Bahai News - Shi'ite Islam: Polity, Ideology, and Creed 04/01/97
Canadian Journal of History

By Lawson, Todd




Shi'ite Islam: Polity, Ideology, and Creed, by Yann Richard. Translated from French by Antonia Nevill. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Basil Blackwell, 1995. xiii, 241 pp. $54.95 U.S. (cloth), $21.95 U.S. (paper).

Over the last several years a number of general studies of Shi'i Islam have appeared. Until the Iranian Revolution of 1979-80, this minoritarian branch of Islam had received scant attention from scholars. With the successful overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic government, the world became impressed and then curious and finally interested in the anomaly of a successful Third World revolution based on a religion. Many of the recent studies are quite good. This book is excellent in the attention it pays to the human dimension of the topic, in its unsurpassed analysis of recent religio-political pressures, and the prioritizing of the subject matter. Some indication of this is in the Table of Contents which is paraphrased as follows: 1) a general descriptive introduction; 2) discussion of the distinctive notion of a Holy Family; 3) Mystical Theology; 4) Shi'ism and Iran; 5) Shi'ism elsewhere in the world; 6) Temporary Marriage; 7) Shi'ism and revolutionary thought.

The usefulness of the book is exponentially enhanced by the expertise of the author who commands a number of related fields and disciplines: Iranian languages, intellectual history, political history, the sociological implications of religion and revolution in the "twentieth" century. Some chapters of the book are, indeed, classics of vulgarization. Chapter 2, on the phenomenon of the Holy Family in Shi'ism is a welcome addition to the literature. Long recognized by Islamicists and scholars of religion as an important and striking mode of expression for Shi'ite religiosity, introductory works on the topic have not always grasped this particular nettle. Richard locates precisely some of those hidden springs which fed and sustained this unlikely revolution. In chapter 3, a natural continuation of 2, the author demonstrates his profound erudition in texts and matters frequently judged to be far from the theatre of political and revolutionary activity. Here it is not merely the strong martyrdom motif that has been nourished in Iran, but also some of the more esoteric themes. The author raises and intelligibly answers a question that students of Iranian religion have been worrying for much of the last century. Is there a preternatural tendency in the Iranian soul for the kind of piety and relgiousity that Shi'ism is identified by?

Unfortunately, the translation is not very good. Indeed, the apparent confusion about the authorship of the Bab's commentary on the Quramc sura of Joseph (cited below) is probably one of many instances of this. In fact, the coverage of the Babi/Bahai movement is the least satisfactory part of the book: the Bab was indeed born in Shiraz, but in 1819, not "1819 or 1820" (p. 72); the Bab did not "edit in Arabic a commentary on the Joseph chapter in the Koran" (p. 72) -- he composed such a commentary. Nor is it accurate to say that "the Bab ... caused many violent riots in several Iranian provinces." We know that some of his followers "caused" such disturbances, but we have never, despite the manner in which Richard interprets some recent scholarship, been able to establish with complete historical certainty that the Bab gave orders for such uprisings. It is also not completely clear what is meant by the sentence: "His downfall probably caused the later disciples to reflect, and they became partisans of Baha'ollah, being known as Baha'is" (p. 73) -- perhaps another translation problem? There is no space to go into this question in the detail it deserves, but before leaving the topic, I must register some continued wonderment at the author's apparent need to "explain" the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran. I quote: "[I]n Islam, even more than in other religions, belonging to the faith has a collective value and if the believer is asked to utter his profession of faith (shahada) 'There is no god but God and Mohammed is His Prophet,' it is only to confirm a sense of belonging to a Community that was acquired at birth" (p. 74). This sentence comes close to a kind of "blame the victim" attitude. The brutal truth remains that dozens of quite innocent Iranians who refused to recant their Baha'i faith were executed in a variety of ways. (In some cases when families were allowed to claim the remains of their loved ones they were at the same time presented with a bill for the bullets used.) The Baha'i community, like several other minority communities has suffered in Iran, both before and after the revolution (as the author points out). But the rapacity with which the leaders of the revolution sought to exterminate it is possibly unparalleled in recent times. To petition the Islamic communal ethos as explanation -- which reads much more like an excuse -- for this sad story is misleading. In the author's mention of three famous "Baha'i" names to try and demonstrate Baha'i complicity with the oppressive government of the Shah he shows a remarkable lack of knowledge about the topic (p. 75). And contrary to the footnote at the bottom of the page, Amir 'Abbas Hoveyda was not excluded from the Baha'i faith "as he entered politics"; his entire family had been excluded from it at least a generation earlier. Nor did the Baha'is settle in the Acre/Haifa area "under the British mandate" (p. 74) as the text says (an assertion frequently made by Iranian authorities (both before and after the revolution!) to bolster the claim that the Baha'i faith is a western/Israeli-influenced fifth column inside Iran. They were banished, in 1868, to the then prison city of Acre, Palestine by the Ottoman authorities who still controlled the area.

It is unfortunate that such legends continue to be repeated, especially after the recent increase of scholarship on the topic. It is certainly unfortunate that such misrepresentations are allowed to mar what is otherwise a perfectly fine and in some respects quite excellent work.


By Todd Lawson, The Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

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