Sunday, July 26, 2015

Article in The Economist on The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism

Read the Article on The Economist

How Shiism evolved

Powers of persuasion

Modern Shiites have a long and complicated history

Zackery Heern, an American academic, is primarily concerned with the Shias, Islam’s second-largest denomination after the Sunnis. But he refreshingly teases out the parallels between the three movements, rather than their differences as most other commentators have done. He notes, in particular, their shared intolerance of alternatives in their pursuit of a single path to truth. “Sectarianism notwithstanding,” he writes, “Wahhabis, Idrisis and Usulis did have a common enemy in popular Sufism and each movement sought to suppress popular rituals that were thought to be un-Islamic.”  
Historians term the new movements, somewhat kindly, “revivalist”. Certainly all three upheld the right to challenge and reinterpret tradition afresh. Both the Wahhabis and the Usulis (unlike their Shia rivals, the Akhbaris) clung to their right to exercise ijtihad, or independent legal reasoning, rather than reliance on precedent. But whereas the Wahhabis limited ijtihad to interpretation of the sacred texts, Usulis insisted they could deduce rulings from rational arguments as well. Ibn Idris, the Sufi, relied on his intuition to revisit old texts...

WKMS interview on The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism

Listen to the full interview on WKMS

MSU History Professor on 'The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq & Iran'

Murray State University Assistant Professor of History Dr. Zackery Heern says modern Shi'ism started with the "modernity" in general - around the 1700s, roughly the same time as the Enlightenment in Europe, birth of the United States and French Revolution. He's published a book titled The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte speaks with Dr. Heern about his research and gains some context and clarity into the historical differences between Shi'ism and Sunnism...

Understanding the emergence of modern Shi‘ism

See full article on Your Middle East

Dr Zackery M. Heern, author of the new book 'The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran', has written a thought-provoking piece that helps us better grasp key developments in the Muslim Middle East.

I often complain that media related to the Middle East and Islam frequently lacks context. Indeed, news reports, related to the Middle East or otherwise, often assume that events occur without precedent and are unconnected to the past. Analysis, therefore, can be wildly misleading. The antidote for this absence of context is the study of history, which is why I tell my students that historians make good journalists. 
Unfortunately, however, history is often only invoked by pundits when the assertion is made that the Middle East has a long history of problems - violence, inequality, injustice, sectarianism, etc. These assumptions are biased in the worst way since they wrongly assume that the current state of affairs in the Middle East is identical to its seemingly unchanging history. On this faulty foundation, some analysts make doomsday prognostications that the Middle East will always be a problematic region since they assume that it always has been.
Instead of confining my contribution to this problem to exasperation, I wrote a book that situates modern Shi‘ism within the contexts of Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and world history. In other words, the book is about Shi‘i Islam and its place in the modern world. By “modern” I do not mean the contemporary world, which is the domain of journalists and political scientists. I use the amorphous term “modern” in the historical sense. According to many historians, the modern world began sometime around 1750...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism


Zackery M. Heern. “Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism,” Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies. Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer 2014, pp. 323-346.

Islamic law, Islamic authority, Usuli Shi‘ism, Murtada Ansari, usul al-fiqh, marja‘ al-taqlid


To ensure that the actions of Shi‘is are in conformity with God’s will, Usuli scholars argued that all Shi‘is must emulate (taqlid) the rulings of the most knowledgeable (a‘lam) living mujtahid, who is the exemplar, or ‘source of emulation’ (marja‘ al-taqlid) for the Shi‘i community. Marja‘iyyah is the concept that a living mujtahid has leadership over the Shi‘i community. As Linda Walbridge puts it, the marja‘ is ‘the representative of the “general deputyship” of the Imam’ and ‘enjoys the dual role of chief legal expert and spiritual model for all Shi‘a.’ Although theories of marja‘iyyah have their roots in the pre-modern period, it is only since the nineteenth century that the concept has achieved traction among a sizable portion of the Shi‘i community in practice. In the contemporary Shi‘i world, marja‘s have become pope-like figures, who should theoretically be emulated (taqlid) by the Shi‘i community in matters related to the all-encompassing system of Islamic law.

