The Shi'i Muslims of the Arab World
Considered globally, only about ten percent of all Muslims are Shi’a.1 The largest single concentration, located in Iran, represents 95 percent of the entire population of 40 million people. Elsewhere, more than 22 million mainstream Shi’a may be found in India and Pakistan. There are also sizable communities in the Soviet Union, Turkey, Afghanistan, East and West Africa, and the Americas. The subject of this issue, the Arab Shi’i Muslims—concentrated in the Arab East or al-Mashriq—number about ten million.
A little more than a decade ago, policy-makers, informed citizens and even many scholars knew little of Shi’i Islam, its practices or its adherents, and many textbooks on Middle Eastern politics or society devoted only cursory space to the Shi’a. A decade of good scholarship has helped to shed much needed light on Shi’ism, but this serious work has often been overwhelmed by breathless accounts of terror-violence and simple-minded explanations of the “Shi’i mentality.” Shi’ism, too frequently, is equated with an anachronistic vision of a society most noteworthy for its austerity, its brutality and its social rigidity.
Even in polite company the mere mention of Shi’i Muslims is likely to evoke a potently negative stereotype of crazed fanatics intent on martyring themselves in order to gain a place in Paradise. Yet, stereotypes are hardly knowledge, for stereotyping merely attempts to capture the essence of a people in a word or an image. The inapplicability of such one dimensional perspectives is shown in the case of the Arab Shi’i Muslims, who exemplify a splendid diversity of political and social attitudes. Although the vast majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims, concentrations of Arab Shi’a are found in some key states of the Arab world. In Iraq and Bahrain the Arab Shi’a account for majorities; they are the plurality in Lebanon; and they constitute important minorities throughout the Gulf states, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The event that ultimately brought Shi’ism to the fore was the revolution in Iran, one of the most remarkable events of the 20th century, and, in some quarters, one of the most surprising. Suddenly, a pro-western, modernizing Shah, much disliked by his subjects, was toppled by a coalition of centrist reformers, leftist revolutionaries, and Shi’i clerics. “Shi’i politics” imposed a stunning failure on the Carter Administration, which found many of its assumptions regarding Iran were dead wrong. It is also fitting to recall that while the revolutionary forces were gathering steam in Iran, many leading scholars were still treating religion as an historic relic that would be overwhelmed inevitably by the forces of modernity and change. When it comes to the “Islamic Revolution,” academics may hardly claim a record of prescient scholarship.
As with all religions, Islam is not just a system of beliefs or a set of ceremonial practices. It has been shaped decisively by historical developments. Thus, in order to gain an appreciation of Islam, and specifically Shi’i Islam, it is appropriate to discuss its early history. But, it needs to be emphasized that the behavior of 20th-century Muslims can no more be explained or predicted with reference to events that took place 1,300 years ago, than the behavior of 20th-century Lutherans could be predicted on the basis of the formidable influence of Martin Luther in the 16th century. Historical background is just that, background. It helps us to understand how a group defined by a religion was shaped by its history, and how that history has been kept alive as a source of inspiration.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a religion rich in diversity and tradition. Just as sectarian divisions separate Christians into adherents of Orthodoxy, Catholicism and an array of Protestant denominations, Islam is divided into an admixture of sects, and schools of religious law. The most important division in Islam stems from the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., when the Shi’i Muslims emerged as an organized sect within the ummah or the community of Muslims.
The events that gave rise to Shi’ism were the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. and the debate over succession that followed his death and led to a schism within Islam. Muhammad could not be replaced as a prophet. He was and is viewed by Muslims everywhere as the “Seal of the Prophets,” the last and final prophet selected by Allah through the Angel Gabriel in 610 A.D. (Not all readers may realize that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same God. Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. Thus, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims alike worship Allah.)
But, Muhammad was not only a prophet, he was a statesman. He was the head of the nascent Islamic state created in the city of Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) and thereby the leader of all Muslims on Earth. At the time of his death, the majority opinion held that the prophet had not designated a successor, therefore leaving the community free to elect a successor to Muhammad. However, some of the Muslims disagreed. They argued that the successor should come from the Ahl al-Beit (the House of the Prophet). Because this minority argued for ‘Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the husband of his daughter, Fatima, they were called Shi’at ‘Ali (literally, the partisans of ‘Ali), the derivation of “Shi’a.” According to Shi’i accounts, on at least two occasions Muhammad designated ‘Ali as his successor. But, the majority did not agree and Abu Bakr, the brother-in-law of Muhammad, was named as the caliph (or successor) to the prophet.
The Shi’a persist in claiming that only members of the Ahl al-Beit were legitimate successors. Thus, the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, are viewed as usurpers of the place that should have rightly gone to ‘Ali. In Shi’i terminology, the legitimate successors to the prophet are called imams (the noun imam means the one who stands in front of a group).
After the first three caliphs had died, Ali was finally named the caliph in 656 A.D. Caliph ‘Ali led a Muslim army from Medina against the rival claimant, Mu’awiya, who was the nephew of ‘Uthman and the governor of Syria. Although this army held the upper hand on the battlefield, Imam ‘Ali--as he is called by the Shi’a--was assassinated by a group of his own followers who were angered at his unwillingness to press his military advantage against Mu’awiya. To the dismay of his killers, Imam ‘Ali, who is revered as a man of justice and wisdom, had agreed to arbitration in order to settle the rival leadership claim between him and Mu’awiya. So ended the last and only time that a member of the Ahl al-Beit was accepted as the leader of the ummah (the community of all Muslims everywhere).
