Book Review: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr
In his book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (2006), Vali Nasr addresses an issue that is gaining increased importance in the contemporary coverage of global Islam: Sunni-Shia relations. Vali Nasr is a widely respected scholar who claims expertise in multiple fields that pertain to Middle Eastern and South Asian politics, particularly Sunni-Shia relations. In the book Nasr examines the issue from, what some would consider to be, a Shia perspective that is often overlooked in favor of Sunni viewpoints. This is made apparent through his disdain of how Islamic history has traditionally been viewed though a Sunni point of view, which Nasr expresses in the introduction.
Nasr argues that Sunni-Shia relations can be described as “a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history” (Nasr, 2006, p.20). The book also describes the oppression that Shias have faced throughout the Islamic world, particularly the Arab world, and how Shias will be rising to power in different parts of the Islamic world. Nasr’s account of the current situation and the past helps the reader further understand how the religious dynamics of the modern Middle East have changed, and will continue to change the politics of the region for years to come.
Vali Nasr provides the reader with the history of the Sunni-Shia divide, from a mostly Twelver Shia perspective, which can be appreciated in that it provides the view of a minority that has traditionally been underrepresented in Islamic history. Nasr goes beyond mentioning the very basic explanation of the cause of the Sunni-Shia divide (a dispute over who should become the Caliph following Muhammad’s death) by providing a Shia account of the details immediately preceding and succeeding the dispute, which helps provide for a better understanding of current and forthcoming events in the region.
Nasr juxtaposes the divisions within Islam with the divisions within Christianity, to help convey his message through examples that will be better understood by a western audience that is more familiar with Catholicism and Protestantism than with Sunni and Shia Islam, and appropriately provides the perspective of both sects as viewing themselves as the “orthodox Islam”. The geographical shifts that occurred in the Islamic world in regard to Sunni-Shia population centers are examined as key cities such as Cairo and Damascus both served as centers of Sunni leadership at times and Shia leadership at others.
Iran’s religious demographics are also thoroughly examined in respect to how the Persian shift from Sunnism to Shiism took place, this shift could be labeled as one of the most important changes in Islamic history since, as a result of this change Iran now serves as the main center of Shiism and is thus a key actor in modern Sunni-Shia discourse. Later in the book Nasr will argue that “it is not possible to separate what is happening in Lebanon or Iraq from the dramatic rise of Iran as a regional power” (Nasr, 2006, p.268). These relations are further explored through the examination of long standing Persian-Arab conflicts, which Nasr claims to be synonymous with the Sunni-Shia conflict.
Nasr asserts that the Sunni-Shia conflict is a direct result of the long-term oppression of Sunnis upon both minority and majority Shia populations. Nasr alleges that “in Saudi Arabia, it is said that Shias spit in their food...in Pakistan, are tagged with derogatory nicknames such as ‘mosquitoes’” (Nasr, 2006, p.23), although these claims may have some basis, derogatory propaganda such as this are by no means known by the general population and seem to be taken from secluded circles that preach intolerance. It is indisputable that Shias have often been repressed under Sunni-dominated regimes and have often been condemned for their various practices, including the manner in which Ashura is observed.
However, not all acts of intolerance towards “Shia practices” are a result of Sunni-Shia disagreements, as many are in violation of the rulings of both prominent Sunni and Shia religious scholars (such as self-flagellation during Ashura and depiction of the Prophet and his companions). This is not to imply, that all of Nasr’s claims of mistreatment stem from exaggeration, his accounts of how Arab Shias have unjustly and frequently been viewed as Persian by their Sunni counterparts are well documented. This labeling of Shias as Persian further blurs the line between conflicts that are a result of religious differences and those that are due to ethnic differences.