The theoretical underpinnings for the Shi‘i concepts of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqti) and marja‘ al-taqlid were redefined by Shaykh Murtada ibn Muhammad Amin Ansari (1799-1864), who was one of the most influential Muslim scholars of the nineteenth century. Ansari systematically overhauled much of the socio-legal framework of modern Usuli Shi‘ism. Ansari’s supporters have referred to him as the ‘seal of the mujtahids’ as well as the ‘the Imam’s Chosen One and the Caliph in truth over all men in all judgments concerning what is permitted or forbidden, the Exemplar of both the experts and laymen.’ In his monumental work, The Mantle of the Prophet, Roy Mottahedeh rightly argues that ‘leadership in Shiah learning... found its highest expression in Sheikh Mortaza Ansari,’ and ‘more than that of any mullah leader of the past two centuries, his leadership celebrated his learning.’ Indeed, Ansari reached a pinnacle of both Shi‘i scholarship and leadership, achieving an unprecedented status in Shi‘i history as the widely recognized sole supreme exemplar (marja‘ al-taqlid al-mutlaq) of the global Shi‘i community.

In addition to redefining central theories of Shi‘i law and authority, Ansari modeled his new approach to Shi‘ism during his lifetime. Scholars debate whether Ansari was the first or second supreme marja‘ al-taqlid in Shi‘i history Regardless of who deserves the title of first marja‘, the concept of marja‘ al-taqlid did not exist in practice prior to the nineteenth century, even though the theory had been developed prior to this time. However, largely as a result of Ansari’s efforts, the marja‘ became a fixture of Shi‘i authority in the twentieth century. Ansari’s acceptance as leader of the Shi‘i community also greatly contributed to the establishment of Najaf as the dominant international centre of Shi‘i learning and authority until the mid-twentieth century when Qum emerged as a leading Shi‘i centre.

Abbas Amanat questions whether the notion of ‘marja'-i taqlid kull (supreme source of emulation)’ existed during Ansari’s time given that ‘the first explicit reference to Ansari’s supreme authority’ only appears in the twentieth century. Whether or not Ansari’s contemporaries viewed him as such, no other scholar has come to exemplify the office of marja‘ al-taqlid more than Ansari. He became the prototype and the icon on which the institution was built. Marja‘iyyah continues to be a defining feature of contemporary Shi‘i societies, even if no single marja‘ has obtained the same widespread support that Ansari once enjoyed.

The remainder of this paper argues that Ansari’s redefinition of key concepts related to Islamic legal theory and clerical authority increased the power of Shi‘i mujtahids. Ansari’s work was instrumental in establishing Usuli clerics as intermediaries between lay members of the Shi‘i community and traditional sources of Shi‘i authority. Ansari systematized the process of issuing and disseminating legal judgments. His conception of marja‘ al-taqlid required lay Shi‘is to emulate the judgments of the most knowledgeable living jurist. In fact, Ansari argued that following a mujtahid is legally binding in Islam...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review of The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta

Book Review
David Waines, The Odyssey of Ibn Batutta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer
By Zackery M. Heern
Published in Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, Volume 25, Issue 2, August 2013, pages 265-267

David Waines’s The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta is a palatable monograph on the legendary Moroccan Muslim traveler. Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, al-Rihla, has long been used as a source of information on Eurasia and Africa in the Middle Ages. Sex, culinary delights, miracles, and radical others are among the many themes of Waines’s book. Like Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, The Odyssey explores the sacred and the profane in equal measure.

In the opening chapter, Waines seeks to contextualize Ibn Battuta and his famous travelogue, which is the only book attributed to Ibn Battuta. Waines uses the English translation of al-Rihla by Gibb and Beckingham as his primary source of research for The Odyssey. After Waines makes the inevitable comparison between Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, he attempts to defend the very authenticity of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. Waines concedes that portions of al-Rihla are plagiarized and that the chronology of Ibn Battuta’s travels laid out in the text is “impossible.” Waines argues that even though Ibn Battuta copied portions of his travelogue (most notably from Ibn Jubayr), he still adds a fourteenth century eyewitness account on top of the accounts of previous authors.

As Waines periodically indicates throughout The Odyssey, Ibn Battuta’s al-Rihla generally conforms to the historical realities of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the question that scholars are grappling with is whether Ibn Battuta actually visited the places he discusses in his book or if his account is the product of his own research. Ultimately, Waines suggests that critics of Ibn Battuta, including Gibb, provide misleading conclusions. Waines argues that plagiarism among medieval writers was widespread, even if frustrating for the modern scholar. Although the plagiarism question consumes most of the first chapter, it is not the main thrust of Waines’s book. Waines is more interested in opening up the world of Ibn Battuta to a contemporary Western audience.

