In The Shia Revival, author Vali Nasr offers a metanarrative for contextualizing and understanding trends and events in the post-Saddam Middle East— and it is one that predates American hegemony and even Western regional influence. The conflict between Islam’s two main sects, Sunnism and Shi’ism, will shape the future order of the Middle East, upsetting centuries-old Sunni predominance and increasing Iran’s clout, according to Nasr. In this seminal 2006 work, Nasr outlines the nascent history and identity of the two sects, before moving on to watershed moments in the modern age, such as the Islamic Revolution and the Second Gulf War. Finally, he concludes with some explanations for how Shias around the Middle East will react to the Shia Revival, and offers predictions for the future. The original rift began with a question of succession to the Prophet Muhammad, whether it should be determined by consensus, as Sunnis believe, or through heritage within the Prophet’s family, as Shias contend. The Shia argument revolves around the Prophet’s statement that, “Whoever recognizes me as his master will recognize Ali [the Prophet’s cousin and son‑in‑law] as his master.” Eventually, Sunni Islam became the predominant sect amassing great worldly success through the Abbasid and Umayyad Dynasties, while Shias dissented from the established order and did not associate their faith’s validity with worldly success.
The book then charts a course explaining the dynamic between a Shia minority in the Arab world with a Sunni majority ruling over them. Nasr explains that modernization played a large role in changing the ties between Shia elites and their communities. While in rural areas, the Shia were often loyal to large Shia landowners who were essentially coopted by Sunnis, this was not the case in urban areas. Once Shias moved into urban areas like Beirut, motivated by the maxim that “city air is free air,” those middle class and poor Shia urgently wanted and expected a direct voice in politics. In those slums, social services mostly came via the efforts of clerical leaders.
He writes that Arab and Pakistani nationalism, in particular, were compelling ideologies for the Arab world’s Shias, because of the inclusiveness that it espoused. However, he argues that Arab nationalism is at its heart a Sunni phenomenon, and that “the Shi’a learned the harsh lesson that secular regimes and ideologies may come and go, but Sunni biases endure.” Essentially, these secular nationalist experiments promised much more than they delivered on in terms of inclusiveness. In particular, Saddam Hussein put Shia leader Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr to death in a vicious manner, and expelled tens of thousands of Shias. This discrimination killed the Shia interest in Arab nationalism.
A particularly ugly trend against Shia is described in the writings and influence of ibn Taymiyya, a 13th century Islamic scholar, which set the tone for much of the sectarian conflict today. He, in particular, saw the Shia as “the enemy within,” and had a strong influence on Wahhabis and Salafis. In line with Sunni conceptions of worldly power, Ibn Taymiyya believed that good leadership began with ascent to power (showkat), and that the fact that Shia imams were not able to win power made them ipso facto unworthy of having it. The idea that this very dismissive argument along with his verbal attacks and physical attacks may have prevented Shia power doesn’t seem to weigh heavily in ibn Taymiyya’s writings. Similarly, Sunnis in India tended to associate divine favor and worldly success. Therefore, in their eyes, Shia influence appeared “as both a cause and a gauge of Muslim decline.”
A short period of harmony and unison seems to have followed in the early twentieth century, based on mutually shared threats. With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1924, the caliphate was abolished, thus ending the most important symbolic link to the Muslim past and Muslim unity. The new threats of colonialism and secularism changed the priorities of both Sunni and Shia sects. “Intra-Muslim polemics began to appear trivial in the harsh light cast by colonialism and secularism,” Nasr writes. Interestingly, it was during this period that al-Azhar University authorized the teaching of courses on Shia jurisprudence, and its rector recognized Shia law as the fifth school of Islamic law.
However, this tolerant period was short‑lived, as regional developments would soon dampen the shared threats that formed the basis of the understanding. Along with the rise of Shia and Sunni fundamentalism, the 1970s saw the weakening of the secular states such as the Pahlavi monarchy, as well as the slow death of Arab nationalism, manifested in the utter defeat of the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel.
One of Nasr’s strongest and most compelling sections is on “Khomeini’s moment,” certainly a pivotal point in modern Shia history and the history of the Middle East as a whole. The author opens with an illuminating personal anecdote, recounted to him by Mehdi Haeri Yazdi, Khomeini’s teacher and mentor. Khomeini displayed great mastery in analyzing Mulla Sadra’s book Four Journeys, a spiritual text that charts the search for Truth as a four-part journey. In it, “man is led to God, learns to open himself up to spiritual wisdom, and then returns to the world as one who has become united with God, reflecting his divine attributes and qualities.” Nasr writes that Haeri told him that during the height of the Iran-Iraq War, he went to Khomeini in distress to see if he could find a way to stop the slaughter. According to the author, Haeri said, “It is not right for Muslims to kill Muslims. Hundreds of thousands are dying in a war that has no end and no good purpose.” Khomeini’s response was, “Do you also criticize God when he sends an earthquake?” Years later, Haeri said he came to realize that Khomeini saw himself in the final part of Sadra’s journey, and that as a human he had taken on such divine attributes through his closeness with God that he could virtually function as a divine lawgiver.