Mu’awiya, the successful rival of ‘Ali, established the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, but the Shi’a argued that the rightful successors to ‘Ali were his sons, Hasan and Husain. Hasan abdicated the Imamate though, and he died soon thereafter. (The Shi’a claim that he was poisoned, but experts disagree about the cause of his death. Shi’i accounts usually indicate that all of their imams came to a brutal end, emphasizing the persecution that the Shi’a have often suffered throughout their history. The most famous death was that of Imam Husain, who came to the fore after the abdication of his brother Hasan.)
Shi’ism is alive with rich and powerful myths.2 The central myth of Shi’ism stems from 680 A.D. when Husain, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was martyred on the desolate plain of Karbala, in modern day Iraq. Imam Husain is a figure of stirring bravery, and in many ways his importance for the Shi’a is only surpassed by Muhammad. In particular, it is the martyrdom of Husain that has captured the imagination of many modern Shi’a.
Husain took to the field with a small force of 72 men to meet the armies of Yazid, who had replaced his father Mu’awiya as the caliph. Husain warned his followers that the likely outcome of their expedition was death. At Karbala they found themselves badly outnumbered, and Husain’s prediction proved correct. Surrounded, lacking food and water, and after days of arduous siege, Husain was slaughtered with his own followers. Husain’s decapitated body was left on the sands, and his severed head was carried in triumph to Yazid in Damascus.
The events at Karbala occurred on the tenth day (’ashura) of the month of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar. ‘Ashura lives on in the hearts of many Shi’a who commemorate Husain’s martyrdom annually in ritual processions as well as folk dramas (ta’ziyeh or shabih), which recreate the events. Traditionally, ‘Ashura was the occasion for Shi’is to show their piety or to pray for the intercession of Imam Husain, but in recent years it has become a revolutionary statement. Shi’i leaders have used the martyrdom of Husain to remind their followers of the bravery and the sacrifice that is their heritage.
Husain was succeeded by his son ‘Ali Zain al-’Abidin, the only son to survive the Karbala massacre. Captured by Yazid’s army, he was later allowed to retire to Medina. The majority of the Shi’a, often called “Twelvers,” trace the successors of Muhammad through twelve imams, listed in the chart which follows. After the death of the fourth Imam, fissures began to open within Shi’ism. Although this discussion of the Arab Shi’a focuses on the Twelvers, who constitute the mainstream of Shi’ism, short capsules on the other major Shi’i groups are pertinent.
Other Shi’i Groups
An estimated three million Zaidis are found in North Yemen.3 Smaller numbers of Zaidis, located in Saudi Arabia, believe that Husain’s grandson Zaid should have been the fifth Imam. Hence, they are sometimes called “Fivers.”4
The Isma’ilis, concentrated in Pakistan, designated Ismail as the seventh Imam, whereas the Twelvers ignored Ismail and chose his brother Musa Kazim. The Isma’ilis are often called Seveners, or al-Sab’iyya from the Arabic. In turn, the Seveners gave rise to a number of sects, including the Carmathians and the Fatamids, who ruled Egypt in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. Another division of the Isma’ilis gave rise to the Nizaris, known to history as the assassins.
The Nizaris remained a formidable presence until their fortress-center in Alamut (in present-day Iran) was ravaged. They reemerged in India in the 19th century under the leadership of the Agha Khan. The current Agha Khan, a widely respected figure, is the 49th in a continuous succession. While the largest number of Nizaris is found in India, there are also communities in Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. In all there are about three million Nizaris. The Bohras or the Must’alians, important in business and commerce in Bombay and in Yemen, stem from the Nizaris.
An important offshoot of the Fatamids are the Druze, who view the Fatamid Caliph Hakim (ruled 996-1012 A.D.) as the last incarnate manifestation of Allah. Many Muslims consider this belief heretical, and therefore decline to acknowledge the Druze as Muslims. The Druze, found in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, number less than one half million.
The Hidden Imam
While the Sunnis believe that revelation stopped with the Prophet, the Shi’a reject this view and say instead that for every age there is an infallible imam who would establish truth through his interpretation of the word of Allah as embodied in the holy book of Islam, the Quran. If an imam is not present, i.e. he is hidden, the role of independently interpreting religious truth devolves to the learned men of Islam, the “doctors” of law who in Shi’ism are called mujtahids
In contrast, Sunnism has traditionally held that the “gates of ijtihad (independent interpretation)” closed in the 10th century, so Sunni religious scholars are constrained to avoid independent deduction or extrapolation. In addition, Sunni Islam emphasizes ijmas (or consensus), and lacks the clerical hierarchy of Shi’ism. This is one reason that lay persons have played a much more active role in leading Sunni religious movements than in Shi’i movements. In short, the ’ulama (learned men) of Shi’ism have a more central, essential and directive role than their Sunni counterparts.
All Shi’a sects share a belief in the Mahdi (the expected One), who will return before the Day of Judgment. The Mahdi will lead the final battle against the forces of evil, who will be defeated. The earth will then be filled with justice, and the Mahdi will rule for a period of time, numbered in years.
In Twelver Shi’ism the Mahdi will be the twelfth Imam, who did not die, but went into Ghaiba (occultation or the state of being hidden and invisible) in the ninth century. The imams lived under very difficult conditions, and in many cases they were put under virtual house arrest by rules who feared their potential influence. Shi’i accounts insist that all the imams, except the twelfth (the Imam al-Ghaib), came to violent ends. Thus, it is not hard to understand that the doctrine of occultation evolved as a means of protection. A leading expert of Shi’ism notes:
The pattern of oppression, that has confronted the Shi’a over the ages, helps to explain the development of other doctrinal aspects of the religion as well. For instance, the doctrine of taqiyya (which permits a Shi’i, when faced with danger, to dissemble regarding his religious belief, and even to pretend to adhere to another religion) is merely a measure of self-defense.