The remainder of The Odyssey is divided into four chapters. Chapter two dives into the travels of Ibn Battuta. The reader makes a pilgrimage with Ibn Battuta to Mecca, sails south to Yemen, travels to Anatolia, and heads east to India and China before returning to Ibn Battuta’s homeland of Morocco. Along the way, Ibn Battuta hears church bells ring for the first time, purchases two Greek slave girls, joins a military expedition, and receives a large cash gift from a Turkish sultan. Throughout this chapter and the remainder of the book, Waines is a good tour guide, providing historical or cultural context when necessary.

The themes of chapter three are food and hospitality. In fact, much of the discussion on hospitality focuses on food as well. Having written extensively on medieval Islamic culture since the 1970s, Waines is in his element when discussing food. In fact, Waines’s contribution to Ibn Battuta studies may well be his elaboration on food culture. Throughout the chapter, he gives detailed descriptions, even recipes of dishes that Ibn Battuta mentions. Further, Waines points out Islamic food laws when applicable to the stories he relates.

In my view, chapters four and five are the highlights of The Odyssey. Chapter four fulfills the promise indicated by the subtitle of the book. The reader is treated to fantastic tales featuring great religious and political figures. Waines does not disappoint in his retelling of Ibn Battuta’s experiences with fire dancing, snake biting, fortune telling, levitation, and other miracles. As Waines points out, Ibn Battuta’s travels can seem like “a medieval globetrotter’s guide to the cemeteries of the Muslim world” (p. 135). Waines argues that Ibn Battuta’s goal in visiting tombs of saints and other holy sites was to receive religious blessings and witness miracles (p. 121).

The theme of the fifth and final chapter is the “other,” for which Waines relies heavily on the work of Remke Kruk and Roxanne Euben. The first half of the chapter discusses Ibn Battuta’s treatment of women. Waines describes Ibn Battuta as “more of a serial monogamist than polygamist, except for his…sojourn to the Maldive Islands” (p. 158). In what follows, Waines describes a pattern in which Ibn Battuta would contract marriages during his stay in a given place and divorce his wives once he decided to travel to his next destination. Waines illustrates how Ibn Battuta reveled in the fact that marriage in the Maldives “is really a sort of temporary marriage,” (p. 163). However, as a judge on there, he tried to force women to wear Islamic dress, but to no avail. Additionally, Ibn Battuta chastised the immoral behavior of buying Greek slave girls for prostitution, but continuously purchased slave girls throughout his travels when he could afford it. Waines also points out that Ibn Battuta was scandalized by the fact that he came across matrilineal societies in sub-Saharan Africa, where women and men had platonic relationships.

In the second half of the fourth chapter, Waines discusses Ibn Battuta’s relationship with religious and racial ‘others.’ Waines illustrates a number of encounters between Ibn Battuta and practitioners of Islamic legal schools other than his own Maliki school. Waines includes an entire section on Ibn Battuta’s interaction with Shi‘i Muslims. Following the practice of Ibn Battuta, Waines uses the derogatory terms dissidents and Rafidis (lit. rejectionists) to describe Shi‘is. In all, Waines suggests that although Ibn Battuta detested the “extreme Rafidis,” he admired their piety and hospitality.

The Odyssey is a must read for Ibn Battuta enthusiasts, especially those who happen to be foodies and enjoy fantastical stories. The discerning reader is left wondering, though, whether the tales presented by Waines are a veritable portal to the medieval world or simply Ibn Battuta’s imagination of it. Either way, Waines has written a fascinating study of one of history’s most renowned world travelers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Empty charm or game changing substance? How to read Iran

 Empty charm or game changing substance? How to read Iran

"President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders"

Since taking office in August, the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been on an international charm offensive, making speeches to the UN, doing interviews with reporters, and tweeting to Iran’s historically marginalized Jewish community. His conciliatory tone on a wide variety of issues, from nuclear weapons to Iran’s role in the Middle East, has diplomats, policy-makers and ordinary citizens everywhere looking for ways to measure his sincerity.

In a phrase, they are asking: will his deeds match his words?

There is, actually, a simple test by which to gauge his intentions. That is the degree to which President Rouhani and his government begin to take concrete steps to improve the human rights situation in Iran.

