The Role of Shia Theology in The Revolt

Andrew writes:

It seems clear that the protesters have shrewdly as well as sincerely adopted mass peaceful protests are their core weapon, and are coopting the slogans of the original revolution – “Allah O Akbar!” – to make inroads.

I’m not suggesting this was Andrew’s intent, but the co-opting part of that sentence could at the least be misunderstood. I don’t think it’s wrong to call it co-opting so long as that is not (mis)understood rather cynically. As if they were just using the phrase for rhetorical purposes but didn’t actually believe it.  [Again I don’t think that’s what Andrew meant–just that it could be taken that way].

The phrase Allahu Akbar means “God is great.”  Or more properly “God is Greater.”  It is basically another way of stating the first half of the Islamic confession:  There is no god but GOD.  Al-lah simply means “the God”.  There is no god but THE GOD.  All other gods are idols.

In this sense, Muslim theology has a radically political edge (or can anyway)*.  It can say that the rulers of this earth who crush people underfoot are not in fact the Sovereign of the Universe.  God is greater even than tyranny. This is the trust (the hope) of the people.  It is a smart co-opting yes, it also is a deeply held belief by many, and they also realize that the government can not stop the people from confessing Islam.  It’s a very powerful statement as a result.  It question the legitimacy of the ruling powers on their own terms–on their own self-definition as an Islamic government.

This line of thought has deep roots in Shia theology.  It traces back to the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet (son of Ali).  [Ed: See Update I Below] Ashura, the great festival of Shia faith, remembering Husayn’s murder, was a major rallying point during the 1979 Revolution.  It was a common theme of Khomeni’s sermson–that the Shah was the evil oppressor Yazid come alive again re-murdering the Husayns who stood against him.

So in terms of co-opting, the irony is now that the same religio-political charge is being labeled against the Supreme Leader that was once brought against the Shah.

When the people shout God is Greater, they mean it.  And they aim directly at those who claim (like Khamenei) in the place of God but who do not imparrt justice.

For more, another post Andrew put up–a religious ruling from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri (read the whole thing) which reads in part:

4- I ask the police and army personals not to “sell their religion”, and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before god. Recognize the protesting youth as your children. Today censor and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth.

This theo-logic is the same one Archbishop Romero used in his famous plea to the El Salvadorean police and military–hopefully it will be more headed this time in Iran.

* By this I don’t mean that Islam is inherently a political agenda only.  That’s Islamism–turning a religion into a political ideology masking as a religion. Much less that there is some united worldwide Islamic struggle against the West and modernity.

Islamism is a modern, not traditional, form of Islam.  The classical form of Islam recognizes a differentiation/distinction between the religious role and the political role.  That was the core of Shia Islam in particular from basically its beginnings only until Khomeni radically re-interpreted Shia Islam (I would say misinterpreted but that’s another argument for another day).  In the end, Khomeni’s vision can’t but eventually lead to the mass secularization of Iranian society and politics.  Because as James Madison pointed out having a religious-government equation is not only bad for the government it’s very bad for the religion.  The religion gets saddled with all the horrible choices made by government.  When someone dissents against the government, they automatically become heretics and will eventually push for a more personal form of religious understanding.  See G.A. Montazeri’s edict wherein he states he is worried that by the continued oppression, the government will sully the name of Islam.

Update I: Looks like I’m onto something.  (h/t Sullivan):

Older people compared the demonstration of today with the Ashura Demonstration of 1979 which marks the downfall of the Shah regime and even said that it outnumbered that event.

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28 thoughts on “The Role of Shia Theology in The Revolt

  1. And you wonder why I get so mad.
    John….Iran is a THEOCRACY.
    Sad day for the xianists, we live in a pluralist republic with a separation between the church and the state.

    4- I ask the police and army personals not to “sell their religion”, and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before god. Recognize the protesting youth as your children. Today censor and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth.

    Actually Chris, that is one of the 5 pillars, or the 8 practices in case of Shi’ia Islam…salihat, or just deeds.
    Most Americans seem to have bought into the cartoonish construct of Islam ginned up by Bush the Comick Rustick and the axis of [islamophobic] idiots–Steyn, Daniel “crack” Pipes, Malkin, Roobart Spbunsar, Spengler, etc….in their apparent drive to cheerlead the lowerhalf of the bellcurve (socons) onwards to the Clash of Civilizations.
    This is not an uprising against Islam……the greens are more devout than Nejad’s fundies. The legality of the election is in question, and that will be decided by Islamic jurisprudence, and not by western secular law.
    Sayeed Ayatollah Montazeri is pointing this out.
    Islam is all about justice.
    One of the 99 names of God is “the Just”.