A Comparison with The Sunni Islam
Although there are some significant variations, it is important to remember that all Muslims share a core set of beliefs. Foremost among these is the belief in the unity of God (Tawhid), the belief in prophets,(Nubuwwa) and the Day of Judgment. To this set of core beliefs, Shi’ism adds a belief in the Imamate, and, by extension, the role of the mujtahids.
Sunni Islam prescribes five prayers per day, when possible. However, Shi’ism permits the believer to run together the noon and the afternoon and the evening and the night prayers, making a total of three prayers daily. There are minor variations in the call to prayer, which beckons all believers to pray. In order to pray a Muslim does not have to be in a mosque or any other special place. It is sufficient to attain ritual purity through a prescribed pattern of ablutions, and to separate oneself from contact with the earth with a piece of paper (even a newspaper will do), a prayer rug or a simple piece of cloth. A major difference is the communal Friday prayer, which has gained in importance over the years, especially among the Shi’a.
Like the Sunni, the Shi’a consider it an article of faith to fast daily during the holy month of Ramadan. During the fast, Muslims abstain from both food and water. Since Islam uses a lunar calendar, Ramadan often falls during the hottest months of the year and can be an impressive test of faith.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is carried out by both sects, but the Shi’a also consider it very commendable to visit shrine sites, especially those shown on the following chart. For poor Shi’a these pilgrimages are less of an economic hardship than an expedition to Mecca, and they may be carried out many times during a Shi’i’s lifetime.
Karbala, Iraq--the site of Husain’s martyrdom and his burial place
Najaf, Iraq--the burial place of ‘Ali
Kazimayn, Iraq--the tombs of the 7th and 9th Imams
Samarra, Iraq--tombs of the 10th and 11th Imams
Mashhad, Iran--the tomb of the 8th Imam
Qom, Iran--many tombs, including that of Fatima, the wife of ‘Ali Rida, the 8th Imam
Medina, Saudi Arabia--tombs of the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th Imams
Some scholars have noted that the differences between Shi’i religious law are no greater than the differences that divide the four major Sunni schools of religious law. There are, however, some important differences. Due to the strict codes of modest dress being enforced upon women in Iran, there is a tendency to think of Shi’ism as particularly oppressive for women, but this is certainly not true with respect to all facets of Shi’i law. Perhaps because of the key role of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, the wife of ‘Ali and the mother of Hasan and Husain, Shi’i jurisprudence is often said to be more favorable to women. For instance, Shi’i religious law is much more liberal on the issue of women’s inheritance rights.6 So it is not unusual, but by no means commonplace, for Sunni Muslims to convert to Shi’ism, especially late in life, in order to preserve a larger portion of their estate for their female heirs.7 Divorce is known to be easy for men in Sunnism, and some Shi’i scholars claim divorce under Shi’ism is more favorable to women.
In Shi’ism, religious authorities play a much more indispensable and influential role than in Sunni Islam. But, in contrast to Shi’i and Sunni clerics elsewhere, the Shi’i clerical establishment in Iran has historically enjoyed an unusual amount of political influence. Their power is not only grounded in the social esteem that flows from their exercise of ijtihad, but in financial resources that allow them autonomy from state control. All Muslims accept zakat (alms-giving) as a duty, but in Iran the alms were often paid directly to the mujtahids, providing Shi’i institutions an independent economic base.
Much of the recent violence in the Middle East has been linked by some observers to the resurgence of Islam that has marked the region since 1967. Certain groups have interpreted Islam in a way that justifies, and even extols violence, just as small numbers of Jews in Israel have claimed a religious basis for their acts of violence against Palestinian Arabs. But most Islamic activists have been no more extreme in their methods and goals than their secularly-inclined political cohorts. The commentary of two distinguished scholars on the subject of “Shi’i Muslim terrorism” is germane:
During the past three decades, the dominant secular ideologies--Nasserism, Ba’thism and Arab socialism--all too often seemed only empty slogans on the lips of selfish politicians. As a result, many Arab Muslims reidentified Islam as a culturally authentic refuge and ideology. The return to Islam has occurred in a political environment where charges of repression, corruption and injustice are not merely anti-government mottoes, but are characteristics of widespread political malaise. In contrast to the perceived profligacy of the rulers, Islam offers an austere alternative unbesmirched by the corruption and failure that has marked political life in the modern era. In short, Islam is a familiar ideology in a region where alternative ideologies have failed. The latest example of this is from occupied Gaza and the West Bank where Palestinian Arab youths, tired of listening to PLO rhetoric, have turned to Islam as a locus of political identity.9
This is not to say that the current resurgence of Islam is a novel development. It is only the most recent example of an attempt to arrive at a culturally authentic political formula whose modern origins can be traced to the Islamic revival at the beginning of this century.10
For example, one of the venerable activist groups is the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928. Today, the Brotherhood has branches in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the territories occupied by Israel. Its most recent period of rejuvenation began in Egypt in 1971.
It is a serious error to assume that organizations like the Brotherhood have a natural affinity and friendship for other Muslim groupings; often the groups are as much at odds with one another as they are with the secular authorities. For instance, Husain Musawi, the Lebanese Shi’i extremist linked by many observers to a number of anti-western violent episodes, including the 1982 kidnapping of American University of Beirut President David Dodge, dismisses the Brotherhood as a “deviationist organization..tied to America.”11
Nevertheless, common Islamic institutions have provided a locus for political action for both Shi’is and Sunnis--especially where the right of free political association has been limited or proscribed by the governing authority. Islamic groups often have been able to organize in the mosque, free from the government’s intrusive gaze. In the case of Shi’i Muslims, the Husainiyya (a community religious center, used both for ceremonies and political meetings) is an important rallying point for political action.
