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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Vision for Society

Written by: Anna Akasoy

A recurrent theme in Shiite visions for society is justice, which, in the modern world, often includes socio-economic justice. Yet, how Shiites view their current societies, what kind of change they consider possible or desirable, and the significance of confessional identities in these contexts depend mostly on the political community they live in. Principles of involvement in the public sphere also vary according to the branch of Shiism, more specifically the relationship between activism and quietism and the presence or absence of immediate apocalyptic expectations.

At one end are the Zaydis with their activism and their focus on this world and the need to realize justice here and now. At the other end are those Twelver Shiites who are quietists and who believe that they have to endure the injustice of this world until the return of the Hidden Imam at some point in the remote future. Accordingly, as far as religious principles are concerned, Zaydis put strong emphasis on what is called 'commanding right and forbidding wrong' (Arabic: al-amr bil-maruf wal-nahy an al-munkar) rather than the principle of knowing 'what is allowed and what is forbidden' (al-halal wal-haram).

Given that Shiites often lived under the rule of those whom they considered unjust, the attitude to these governments constituted an important problem in Shiite thought. While some came to the conclusion that withdrawal and taqiya were the best strategy, others decided that the benefits of collaborating with rulers outweighed the negative sides. One such example is the ascetic and legal scholar Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (1059-1126) from Muslim Spain who overcame his qualms and worked as a judge for the Maliki legal school of Sunnism in Fatimid Alexandria.

Fatimid history illustrates how visions of society can change depending on the immediacy of apocalyptic expectations. When the movement made its first successful bid for political power in early 10th-century North Africa, its appeal also lay in the charismatic authority of the politico-religious leader of the Fatimids who was presented to the movement's followers as the Mahdi. Subsequently, the Fatimid apocalyptic vision was reinterpreted to accommodate the consolidation of power in the imperial setting of Egypt. With this revision, the expectations for social change were modified. Instead of effecting, as the apocalyptic savior, the historical restoration of justice, the Mahdi became a political ruler with a line of succession. Whatever expectations there were regarding a spread of Ismailism, these too probably had to be modified. The Fatimids were marked by an elitism, which reflects the intellectual esotericism of the Ismailis, but which may also have been political strategy. This elitism prevented the general mission.


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