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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

In Iran, the authority of the religious scholars rested not only on these theoretical foundations, but also on their social basis as prayer leaders in the villages and small towns and religious leaders in the larger cities. Their economic strength resulted from the benefits they received from pious endowments as well as from their connections with landowners. Since the Qajar period (1794-1925), a hierarchy divided the muqallids from simple legal scholars who were mainly in charge of applying existing rules, and these from high-ranking authorities who were capable of absolute ijtihad. From this emerged in the mid-19th century the concept of the marja al-taqlid. This supreme position as the 'source for imitation' was limited to one scholar also sometimes referred to as 'deputy of the Imam' (naib al-imam).

There is no established mechanism or open competition for this position, although there has been a silent agreement that—after the Iranian revolutionary leader Khomeini (d. 1989) and the Grand Ayatollah Abu Qasim al-Khoei (d. 1992)—the Iraqi Ali al-Sistani (born 1930 in Mashhad) is a  marja al-taqlid, the recently deceased Lebanese Fadlallah having been another candidate.

In Sunnism too, religious scholars, especially those who are highly respected, can claim great authority. Unlike their Shiite counterparts, however, they are not organized in a fixed hierarchy. Likewise, Sunnis are flexible when they consult scholars, whereas Shiites have to subscribe to the views of one particular person. The great influence of the Shiite scholars in Iran is reflected in the concept of vilayat-e faqih, the rule of the (religious) scholar. The Islamic revolution in Iran also meant a substantial re-interpretation of the eschatological vision of Imami Shiism. Instead of waiting for the Hidden Imam to restore justice, as the then predominant quietist line had suggested, scholars were able to create an Islamic society in the here and now. Given the predominant position of Iranian Shiites and the Iranian state compared to other Shiite communities and states where Shiites live, the developments in Iran have had an important effect on non-Iranian Imami Shiites.

Apart from the connections to the house of the Prophet, there are other possibilities of genealogical distinction for scholars. Michael Gilsenan, for example, discusses in his Recognizing Islam the role of two leading groups in a Shiite village in south Lebanon in the 1950s. While the sayyids (religious scholars who descend from Muhammad) can claim descent from Husayn, the shaykhs are mainly distinguished by their learning, but also as descendants of Hurr, the commander of the Umayyad army who had joined Husayn in Karbala. The case of these local dynasties illustrates that it would be mistaken to treat the Shiite clerics of Iran as a paradigm rather than the result of very specific political and socio-economic circumstances. While the power of the Iranian clerics relies to a significant extent on their coalition with the shopkeepers, the scholars from south Lebanon did not secure themselves a comparably advantageous position in the social and economic landscape of modern Lebanon. Since their status as an elite traditionally rested not only on religious learning, but also on landownership and exclusive access to the families by marriage, the development of a service-based economy and migration toward Beirut led to their social decline. Under such circumstances it became particularly important for them to maintain their religious authority and manifest it publicly by playing the roles of the martyrs of Karbala in the Muharram passion plays.

Study Questions:
1.     Why are the Imams pivotal in any understanding of Shiite leadership?
2.     What are the Ayatollah and the Grand Ayatollah in Twelver Shiite communities?
3.     What is the role of scholarship in Shia community leadership?


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