Nasr then outlines the history of the relationship between Iran’s Shia ulama and its worldly rulers. He writes that during the Qajar dynasty, the shahs were unwilling or unable to defend the nation from colonialism, and that it was the ayatollahs who provided this line of defense. In particular, the Tobacco Concession of 1892 demonstrated the superior power of the religious establishment. When Naser al-Din Shah gave exclusive control of the tobacco trade to a British company, popular opposition mounted. It was the Shia religious establishment that came to the defense of popular sentiment, when Mirza Hasan Shirazi issued a fatwas banning tobacco use. “The shah could grant a tobacco monopoly, but an ayatollah could decide whether that grant would mean anything.” The issue finally came to a close with the cancellation of the concession, and the shah essentially bowing to the ayatollah.
The Qajar dynasty ended with a coup orchestrated by Reza Khan in 1925, and provided for another seminal moment in the relationship between Iran’s religious and secular leaders. Watching the developments in the newly formed secular Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk, Iran’s ulama concluded that a republic may bring along a forced secularism, which they viewed as a threat. Therefore, they persuaded Reza Khan to proclaim himself to be a Shah instead. However, as events unfolded, the Shi’a ulama would soon realize that Reza Khan’s title didn’t matter much, as he began a vast modernizing campaign that saw Shiism as a hindrance to his agenda.
This pendulum between religion and secularism in Iran would drastically swing in the other direction with power being shifted to the religious establishment in the late 1970s, culminating in the Islamic Revolution. Nasr writes that Khomeini referred to the Shah’s regime in religious terminology reserved for describing the enemies of the Twelfth Imam, and that many government officials were executed for fighting against the Twelfth Imam. Nasr concludes that all this was designed to present a Manichean choice to the Iranian people between good and evil.
Shiism also played a central role in one of the darkest chapters of the Islamic Republic, the Iran-Iraq War. Vali Nasr offers some elucidating anecdotes that highlight the revolutionary fervor as well as the powerful conception of martyrdom in Shi’a Islam that drove many young men and boys to give their lives up to a war that was a spiritual as well as physical fight. Nasr writes that each of the soldiers was given a plastic key, representing the key to the gates of paradise. Interestingly, professional actors were sent in white clothing atop white horses to appear as the Twelfth Imam and bless soldiers who were suddenly awakened from their sleep to the sight of an apparition. In this fight between good and evil, Iranian pure willingness to die proved to be a vital factor, one that was able to overcome Iraq’s military superiority, according to Nasr.
However, despite the revolutionary zeal and deep religiosity that Khomeini was able to tap into and lead within Iran, he found it difficult to lead the broader Sunni Muslim world, to overcome the sectarian divide essentially. His regional strategy was the same one that Iran’s leaders apply today: to focus on secular issues that unite all Muslims rather than sectarian or theological issues that divide. Partly because of this strategy, then, Khomeini was a great foe of imperialism and was even more anti-Israeli than the Arabs. Despite this strategy, Khomeini’s pan-Islamic credentials did not always appeal to the broader Muslim world. In particular, when Khomeini supported the Assad regime over the Muslim Brotherhood after the Hama massacre in 1982, it underlined that the conflict was falling under familiar sectarian lines.
The Islamic Revolution serves as one of the two most seminal points in Nasr’s explanation of the Shia revival phenomenon. The Shia world welcomed this revolution with great pride, especially because Shias had achieved the goals of Islamic Statehood that Sunni activists like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e Islami had fought for in vain for so long. “The revolution awakened the Shi’a,” Nasr writes, “They became bolder in their demands for rights and representation.” The revolution not only sent a symbolic message of Shia empowerment, but it also led to the empowerment of avowedly Shia movements across the Middle East, many of which received financial and political support from Tehran. Riding this wave of Shia victory, Hezbollah and its principal backer, Iran, scored another rare victory in the 1980s by forcing an Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. This also added to the sense of Shia pride, as Hezbollah was able to beat Israel in an area where the Palestinians had previously failed.