Only a faction of the nascent Islamic associations and movements (more than 100 in the Arab countries by a most conservative count) are led by clerics, and many, particularly Sunni ones, are led by lay [men or women]. A fair number are avowedly anti-clerical, reflecting the view that the clerics are mere minions of the government. Many of the new groups draw their membership from the relatively well-educated middle and lower middle classes whose needs are not being met by the government. Although Islamic activists are frequently inspired by religious values and a desire to protect traditional customs against the onslaught of western values and symbols, they are also concerned with who gets what, when and how much. This is the basic political significance for the Islamic resurgence. The Middle East is witnessing a comprehensive form of political action, rather than an esoteric movement of pious Muslims (though many Muslims may indeed be pious in their beliefs.)
It has become popular among western observers to regard the proliferation of extremist Islamic protest movements and dissident groups as an outgrowth of the Iranian revolution. Many of the currently active groups, however, predate the revolution by a significant chronological margin. By presuming that every group is sponsored by Qom or Tehran, the nature of the phenomenon is grossly oversimplified. This is not to deny that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s success in Iran has provided an exemplar for the dissatisfied—in short, what pious, well-organized Muslims can accomplish in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Many Islamic groups that do not seek to establish an Islamic state may derive inspiration from the success of their Muslim colleagues in Iran.
Populist Islamic movements among the Shi’i and Sunni Muslims of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have grown rapidly. They share a basic faith in Islam, a sense of opposition to corrupt and unjust government, commitment to social justice and equal rights, and an antipathy to external meddling in the area. Adherents of both sects take inspiration from Iran as well as from the resistance of the mujahidin to the Soviets in Afghanistan.
There is also mutual distrust between Sunni and Shi’i activists in the Gulf states, evident in September 1983, when Sunni militants in Kuwait set fire to a Shi’i mosque under construction.12 Recent bombing and sabotage incidents linked to Shi’i citizens of Kuwait have deepened the mutual suspicions between Shi’i and Sunni citizens of Kuwait. Similar tense relationships between the two sects are apparent in Lebanon, where the long dominant Sunnis now find their position under challenge from politically assertive Shi’is.
The Impact of The Revolution in Iran
The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and his confederates made Shi’ism suddenly a subject of rapt commentary. If religion, particularly Shi’ism, was not much noticed prior to the revolution, it quickly elbowed its way into the western public’s consciousness. Yet as the brouhaha subsided, the peculiar circumstances of Iran became clearer. The revolution was a more unique and unrepeatable event than many had assumed.
Until the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Shi’i clerics did not involve themselves in the temporal problem of ruling. What Khomeini did was to develop a new interpretation of Shi’ism. Often accused of wanting to turn back the clock, Khomeini has, in fact, developed a new orthodoxy, a new Shi’ism which departs significantly from the historical. In particular, the concept of the Wilayet-al-Faqih (the rule of the juris-consult), which is the doctrinal justification for Khomeini’s paramount political role in Iran, is a mechanism for clerical rule that is absent in Shi’ism throughout its history.
The Common Denominators
While the appeal of a reenergized Shi’ism is not high among the majority of Muslims (90 percent of whom are Sunnis), the events in Iran had a more profound effect in the Arab Shi’i communities. In descending order, the largest populations of Twelver Shi’a are found in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. There are also small numbers of Twelvers in Syria and Oman. In addition, small but significant communities of Persian-speaking Shi’is of Iranian origin are also found in Bahrain and Kuwait. Many Persian-speaking Iraqi Shi’is were expelled from Iraq after 1980. Since the establishment of Shi’ism in Safavid Iran, in the 16th century, there have been important links between these Arab communities and Iran. Indeed, religious scholars from Jabal ‘Amil (South Lebanon) and Bahrain moved to Iran four centuries ago in order to assist in the installation of Shi’ism.
A number of somewhat related factors have combined to accentuate the salience of religious identity for many Shi’a. As rule of thumb, it is safe to predict that wherever they are found in the Arab world, the Shi’a are likely to be disadvantaged in comparison with non-Shi’a. In fact, outside of Iran there is no country in the world where the Shi’a dominate their political system. Considering the Arab world as a whole, the Shi’a are a decided numerical minority. During the Ottoman empire, the Shi’a, viewed derisively and suspiciously by the rulers, were often denied access to education, military training and government office.
There are certainly a number of Shi’i families, for instance, in Kuwait and Lebanon, who have amassed considerable wealth. But, in general, the Shi’a occupy a low rung on the ladder of social and economic status, a potent factor to mobilize political action.
Without question, the revolution in Iran has been a source of pride for many Shi’a. The revolution was an object lesson that was taken as evidence that deprivation or second-class citizenship did not have to be passively accepted. It is no accident, therefore, that Shi’a in Lebanon or in Saudi Arabia became much more assertive and demanding in the months following the departure of the Shah.
Intent on seeing its revolution spread, Iran provided considerable support, in terms of material, funds and propaganda, to prompt action by Shi’a in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In some cases, like the abortive coup in Bahrain, Iran’s hand was a major factor. But, in many instances, like the 1979 demonstrations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, Iran’s role was less important than the sheer power of accumulated grievances at a moment of heightened political emotion.
Given the nature of the revolution in Iran, Shi’ism did increase in significance, both for the Shi’i and non-Shi’i Muslims. In the Gulf states, for instance, apprehension that the Iranian example would prove infectious, led local governments to clamp down on their Shi’i citizens and residents, by increasing police surveillance, expelling suspected and revealed troublemakers and generally making the heavy hand of the government more obvious for all. In the process, many of the Shi’a became more aware of their sect. Yet, with some exceptions, the Shi’a were not intent on revolution, but in repairing social iniquities.