In recent years, Iran’s record on human rights has sharply deteriorated. In early October, the UN Secretary-General and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran issued their latest reports documenting the continuing human rights crisis in Iran. As usual, they expressed deep concern over Iran’s policy of arresting, imprisoning and otherwise repressing lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and ethnic and religious minorities, not to mention its treatment of women and record of juvenile executions.

President Rouhani implicitly knows that he cannot begin to mend Iran’s reputation on the world stage without addressing human rights. On September 18, his government released at least 11 prisoners of conscience, including noted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who had been imprisoned since 2010 on an 11-year sentence.

As soon as Ms. Sotoudeh was released, she bravely called for the release of other prisoners of conscience, as a full demonstration of the new government’s direction. First among the persecuted groups that Ms. Sotoudeh mentioned was the Baha'i community of Iran. “We ask you to end the injustices against our Baha’i citizens,” she wrote in a letter to President Rouhani, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.

Soon after its release of these 11 prisoners, the government announced that it was releasing another 80 prisoners. The fact that no Baha'is were among those released is a telling and conspicuous omission. It points to the distinctive situation of Iran’s Baha'i community, which is the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and has been the target of state-sponsored persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Indeed, if there is a specific litmus test for the seriousness of President Rouhani’s new direction, it will be in the way that he handles “the Baha'i Question.”

Those were the words actually used in a 1991 secret memorandum signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that outlined a series of repressive social, economic and cultural measures to be instituted against Baha'is. So far, that policy has been followed to the letter.

Since 2005, nearly 700 Baha'is have been arrested, and the number of Baha'is in prison has risen from fewer than five to the current figure of 115. The list of prisoners includes all seven members of a former leadership group serving the Baha'i community of Iran. In 2010, the seven were wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison – the longest term currently facing any prisoner of conscience in Iran.

Baha'is also face economic and educational discrimination, strict limits on the right to assemble and worship, and a government-led campaign of hate speech in the news media. Baha'is are prevented from attending university. Attacks on Baha'is or Baha'i-owned properties go unprosecuted and unpunished, creating a sense of impunity for attackers. As noted recently by a top UN human rights official, the government-led persecution spans “all areas of state activity, from family law provisions to schooling, education, and security.”

On August 24, 2013, a well-known member of the Baha'i community of the city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran was murdered. Mr. Ataollah Rezvani was found in an isolated location, shot in the head, and numerous human rights defenders have said his killing was religiously motivated. Among other things, his death came against a backdrop of hate speech directed against Baha’is by a local cleric. Sadly, more than ten Baha'is have been killed or died under suspicious circumstances in the last decade.

President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders – something that has also been called for by Sotoudeh. He could allow young Baha'is to freely attend university. He could begin to prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes against Iranian Baha'is, such as the killer of Rezvani.

These things would truly signal a new beginning for Iran.

Propaganda of Death Becomes Reality for Baha'is in Iran

Published by Your Middle East

By Zackery M. Heern

Will Rouhani (L) take action against Baha'i oppression?

On August 24, a well-known Baha’i in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas was shot dead by an unknown gunman. Mr. Ataollah Rezvani’s body was found with a gunshot wound in the back of his head. He was left in his car on a deserted road leading out of the city.

Rezvani’s death is mourned by Baha’is and Muslims alike. According to countless stories by family members and acquaintances, Rezvani was constantly helping those in need, whether it was caring for hospital patients in Bandar Abbas or driving to the opposite end of the country to help his niece and nephew after both parents were imprisoned for being Baha’is. Reports about Rezvani’s funeral indicate that people traveled from far and wide to attend his memorial service, which lasted until 2 a.m.

All indicators suggest that Rezvani’s murder was motivated by the fact that he was a Baha’i. Prior to his murder, he had received repeated threats. Additionally, the assailants did not steal his wallet, car, or anything of value aside from his cellphone, suggesting that the murderers were not motivated by money.

Baha’is have suffered persecution in Iran since the inception of the Baha’i Faith a century and a half ago. Persecution worsened after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since the early 1980s, the Iranian government has imprisoned, harassed, and executed Baha’is. Leaked secret documents lay out a systematic program for the destruction of the Baha’i community, which is the largest religious minority in the country.

