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Thanks to Shah Isma'il
A book on the advent and the evolution of a world religion



Ranin Kazemi
November 16, 2006

The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam
Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi‘ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890
By Said Amir Arjomand
University of Chicago Press, 1984

I have chosen to bring this title to this forum’s readers’ and writers’ attention because I believe the on-going discussions here about aspects of contemporary Iran, as well as the social and political life of Iranians outside the country would benefit from some of the points raised in this book (and by extension from further interest in historical Shi‘ism).

The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam is a study of the role of Shi‘ism in Iran’s social and political life from its beginnings to the late nineteenth century. It focuses on social action and social change brought about by such forces as charisma and reason. These are, of course, Weberian concepts, but they are studied here in the light of new findings. Shi‘ism, as a world religion, is considered “a source of motivation” for social action and a force for social change.

Yet, Shi‘ism acted as such amid its “interplay with men’s pursuit of material interests and their struggle for power” (5), men who were both within and without the Shi‘ite (clerical) establishment. It is the dynamic that was thus created between religion and political authority that is the subject of this book. It explores the ways in which Shi‘ism contributed to the centuries-old process of the “rationalization” of political domination in Iran.

In his general introduction, Arjomand identifies three factors that are generally involved in legitimizing religion and political authority: the availability of legitimizing ideas (Shi‘ism in this case), their propagation and reinforcement (by believers as well as the ‘ulama’), and the emergence of an institution that has interest in enforcing relevant religious and political norms (e.g., the Safavid monarchy or the early modern Shi‘ite hierocracy -- see further below).

Moving to Shi‘ite Islam more particularly, he identifies three historical norms for authority: the authority of the descendents of the Prophet (sayyids), the single authority of the Twelfth Imam, and the authority of the jurist (later known as the mujtahid). Only in time did the importance of the latter increased, however. Arjomand considers that society and politics modify the outlook and the structure of religion, hence he takes upon himself to explore the sociological changes that occurred in the self-contradictory, world-embracing, world-rejecting aspects of Shi‘ism throughout its history.

Chapter one explains the processes which shaped the Shi‘ite doctrine’s noninvolvement, in the first centuries after its birth, in legitimizing political authority, hence contributing significantly to the emergence of the concept of secularized political rule in Islam. Since during this early sectarian period the Shi‘ites constituted a minority community with no political power in the Sunni world, this doctrinal indifference to the principles of political legitimacy was able to prevail over the other non-quietist tendencies.

Yet, there at the same time developed a corpus of Shi‘ite literature on the merits of helping, with righteous motivations, one’s coreligionists while serving the non-Shi‘ite ruler. This latter development shows the pragmatic outlook of Shi‘ite Islam towards political authority during this period of virtual persecution.

In the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, the Shi‘ite religion as a source of social change was represented not so much by the Shi‘ite doctors’ attempt to build on what their predecessors had accomplished than by charismatic leaders who took advantage of the political decentralization in this period and the popular anticipation for the advent of the Mahdi.

These individuals, by claiming to be the anticipated Imam, his representative, or his forerunner, seized the legal opportunity that had been created by the doctrinal development of the previous centuries: the legal opportunity which gave essentially absolute religious and sociopolitical authority to a single individual and so making the hitherto “ethically rationalized normative order” inoperative (82).

These charismatic individuals included the leading figures of the Mar‘ashi order, the Sarbidars, the Hurufiyya, the mahdist movements of Nurbakhsh and Musha‘sha‘, and finally the Safavids. The Shi‘ite mass movements of these messianic personas would not have been possible had popular Sufism, which as Arjomand describes “was distinctly plebian” (66), not been spread among the diverse populace of the eastern Islamic lands who often had a superficial understanding of Islam.

Having thus spoken of the mahdist movements, the author, in chapter three, explores the Persian theories of kingship before and after the advent of Islam. Going as far back as the time of the Achaemenians, he shows that the concept of kingship evolved, as Zoroastrianism, the Greeks, the Sasanians, Islam (in general), the ‘Abbasids, and later Shi‘ite Islam (in particular) partook in molding and shaping a variety of related political theories.

Certain elements remained constant, however: the importance of justice, whether civic, religious, or both, and the king as the shadow of God, whether vested with both political and religious authority or with merely political. In the later medieval period, however, political authority (kingship, dawla) was relegated to the realm of the temporal in contrast to the divine nature of any political establishment under a Shi‘ite Imam (e.g., the Twelfth Imam).

After the proclamation by Shah Isma‘il I in 1501 of Shi‘ism as the state religion, the Safavids carried out four major categories of religious policies (chapter four’s subject matter): those to eradicate millenarian extremism, to persecute popular Sufism, to suppress Sunnism, and to propagate Twelver Shi‘ism. The qizilbash were tamed during the reigns of Shah Isma‘il I and Shah Tahmasp and were ruthlessly suppressed during the reign of Shah Abbas I.