    When the sky is torn
    When the stars are scattered
    When the seas are poured fourth
    When the tombs are burst open
    Then a soul will know what it has given and what it has held back

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  2. can’t but eventually lead to the mass secularization of Iranian society and politics

    Not true.
    No more than in our society. Nejad’s fundamentalists are analogous to American religious conservatives, except for the Israel thing…..they are in favor of virtue, social mores and taboos imposed as law, conservation of tradition, etc.
    But Islamic jurisprudence is rooted in sharia law, and the Islamic judiciary is not very analogous to western lawyers and western judges.

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  3. matoko_chan,

    i’m with you on the lunacy of the axis of idiots as you call them.

    when i’m talking secularization i’m talking i can see the government officially heading that way. not necessarily that everyone (or even a majority of the population) will not be religious. but i think the religion will increasingly conform to a secular world: where it’s generally held in personal/private space.

    Chris_san

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  4. Well I could imagine a scenario in which people tire of (a version of their) religion interfering in politics and vice versa and calling for an end to it.

    There could be an intermediate step I suppose. But since Iran is the first Islamist state I have to think it will probably be the first post-Islamist state as well.

    Regarding Iraq, I think it’s headed to a de facto Shia strongman with a Constitution that has Islam as a founding element of the government on paper but probably not much in terms of real force of law.

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  5. I like the kun btw.

    I said Iran was the first Islamist state–not Islamic (which does belong to Pakistan). I would not characterize Pakistan as Islamist. It certainly has Islamist parties and the influence of Mawdudi/Deobandi types, but not Islamist. Not in the way Iran is I don’t think.

    Interestingly what Iran may be moving towards is looking more like Pakistan where the military are the power behind the throne and have veto over anything.

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  6. As best as I understand Sullivan, he is putting primacy on liberalism–classical liberalism. i.e. Rule of law, inherent rights, etc. So he allows for religious language and logic within the bounds of liberal society. He doesn’t adhere to a view that–a kind of ideology in my opinion–that all religious language should be totally shunned from public discourse/debate.

    But any discourse he finds irreconcilable with liberalism and religious he lables “ist”. The danger of course is that he broad brush labels everyone who disagrees with him as illiberal. (Which in some cases I’m sure he’s right about, others I’m not entirely sure). Particularly in very difficult debates where both sides are invoking rights: say abortion…

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  7. So is Christianist Islamist.

    There certainly are elements like Christian Reconstructionists who want to takeover the US gov’t and impose a Christian theocracy. They are in my opinion very fringe however much some of the rhetoric from other figures (like a Huckabee) bleeds over.

    Islamism as a movement is of course quite mainstream and is the only organized resistance and alternative in much of the Arab world in particular. Christianism is more a retrograde movement in the US. It’s mostly become the vehicle for fears of the cultural hegemony of white Protestant America. I also think unlike many forms of Islamism it just doesn’t have the numbers.

    So in a general sense I think there are some parallels. But when you dig a little deeper there are significant differences. Just bandying the terms about and calling people Christianist or whatever I think is usually pretty unhelpful.

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  8. Chris_kun, a major huge difference is that is Islamic scholarship and Islamic jurisprudence are valued far more in Islamic societies than Christian scholarship is in ours. Christian jurisprudence doesn’t exist in our society.
    In American culture a college degree in secular law or medicine or science is the greatest good….in Shi’a Islam….the lawyers are the clergy.
    So Montazeri’s statement packs a whallop. That part of the Assembly of Experts (Rafsanjani and his allies) and part of the Guardian Council dissent against Khameini and Nejad is simply huge.
    The more Nejad and Khameini crack down on the dissidents, the more they lose legitimacy. The cost to stay in power I think is too large.
    The regime would have to pull a Tianaman to accomplish that.
    2500 dead and 20,000 wounded?
    That would mean the end of the regime.
    I see signs that the army would not support that.

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  9. matoko_chan,

    that analogy may work. definitely the later half of it is right. we’ll have to see how this plays out. but so far they are employing what Gandhi called “truth-force” satyagraha. And it has deep roots in Shi’ism just as MLK’s movement was deeply Christian.

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  10. Chris_kun, you must admit that this is not the rebellion of westernized college students against Islamic authority.
    This is the contest of two different visions of al-Islam.
    And…..imho Qom will decide the outcome.

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