If the sectarian identity the Arab Shi’a shared with their Iranian co-religionists brought them closer to Iran, differences in language (Arabic vs. Persian), ethnicity and even ideology remained. This was nowhere clearer than in Iraq, where the majority of the population adheres to Shi’ism. The Iraqi Shi’a are Arabs, not Persians. Contrary to many predictions, when fighting in the Gulf war began, the Shi’a of Iraq did not suddenly succumb to the presumed magnetic appeal of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Throughout the fighting from 1980 to 1988, young Iraqi men, who happened to also be Shi’a, fought as members of the Iraqi army and disproved the pundits and instant experts. In point of fact, government propaganda, which emphasized that an Arab army was confronting a traditional adversary, a Persian army, struck a resonant chord. Of course, Iraq is far from a functioning democracy and omnipresent mukhabarat (secret police) should not be discounted as a controlling factor.
To ultimately understand an important, yet varied group like the Arab Shi’a, one must focus on societies, on local conditions in which people live their lives and voice their demands. Social and economic changes do not make nearly as exciting headlines as violence, war and secret diplomacy, but the real drama among the Arab Shi’a has been taking place in the realm of modernization.
The island state of Bahrain has a population of about 350,000. About 60 percent of its citizens are Shi’a, many of Arab origin, although there are some old families of Iranian descent.
Bahrain is dominated politically by Sunnis. Despite their numbers, the Shi’a hold only five minor positions in the government and they have often voiced their resentment at being a dominated majority. During the 20th century there have been periodic clashes between the Sunni and Shi’i inhabitants, notably in 1923, and in 1953 when fighting broke out during ‘Ashura. After the fall of the Shah, in August 1979, demonstrations arose to protest the detention of a Shi’i religious leader. The most serious incident though occurred in 1981 when Bahraini authorities arrested dozens of Arab conspirators, nearly all from Bahrain or Arab states of the Gulf, who had smuggled arms onto the island as part of a somewhat hare-brained plot to establish an Islamic Republic of Bahrain. The incident sent shock waves through the Gulf, especially because Iran seemed to have played a key supporting role.
The rich emirate of Kuwait is the home to some 250,000 Shi’is (19 percent of the population), most of whom are relatively new migrants from Iraq. For security reasons, Kuwait has not hesitated to expel thousands of non-citizen Shi’is, including Lebanese, Iranians, as well as Kuwaitis of Persian origin.
For the most part, Kuwait has responded to the needs of its citizens and Shi’i citizens have shared in Kuwait’s bounty from petroleum. There were some restive moments in 1979, but the serious problems came later. The ‘Amir of Kuwait, Shaikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was nearly killed in a 1985 roadside explosion designed to destroy the limousine in which he was riding. In 1985, 1986 and 1987 there were bombings, some directed at the economic infrastructure. Reportedly, youths from established and respected Shi’i families were involved.
The most notorious acts of violence were the coordinated December 1983 car-bombings. Their targets included the American and French embassies. Among the saboteurs arrested were 17 members of the al-Da’wa party, a Shi’i group, originating in Iraq, which has become closely linked to Iran.
Most observers agree that the violent activities of Shi’i extremists have only increased the resolve of the vast majority of Kuwaiti Shi’a to reject Iran’s version of Shi’ism. This resolve has also been buttressed by the cease fire in the Gulf war, which signals an apparent end of Iran’s campaign of violence to export its revolution to the Gulf states. The Kuwaiti Shi’a will, in the main, attempt to make their way within the political system of Kuwait, not against it.
[The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, both with substantial citizen and non-citizen populations of Shi’a, have been able to avoid the problems that have affected their neighbors.]
Population figures for Saudi Arabia are problematic. Although some estimates are much higher, reliable experts usually put the Shi’i population at five percent or more. The Shi’a are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern province, although there are also small numbers in Medina as well.
The Shi’a face a special problem in Saudi Arabia where the dominant version of Islam Wahhabism traditionally treats Shi’ism as heretical. Many of the Shi’a have prospered as employees of ARAMCO (the Arabian American Oil Company), with the result that many Saudi Shi’is have joined the middle class. However, many others often have been neglected by the Saudi government’s economic and social development programs and they have suffered from discrimination in education. Never represented in a ministerial post, Saudi Shi’is report a profound sense of disenfranchisement.13
There have been periodic demonstrations, as long ago as 1952, but more recently in 1979 and 1980. In 1979, government troops were prevented from entering Qatif City for three days, during which time twenty-one people were killed. Speaking of the 1979 incident, a resident scholar, who was present at the time, claims the demonstration was spontaneous: “The people felt they had nothing to lose.”14 It was established that Iranian agitation played a role, but local grievances were clearly the proximate cause. [It is noteworthy that thirteen of those arrested in Bahrain in 1981 were from Qatif.]
The complaints of the Saudi Shi’a have grown as they have gained education and income. Some Saudi Shi’is claim that the middle class harbors a deep resentment of the government.15 The Saudi government has acted to quell the complaints with a delicate combination of force and economic development. It remains to be seen whether the government has found the right formula.
Iraq is an interesting case. Even by the most conservative estimates Shi’i Muslims make up half of the total population, and many experts place the figure at 55 percent. The Shi’a are concentrated in the southern portions of the country, from Baghdad to Basra, which includes some of the richest reserves of petroleum. Most Shi’a are relatively recent converts, having adopted Shi’ism in the last one to two hundred years. There are also small numbers of Shi’a among the Kurds, a distinct ethnic group which is predominantly Sunni. Until the Gulf war, around one percent of the total population were Persian-speaking Shi’is, for the most part recent immigrants from Iran. These people have been largely expelled.
