroleum industry”. In Iran, whose capital does not have a Sunni mosque, the heart of the Sunnis’ religious institution Dar Al-Ulum in the Balochistan province has made it the “main hub of Sunni religious activity in Iran”. It has helped the state cultivate a moderate, more loyal Sunni population that can act as a launchpad for Iranian influence in Persian-speaking populations in Central Asia.

Sunnis and Shi’a provides a unique and refreshing perspective on the overall study of Islam’s sectarian divide, especially on the notion of the conflict being activated or reactivated owing to various factors. The author also applies the idea of “mimetic rivalry”, meaning that the sectarian rift is as much a cause of differentiation as of imitation. The historical overview was perhaps the weaker part of the book, especially compared to the book A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is. It also lacked depth on covering the important historical personalities, as in The Heirs Of The Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism. However, the book’s strengths lie in the second part of the book, where the central arguments are more evident. This book is well-referenced and researched. Although, in addition to the chapters on Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bahrain and Yemen, it would have been interesting and relevant to see a chapter dedicated to Syria, arguably a conflict in the region that divides opinions the most among Sunni and Shia communities, with sectarianism and politics at play.

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