Official media outlets in Iran regularly include anti-Baha’i propaganda, which reinforces the government’s intentions of exterminating the Baha’i community. A recent study of official Iranian news agencies notes that anti-Baha’i propaganda appears in state-run news media every one to two days. Baha’is are commonly blamed for economic problems and political unrest. Anti-Baha’i propaganda often features illustrations of zombies and the grim reaper. Baha’i holy places, known for their well-groomed gardens and beautiful architecture, are depicted as deaths-scapes.

Like most Baha’is, Rezvani and his extended family have suffered continuous harassment. Along with all other Baha’i students, Rezvani was expelled from university shortly after the revolution. His uncle served a prison sentence in the 1980s and was jailed again last year at the age of 85. His sister, Sahba Rezvani, recently served a three-year sentence. Her daughter and son-in-law have also been jailed in recent years. Additionally, government officials have forced members of the Rezvani family to shut down their businesses.

Rezvani lived most of his adult life in Bandar Abbas, where he installed and managed municipal water treatment systems. He was well known in the city as an active member of the Baha’i community.

In the past few years, the leader of Friday prayers (imam) at the congregational mosque in Bandar Abbas consistently delivered inflammatory sermons against Baha’is. The last such sermon was delivered the day before Rezvani was murdered.

Due to the intense pressure that the Baha’i community in Bandar Abbas was facing, Rezvani and several other Baha’is composed a letter to the imam regarding his false accusations about the Baha’is. They also filed a complaint with government officials about the incendiary remarks against the Baha’i community. By taking these steps, the Baha’is were hoping that they could prevent assaults against Baha’is and reconcile with the imam.

Apparently, government officials took Rezvani’s actions as an affront and orchestrated his dismissal from his job. From this point on, Rezvani was continuously harassed by government officials and unidentified callers. Baha’is from Bandar Abbas who have recently been arrested say that they were questioned about the activities of Rezvani and their interrogators warned them not to associate with him.

Since 2005, more than 60 Baha’is have been physically assaulted or murdered by government officials or plainclothes assailants. Not one of these cases has been prosecuted. If Rezvani’s murder is not investigated, it will only add to the assumption that government officials ordered his murder.
His death comes a month after the inauguration of Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a moderate. Many hoped that he might change the course of Iran’s atrocious human rights record.

However, as media attention focused on the hopeful prospects of a new regime in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, issued a new series of fatwas in which he projected himself as the leader of the entire Shi’a world.

According to a report by Ali Mamouri for al-Monitor, the fatwas adopt a “hostile view…toward Iran's Baha’i community, wherein any association with them has been deemed unlawful, and the Baha’i faith has been labeled false and misguiding.” Mamouri further suggests that, “these fatwas of Khamenei have been issued as other Shiite authorities, in the hope of eliminating prejudice against the Baha’i community, have recently issued humanitarian and tolerant fatwas regarding the Baha'i.”
"Such a horrible event creates an atmosphere of insecurity"

In another fatwa Khamenei forbids the publication or public announcement of crimes or corruption related to government officials. In light of Rezvani’s murder, this does not bode well for the Baha’i community in Iran, which may well witness an uptick in violence in the coming months.

News media in Iran has been silent on the murder of Rezvani. However, several Persian language outlets outside of Iran, including BBC Persian and Voice of America, have reported the story.
Human rights organizations, including Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and Iran Press Watch, have reported that Ayatollah Masumi Tehrani recently met with a group of Baha’is, which his website confirms. According to Iran Press Watch, the Ayatollah said the following in his meeting with the Baha’is: “The heart-wrenching and unfair murder of the late Mr. Ataollah Rezvani is a cause for grief and sadness, and I offer my condolences to his family and friends…My ardent hope is that with the spread of rationalism and avoidance of blind religious fanaticism in Iranian society we will not witness such horrifying crimes any more. I also hope that the authorities identify and punish those responsible for these crimes.”

Additionally, a group of nearly 50 prisoners of conscience in the infamous Rajai Shahr prison in Iran have written a letter in support of Rezvani. They “condemn this vicious act and demand the immediate investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of this incident and those who ordered it in a fair court of law.”

They further state that, “such a horrible event creates an atmosphere of insecurity among fellow members of Iran’s Baha’i community as well as other minority groups.” They also remind the reader that on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Iranian constitution, “all citizens have equal rights, and the government is responsible for protecting their personal, financial, and social safety.”

Rezvani’s family members have made appeals to the Iranian government to launch a full investigation of the murder.