Historically under-represented in political offices, they have lived under the domination of the Sunnis. During their reign the Ottomans were suspicious of the Shi’a because of their association with the rival Persians, and throughout the empire they often excluded the Shi’a from government offices and education opportunities. The Shi’a have also cooperated with the Sunni. In the 1920 revolt against the British the Shi’i ‘ulama played a leading role.
As elsewhere in the Arab world, when the Shi’a began to move into politics in the 1950s and 1960s, they often joined the parties of the left. Thus, as in Lebanon, the Iraqi Shi’a embraced the Iraqi Communist party in significant numbers. The reformist and radical parties promised to establish governments based on secular principles that would erase the discriminatory impact of being a Shi’i. Moreover, by joining one of these parties, the Shi’i could surmount the status of religious minority. The ruling Ba’th party has recruited Shi’a, so that many of the nominal ruling bodies are in fact manned by a majority of Shi’a.
The Shi’i clergy, numerically and proportionately smaller than its Iranian counterpart, has generally adopted a quietist approach to politics. This attitude is particularly marked in the case of the venerable Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i, who has not accepted Khomeini’s concept of the Wilayet al-Faqih. None the less, some of the ‘ulama, notably al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the sons of the late Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, rejected quietism in favor of activism. Al-Sadr, executed in 1980, urged acceptance of the Wilayet al-Faqih, and was a seminal voice in developing economic theory on the basis of Islamic principles.
Many poor rural Shi’a left their villages and moved to the suburbs, particularly Baghdad, enlarging the numbers of urban poor. Shi’i political movements like al-Da’wa and the Mujahidin have attracted a following in these urban slums.
As the urban masses became a political recruitment pool for militant Shi’i organizations, the Iraqi response to the rise of these groups was swift and brutal. By 1983 most of the militant groups were operating out of Iran, under the umbrella of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq.
For many Iraqi Shi’a, Iran’s sponsorship of militant groups was hardly a commendable endorsement. While a segment of the Iraqi Shi’a clearly prefer a Shi’i answer to their problems, most seem resigned to living in a Ba’thist Iraq.
The Baghdad government has, at the same time, put an enormous amount of money into the Shi’i areas, including Najaf, Jufa and the suburbs of the capital. For the time being, the carrot and the stick policy does seem to be working rather well.
By focusing on social and economic change, and the disruption associated with it, it is possible to understand the tensions and the pressures that make a group of people available for a range of actions, including political violence and terrorism.16 A good example is the case of the Shi’i Muslims of Lebanon, who have figured in much of the violence of recent years.17
Despite a popular impression, it is not accurate to assert that the Shi’a of Lebanon suddenly burst out of their impoverishment during the last four or five years. In fact, the modernization of the Shi’a has been underway since the late 1940s. By the eve of the 1975-1976 civil war in Lebanon, it was clear that the Shi’a were shaking loose from the inertia and quiescence that had long marked them as a community.
Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, access to education had produced a growing pool of individuals who were no longer content to confine their horizons to subsistence farming. Improved transportation eroded the geographic isolation of the community. A rapidly growing communications network, both within and without Lebanon, brought the outside world—with its political ideologies and its “modern” ideas and technologies—into the most remote village.
Modernization of the agricultural sector, including an increasing emphasis on cash crops and farm mechanization, served to produce an underemployed and employed mass that was forced to move off the land in order to survive. The resultant migration led to the swelling of Beirut’s suburbs by the 1960s. More important, the dearth of economic opportunities within Lebanon was an important factor prompting the movement of many Shi’i men overseas, where the rich opportunities of the Gulf, and especially West Africa, provided a clear means with which to break the bonds of poverty. Indeed, the fruits of West African labors are readily observable in towns such as Jwayya and Shaqrah in the southern part of Lebanon, where impressive homes stand as testaments to the money that has been earned in Abijan and other African locales. Later, the money earned by Shi’i migrants would play a crucial role in financing the growth of Shi’i political activism with Lebanon.
As the Shi’a began to break the bindings of under development, their demands became increasingly difficult for the traditional political bosses to meet; there was little incentive for the za’im (or political boss) to facilitate the modernization of his formerly pliant clients. Thus, the 1950s, and especially the 1960s and 1970s, saw a growth in alternative social, political and economic organizations. Government-chartered family associations, organized for business purposes, grew at a disproportionately high rate among the Shi’a. The ‘Amiliyah Islamic Benevolent Society, mimicking the Maqasid Benevolent Society of the Sunni Muslims, sponsored schools in the Beirut area. Previously grossly under represented in the bureaucracy, the Shi’a began to receive a larger share of senior civil service appointments as the Lebanese government responded to their demands.
Increasingly, the politicized Shi’is began to participate in a wide range of secular political parties. Indeed, the 1960s and the early 1970s marked the ascent of anti-establishment parties like the Ba’th (Arab Renaissance Party), the Communist Party, and the Organization for Communist Labor Action (OCLA), whose ideologies promised radical social, economic and political reform in Lebanon. Even the predominantly Maronite Christian Kata’ib (or Phalangist) Party attracted a modest number of Shi’is as members. Simultaneously, the Palestinian guerrilla organizations drew large numbers of Shi’i recruits who saw in their plight a parallel with that of the Palestinians.
The civil war of 1975-1976 provided a measure of the level of Shi’i membership in the revisionist, radical and revolutionary parties (and their militias), when far more Shi’is fell during the civil war of 1975-1976 than members of any other group in Lebanon. The Shi’a were the cannon fodder and the foot soldiers of the war.
