The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr
Reviewed by Zakaria
The Shia are a sect within Islam that have been at the center point of controversy in the Middle East for centuries. Rivaling Sunni factions have been at war with it, and in many terms throughout even countries with large Shia presences , have been dominated by Sunni, or even Christian powers in the case of Lebanon till the 1980s. While certain regimes, such as Nasser's Pan Arabism movement treated the Shia quite equally, many of these Sunni backed regimes, such as the state of Saudi Arabia, have persecuted the Shia greatly, and have even exploited the Shia within their own country, for great oil profits, making them work on the oil fields, for little pay compared to their Sunni compatriots. However recently the world has started to see the revival of these people, who sprung out after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, claiming that Ali his cousin should have replaced the Prophet as the leader, and not his mentor Abu Bakr, and here is when the schism took place. Since then, most Sunnis and Shia actually get along fine, as seen in Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan, with majority of people often working alongside their, fellow sect. However the elites in Middle Eastern society among these religions, have been at war and those elites are still in power fighting for the Middle East today.
The following book, is about this concept of the Shia political, and even religious revival that has taken place throughout the Middle East, the book The Shia Revival, is documented by Vali Nasr who very adequately uses the first few chapters, to explain the background of Shias, how the religion operates as opposed to Sunnis, and the mindset of how the religion has grown as a political force. It begins by documenting the schism that took place, when deciding leadership after the Prophet, but also describes the killing of Husayn, the Prophets grandson as a spark in the idea of the martyrdom complex, that has become a massive part of Shia ideology. He also talks about how Shia’s have spread their message, as far as India, and Detroit, Michigan even though they represent 10% of the Muslim population. It describes the, way in which the religion operates, driving similarities between the Shia, and Catholics who both have a kind of leader, who supposedly has a direct line to God, with the Shias having the Ayatollah or Supreme leader in Iran and the Catholics have the Pope in Rome.
After breaking down the basics, of the religion, how it spread and the philosophy, he starts to break down the connection between that philosophy and how political Shiism, came to be today. He starts this off by describing the influence of several Shia scholars prevalent during the time of the 1970s, when many countries with large Shia populations, were controlled by neo liberal, US backed forces that while still including aspects of Shiism in government, were controlled mainly by Christians in Lebanon and secular royalty in Iran, known as the Shah. However, Musa Sadr’s rise in Lebanon, creating the Amal movement, which fought for power during the Lebanese civil war, and the Islamic revolution in Iran that gave way to secular royalty, and gave power to the Supreme leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini. This was considered massive moment, as the author, described as it gave hope to many Shia, or Shia allied forces in the region as groups such as Hezbollah, grew and gained massive following in Lebanon, the Syrian leader Hafez al Assad and Alawite, allied with this growing branch of Shiism, and strikes in majority Sunni countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, broke out overnight.
The author then begins to describe the rise of not only Iran, but after the fall of Saddam Hussein the rise of the first Shia Arab state in Iraq, and the growing movement of Shias in Yemen. The author describes this as the Shia crescent, that has been influencing their power in the Middle East, and challenging US backed Saudi hegemony in the region. While this has not led to any direct war, between the two countries there has been a rise in the proxy warfare such as in Lebanon between Hezbollah a Shia organization and rivalling Saudi backed Sunni factions. This has led to large scale conflict, and a confusion over what is next for the Middle East. However the author finishes off this book, by describing the potentially worrisome times, the Middle East has fallen into with massively sectarian lines, being drawn by the Iranian and Saudi governments. While he sees it as a positive, that in some ways there has been resistance to Saudi power, the brutal force occasionally used by the Iranian government smells times of struggle that could occur and while is optimistic the people of the Middle East, may demand change is pessimistic governments may stop such behavior.
To conclude, my opinions of this book is that it is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to learn the basics, and even some of the more ardent details about Shia ideology, and the political movement that is rising in the Middle East. It breaks down in a way, that any American who may be confused with the issue can understand and is a great insight into a world, and an issue many are unaware about today. For this reason I would give the book a solid, 9 out of 10 for its very accurate and chronological story telling, that the author manages to connect from a western perspective, while not ignoring the people of the Middle East affected by such conflict.