The main theme of Nasr’s book is the existence of a Shia revival that will result in a conflict “that will shape the future” (Nasr, 2006, p.254). The increased power of Iran and the newly gained rights of the Shias in Iraq serve as a basis for the spread of Shia political authority. Only three nations in the world contain Shia majorities: Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. After The Iraq War Shias have become able to further their own political power and have gained most of the political power in the country. Bahrain is still ruled by a Sunni monarchy backed by the neighboring Arab countries, leading Nasr to proclaim Iraq to be first Arab-Shia state. Nasr predicts that “the center of gravity will no longer lie with the Arab Sunnis but will be held by Shia ones” and argues that the United States, and the West in general, should become more familiar with Shiism and Shias themselves to be able to have a better understanding of the situation when this does occur.
Despite the scholarly insight it provides, The Shia Revival often misconstrues and oversimplifies conflicts within the Middle East in order to attribute them to the Sunni-Shia split.
Despite the scholarly insight it provides, The Shia Revival often misconstrues and oversimplifies conflicts within the Middle East in order to attribute them to the Sunni-Shia split. Every conflict from the disagreements between Lebanon and Syria and the creation of Hezbollah to the Iran-Iraq War and the ongoing war in Iraq has been linked to Sunni-Shia conflicts by Nasr. the For example, Nasr claims that the Iran-Iraq war was a “Sunni-Shia” war, however when Iraqi Shias were forced to choose a side they decided to ally themselves with their fellow [Sunni] Iraqis against the, predominantly, Shia Iranian military.
Nasr Clearly overemphasizes the sectarian tensions in the Middle East and South Asia, while underestimating the importance of ethnic and national differences in the region. Nasr’s apparent predisposition to attribute conflicts to Sunni-Shia differences may be partially attributed to his serving in consulting capacities to both President George W. Bush and both houses of the Congress on multiple occasions in regard to the Middle East, particularly the sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr’s Western perspective and governmental ties are also apparent from his constant advising, which transcends into warnings at times, that the West, particularly the United States, need to realize their interests that lie in the Shia populations of the Middle East and South Asia.
Although Nasr, commendably, tries to explain historical and modern phenomenon from a perspective that is often overlooked, he fails to correctly portray the views of other Muslim groups. Nasr started his book by arguing that the world has too often excluded the Shia perspective of Islam, however Nasr commits the same offense by ignoring and/or misrepresenting the smaller divisions within Shiism in favor of the Twelver version of Shiism. Nasr goes as far as stating that Ismailis have broken away from “some of the fundamental teachings of Shiism and even Islam” (Nasr, 2006, p.76), a statement that is clearly teeming with Twelver bias. He is also manages to inaccurately describe even some of the most basic aspects of Sunni Islam.
Nasr claims that “Sunnis do not believe in the second coming of a particular individual whose advent will culminate in the end of the world” (Nasr, 2006, p.68), despite the fact that the second coming of Jesus is described in detail by numerous canonical hadith collections, that are accepted by Sunnis such as Bukhari (4:55:658) and Abu Dawud (37:4310), as being a precursor to the end of the world. These aspects of Nasr’s writing differ from viewpoints of Islam that are viewed from a traditionally Sunni perspective, like that of Akbar Ahmed in the sense that, as a result of their minority status, Shias are forced to address the sectarian differences, as compared to Sunni scholars who can quickly brush over the minority views and focus on the broader category of Islam.
Despite certain biases and misrepresentations, The Shia Revival provides groundwork for further understanding of the complex and shifting conflicts within the Middle East. In the final chapter, Nasr acknowledges that “Most Shias and Sunnis will look for ways to reach a state of peace...and share political goals and aspirations” (Nasr, 2006, p.253). This attitude, to an extent, mirrors Samuel Huntington’s view of a class of civilizations in regard to how Nasr argues that the two groups are predisposed to conflict. However it also has communalities with Richard Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian civilization, to the extent that it realizes that many of the basic beliefs of both groups are shared and can be used for common grounds. Nasr concludes his argument by reiterating the necessity of a democratic Sunni-Shia civilization that encompasses sectarian freedom cultivated under a banner of democracy.
Nasr, V. (2006). The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: Norton.