The Role of Musa al-Sadr
It must be noted that the secular parties did not enjoy a monopoly on Shi’i members. The political bosses managed to maintain significant, if dwindling, followings. Of greater significance though was the movement that emerged around the charismatic Iranian cleric al-Sayyid. Musa al-Sadr (the cousin of the Iraqi cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr). Born in Iran in 1928, al-Sadr returned to his ancestral home of South Lebanon in 1959, where he quickly established himself as a leader of great talent and energy. Within a few years of his arrival, Musa al-Sadr emerged as the most significant rival to the leading Shi'i za’im Kamil Al-As’ad, a man who came to symbolize—through his personal life style, his disdain for his co-religionists, and his opportunism—all that was wrong with the old political system.
Musa al-Sadr died not create the Shi’i awakening, but he made skillful use of a ripe political environment created by tumultuous change. By the end of the 1960s he succeeded in shepherding the creation of the Supreme Shi'i Council, a body which put the Shi’a on an equal institutional footing with the Sunni Muslims, and served not incidentally as an important political base for al-Sadr who was elected the first—and to date, the only—President of the Council. In 1970, he was in large measure responsible for the creation of the Majlis al-Janub (Council of the South), a body chartered and funded to oversee the development of Southern Lebanon. (Unfortunately, the Council of the South became just another vehicle of political corruption, and it soon fell under the influence of Kamil al-As’ad.)
As Lebanon moved closer to the carnage that began in 1975, nearly all of the country’s political movements contained militia components. Thus, al-Sadr’s Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Deprived) included a militia adjunct as well. The militia (which became known in 1975) was named Amal, an acronym for Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniya(Lebanese Resistance Detachments).
Amal was not an impressive militia in 1974. it contained no more than 1,500 poorly trained members, and it is widely remembered for its defeats during this period than for its victories. In fact, the movement seemed to fade into insignificance by 1976, as did Musa al-Sadr, in large measure because of his support for Syria in June 1976, when Syria intervened against the PLO and other erstwhile Amal allies.
Amal was rescued from obscurity by three developments during 1978 and 1979: the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian revolution, and tensions with the PLO.
In August 1978 Musa al-Sadr disappeared while on a visit to Libya. He has not been heard from since and it is likely that he was killed by Muammar al-Qadhafi, or at least as a result of the Libyan strongman’s orders.18 If al-Sadr was a looming personality in life, he achieved heroic proportions as a martyr who came to symbolize the plight of the Shi’a in Lebanon. The mystery surrounding his disappearance was richly evocative of the central myths of Shi’ism, especially the occultation of the twelfth Imam whose reappearance is expected to usher in the reign of justice on earth. In recent years, vitriolic debate has arisen over which Shi’i leaders are the legitimate custodians of the memory of the absent Imam Musa (as he came to be called by his followers).
The Iranian Revolution and The Shi’a of Lebanon
The “Islamic Revolution” of 1978-1979 in Iran also had a profound impact on the Lebanese Shi’i community. Events in Iran were a significant spur to action for Amal, which both claimed to be the authentically Shi’i movement as well as a representative of all Lebanon’s politically dispossessed.
However, if the Islamic Revolution was an important spur to action, it was not a precise model for action. Certainly during the three or four years preceding the 1982 Israeli invasion, Amal positioned itself as an essentially Lebanese movement that sought reform in the Lebanese political system, rather than the replacement of the existing system with an Iranian style “mullahocracy.” In this connection it is important to note that those who assumed the critical leadership roles in Amal were non-clerics drawn largely from the emerging Shi’i middle class, who saw in Amal a vehicle for establishing their place in an otherwise non-responsive and political system. Although al-Sadr had served as the leader of the Supreme Shi’i Council and as the leader of the Harakat al-Mahrumin, the two roles were split among secular-clerical lines, following his disappearance. In Musa al-Sadr’s absence, the senior Shi’i cleric in Lebanon was the Mufti Muhammad Mahdi Shams at al-Din (mufti is a religious title which signifies that a cleric is the chief expounder of religious law). Shams al-Din assumed the leadership of the Council, and Husain al-Husaini, an important member of parliament and close associate of al-Sadr, took over control of Amal. (“Amal” had, by this time, become the name of the entire movement, not just the militia component.) Al-Husaini was then replaced by the present Amal leader, Nabih Berri, in 1980. Berri, incidentally, has traveled to the United States often and, until recently, held an alien resident permit. As leader of Amal, he became something of a fixture on U.S. television news during the 1985 skyjacking of TWA flight 847. Many people will recall that, in that incident, Berri played a constructive role in working for the freedom of the American passengers.
Tensions with the PLO
The third significant factor that helped to foster the rejuvenation of Amal was the steadily growing animosity between the Shi’a and the PLO and its Lebanese allies. By the late 1970s the “natural alliance” between the Shi’a and the PLO was coming apart at the seams. The capricious and oppressive behavior of the PLO toward the Lebanese often left much to be desired. In addition, Israeli strikes against the PLO regularly resulted in Shi’i casualties, thereby earning Shi’a resentment of the PLO for its presence in Lebanon.
The 1978 Litani Operation, in which the Israelis invaded Lebanon, was an important watershed. [Editor’s note: The Israeli invasion resulted in at least 1,000 civilian casualties and was a response to an earlier PLO raid into Israel, which resulted in 35 civilian deaths.] The Litani Operation signaled a more intensive anti-PLO campaign by Israel, a campaign that persisted until interrupted by a PLO-Israel cease-fire from the Summer of 1981 until the Israeli invasion of June 1982.