The other seminal point in the Shia Revival was the fall of Saddam Hussein and the opening of Iraq to its Shia. Nasr points out that Iraq is the first state in the Arab world to be ruled by a democratically empowered Shia majority. He outlines some of the major events and trends that have led to an increase in Shia power and a decrease in traditional Sunni power in Iraq. In particular, the author focuses on the role of the Shia political parties and leaders including SCIRI, al-Dawa, Muqtada al-Sadr’s party and his Mahdi Army. Most importantly, he writes, that these groups have been able to maintain a large degree of cohesiveness in their strive for increase Shia power through the personality of Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a leading voice for Shia solidarity. Sistani has also consistently urged Shia not to respond to Sunni violent attacks, arguing that falling into the sectarian war would be a trap. Another important moment was the 2005 elections, which the Sunnis boycotted, hoping that the 60% quota would not be reached. Ultimately, they overestimated their own numbers and were locked out of power as a result.
Nasr also writes that a big part of the Shia Revival is the rise of Iran in recent years. However, one must temper his somewhat one-sided case for this trend. The author focuses on the increased role of Qom as a religious institution, taking over Najaf, as a harbinger of Iran’s rise. Indeed, while this trend has taken place, it must be added that this has helped to bolster Iran’s soft power (its ability to obtain what it wants through co-option and attraction), rather than its hard power (its ability to obtain through coercion or payment). Certainly, Iran has assumed greater regional leadership over the Middle East’s recently awakened Shia. However, its hard power, including Iran’s economy and military may be a different story. Nasr writes that with the US toppling of Saddam and the Taliban, “the collapse of the Sunni wall freed Iran to expand its regional influence at a time when the country vibrant cultural and economic scene demands greater expression.” Again, this may be overly‑optimistic with regard to Iran, especially considering the degree to which Iran has been isolated, culminating in ever‑stricter unilateral as well as multilateral sanctions legislation. Additionally, the economy of the Islamic Republic is plagued by high inflation rates and its nuclear program has yet to achieve desired levels of enrichment or even be integrated into the electrical power grid. Indeed, Nasr is right that Iran is rising regionally, but it would be prudent to add that it is a rise impeded by many obstacles and constraints along the way.
Finally, Vali Nasr offers a few predictions toward the end of the book. He writes that since Saudi Arabia is the US’ closest ally and is viewed as complicit in the Shia revival, the House of Saud may be undermined. Riyadh can no longer claim to be sustaining Sunni dominance, which has decreased its religious legitimacy, essentially. Nasr then says that the “Shia Revival in Iraq…may well lead to regime change in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.” Thus far, the prediction about Saudi Arabia has not materialized nor has it offered any possible signs of taking place. Indeed, while much of the rest of the Arab world is in a state of turmoil, Saudi Arabia’s kingdom seems to be relatively stable, bolstered by high oil prices. On the other hand, his prediction has proven to be rather prescient in the face of events in Bahrain, with the Shia majority rising up against the Sunni government and al‑Khalifa leadership. However, it must be noted that this is a rather safe prediction in the case of Bahrain, as the Shia majority have been involved in every anti‑government agitation in that island country.
Certainly, the so‑called Arab Spring offers an interesting test for Nasr’s analysis and predictions. The most revealing scenario perhaps is in the case of Egypt, one of the most important states of the Middle East. Nasr wrote in 2006, “it was not the battle of liberty against oppression but rather the age‑old battle of the two halves of Islam, Shias and Sunnis. This was the conflict that Iraq has rekindled and this is the conflict that will shape the future.” Yet in the case of Egypt, with a month of mostly peaceful demonstrations and the ouster of an aging dictator, that has not been the case. It was, in fact, a battle of liberty, embodied in young protestors clamoring for jobs and freedom, over oppression embodied in a mostly‑discredited government ruled by the same man for thirty years. The Shia‑Sunni divide did not seem to play much of a role in shaping the future in this heavily Sunni populated country, often seen as a leader of the Arab world.
Overall, The Shia Revival outlines an extremely important Middle Eastern trend, one that will have reverberations for the contemporary history of Shiism and Islam as well as for the politics and economics of the constituent states of the region. Additionally, it is not only the states of the region that are taking notice, but the foreign policy circles of other states as well. It must be the case that the United States has taken notice of this Shia empowerment, as author Vali Nasr was tapped to become a State Department advisor after the publication of The Shia Revival. He concludes on an optimistic note that Shias and Sunnis will eventually look for ways to reach a state of peace, and that this will occur primarily through a distribution of power and resources that reflects the demographic realities. With his new government position, one can hope that his analysis and policy proposals help to hasten this equilibrium.