The Shi’a had simply had enough and, although the Israel Defense Force (IDF) was often causing much more direct damage than the PLO, it was the PLO that earned the blame for the destruction wrought by Israeli arms, as well as for its own misdeeds. The reciprocal to the declining relationship between the Shi’a and the PLO was the role of Amal as a moderately effective—if loosely organized—anti-PLO home-guard. In an important sense, Amal was less an organization than a motto, a political statement of mind that represented the adamant desire of many Shi’is to control their own fate and throw off the increasingly detested presence of the PLO.
In the 1978-1982 period there was an unbroken pattern of Amal-PLO clashes, the most serious taking place in the five months preceding the June 1982 invasion. It is a fair assertion that the later “War of the Camps” in the Beirut area, and in South Lebanon, was simply a later chapter in Amal-PLO fighting, a chapter closely connected with the deep animosities generated in the period prior to the Israeli invasion of 1982. Most Shi’is are today staunchly dedicated to the idea that the Palestinian “mini-state” that existed in Lebanon before 1982 must not be allowed to be reerected.
Although rejuvenation of Amal was an interesting development in the 1978-1982 period, the scene was not monopolized by Amal. Active as well was the Hizb al-Da’wa, or Party of the Call, taking inspiration from the brilliant writing of al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a formidable presence in Najaf (Iraq). (The connection between Najaf and the Lebanese Shi’a is a grossly understudied subject.)
As early as 1980, Da’wa dissolved itself to work closely with the new Islamic Republic of Iran. From Iran’s perspective, Amal was a defective political movement, because it did not seek to emulate the Islamic revolution in Lebanon. During this same period, Iran seems to have sown the seeds for a number of relationships with Lebanese Shi’is, especially Shi’i clerics. As later events were to show, the seeds began to germinate in the post-1982 period.
In 1982 Damascus, licking its wounds from the war with Israel, needed a counterweight to the Amal movement, which was then actively exploring ties with the United States. Hizballah (The Party of God) was to be the counterweight. [The Lebanese-based party is widely thought to be deeply involved in the kidnapping of westerners in Lebanon.]
A major contributing factor to the upsurge in less moderate Shi’i groups has been the continuing Israeli presence in Lebanon. Especially in Southern Lebanon, many of the Shi’a greeted the invading army cordially. After all, the Israeli army was expelling the PLO. Moreover, they were driving 60-ton tanks, which are always wisely greeted with smiles and waves. Israel’s mistake was to stay too long in Lebanon. Had Israel departed quickly, the story would have been very different; however, Israel chose to stay. As time passed, the Israelis increasingly came to be viewed as an occupation force in Lebanon, and, even today, Israel effectively occupies nearly ten percent of Lebanon’s total territory in its so-called “Security Zone.”
The Security Zone has come to be an important magnet for resistance attacks by an admixture of forces, ranging from Amal and Hizballah to a variety of secular parties. Most important, so long as Israel remains in control of Lebanese territory, no Lebanese Shi’i leader can avoid the duty of resistance. Many of the attacks are minor shooting or mining incidents, but there have been some sensational operations. Most recently, on October 19, 1988, seven Israeli soldiers died when their convoy was demolished, in Lebanon, by a car bomb driven by a Shi’i affiliated with Hizballah.
It is now known that Hizballah is led by a council which consists of about twelve members, one or two of whom may be Iranians. Iran has funneled considerable support through this council, including war materiel, humanitarian goods and cash.19 Until he returned to Iran to become the Minister of Interior, the Iranian ambassador to Syria, ‘Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, was thought to play a major role in coordinating Iran’s activities in Lebanon and with Hizballah, and probably served as a member of the council.20
Although Hizballah spokesmen have been keen to dissociate the party from the kidnappings of westerners, it is widely believed that the Islamic Jihad organization, credited for some of the kidnappings, is merely a label of convenience masking Hizballah involvement.
Much ink has been spilt on the issue of who leads Hizballah, but there appears to be a collegial leadership which subsumes many factions and cliques. Even Iran must cajole and persuade rather than direct and order in such an environment. In other words, despite their links to Iran, it would be erroneous to assert that the cliques within Hizballah lack a considerable freedom of action.
As we have seen, the various Arab Shi’a communities are not a homogeneous whole, but instead represent a diverse assortment of problems, and contexts. In addition, some governments have responded to the demands of indigenous Shi’a more effectively and consistently than other governments. For their part, the Arab Shi’a seem to have responded well to the positive economic programs, and they have shown themselves quite willing—given the chance—to play a fuller role in day-to-day politics.
In the final analysis, the political behavior of the Arab Shi’a is no less explicable than that of any other community in the Middle East.
Augustus Richard Norton is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY, and author of Amal and the Shi’a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon.
1. The transliteration of Arabic words into English often produces an
amazing variation of words. In everyday usage, the spellings “Shiite” or
“Shia” appear frequently, but it is so easy to use a more accurate style
of transliteration that I have avoided those spellings in this article.
There are several commonly employed nouns and adjectives used to refer to
the Shi’i sect of Islam. Here the following forms of reference are used:
“Shi’ism” is a proper noun referring to the Shi’i variant of Islam.
“Shi’i” is both a proper noun and an adjectival modifier. In the former
usage, a “Shi’i” is an adherent of Shi’ism; in the latter form, we would
refer, for instance, to “Shi’i” beliefs. “Shi’a” is a collective noun, as
in the “Shi’a of Bahrain.” In references to a number of Shi’i persons,
“Shi’is” is sometimes preferred to “Shi’a” for the sake of readability,
but references to the community as a whole refer to the “Shi’a.” The
origin of the term “Shi’a” is “Shi’at Ali,” which means simply the party
or partisans of ‘Ali, referring to Imam’ Ali, who the Shi’a regard as the
legitimate successor to the prophet Muhammad.