Different Sufi orders, too, were persecuted and suppressed (e.g., the Sunni Naqshbandis and Khalvatis, the Shi‘ite Isma‘ilis, and the Sunni Dhahabis). Even those Sufi orders that survived were under constant political pressure and in forced decline (e.g., the Nurbakhshis, the Shi‘ite Ni‘matullahis). Only the qalandars (roaming dervishes) and the ascetic virtuosi enjoyed relative liberty due mostly to their lack of institutional organization. Finally, Sunni Islam was likewise persecuted under the reigns of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas I, and as such, many Sunnis fled Iran.

Chapter five goes through the bitter struggle and fight, from the early sixteenth century to the late seventeenth, between the legalist Shi‘ite doctors (in Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s terminology, “shari‘a-minded ‘ulama’ ”), on the one hand, and the clerical notables (many of them sayyids) and their mouthpiece, the gnostic philosopher-‘ulama’, on the other. This period comes to a close with the ultimate triumph of the former and the establishment of the first Shi‘ite orthodoxy under Shah Sultan-Husayn.

Arjomand explicates how the Shi‘ite jurists developed during this time two of the most important theses of their orthodoxy (i.e., on the one hand, the concept of taqlid and ijtihad, and on the other, the notion of the mujtahid as the vicegerent of the Hidden Imam). With these two crucial ideological concepts, they were able to manipulate the masses and those in authority, persecute their Sufi-minded philosopher-‘ulama’, and ultimately establish a Shi‘ite hierocracy in Iran (for the first time in both Shi‘ite and Iranian history) towards the end of the seventeenth century.

In chapter six, Arjomand speaks of the doctrinal transformation of sectarian Shi‘ism to Shi‘ism as a national religion, which came to emphasize such themes as eschatology, resurrection, the “wrongdoings” of the first three rightly-guided caliphs (a sign of its overtly anti-Sunni trends in this period), prayer, and ziyarat (as opposed to hajj, and as a sign of the centrality of the station of the Imams). In Arjomand’s words, “the preponderantly inner-worldly sectarian Shi‘ism” was hence modified into an “anti-Sunni” and “other-worldly” faith.

Chapter seven is devoted to the reiteration of what the author has already implicitly stated in the previous chapters. In Safavid Iran, we witness the emergence of two distinct religious groups: orthodox Shi‘ism, which ultimately in the latter part of the seventeenth century attains supremacy and establishes itself as an institution (hierocracy), and gnostic Shi‘ism, which though survived the Safavid period, was never destined to achieve comparable political or social grounding.

As a way of understanding the normative regulation of the Safavid political order, we are introduced to the period’s interwoven and mixed political ethics. The rulers enjoyed the support and legitimacy of Shi‘ite orthodoxy, and the validation of their legitimacy through the patrimonial ethos as embodied in the theories of kingship. Yet, these two intertwined elements were at times incompatible with one another just in the same way the Safavid kingship was partially incongruent with Twelver Shi‘ism.

It is this duality that is the subtext of the next chapter (chapter eight). Here Arjomand talks about a number of social actions such as royal and religious orders and enactments, as well as extremist political rebellions under the name and organization of Shi‘ite Islam (e.g., the Nuqtavi movement). In chapter nine, the author further explores the world-rejecting aspect of Shi‘ism under the Safavids and emphasizes its negative evaluation of political authority as being temporal.

The author concludes his discussion of Shi‘ism under the Safavids by restating that the Safavid rulers together with the nascent Shi‘ite hierocracy were quite successful in suppressing extremism, Sunnism, and Sufism (both “high” and popular Sufism). When these social forces were eradicated, the sociopolitical plane was left vacant for the emergence of Shi‘ite orthodoxy and its institutional authority.

Chapters ten and eleven address Qajar Shi‘ism. The duality that was formed between the two social power structures under the Safavids (i.e., the monarchy and the hierocracy) was solidified under the Qajars. Thus, “after for centuries taking the form of rejection of the world and creation of an inner spiritual sphere, the dualistic world image of Shi‘ism, in stages and with retardations and syncopations, intruded into the realm of social organization and was translated into a correspondingly autonomous religious institution” (259).

It was with this newly-acquired social status of Shi‘ite orthodoxy that the resurgence of such potential social forces as Sufism, philosophy, inner-worldly gnostic Shi‘ism (i.e., Shaykhism), and mahdistic millenarianism (i.e., Babism) was suppressed, giving way to the autonomous hierocracy’s “monopolistic control over the religious life of the population of Iran” (259). Nor did the religious orthodoxy discontinued to exercise its authority in legitimizing the state to acquire political support.

This is a book that maps the advent and the evolution of a world religion. The author finds in Weberian sociological theory useful conceptual tools for analyzing Shi‘ite history. The book’s organization, thematic clarity (albeit it would not be an easy for the general reader), and comprehensive coverage are quite notable. The author uses a wide range of primary sources -- books written primarily by the Shi‘ite ‘ulama’ throughout Shi‘ite history -- to illustrate various theological concepts and the subject matter of polemics. His use of secondary sources indicates that he consulted as well many modern Iranian and Western sources. Comment

* For more on the history of Shi‘ism see:
1. Moojan Momen, Introduction to Shi‘i Islam: The History and Doctrine of Twelver Shi‘ism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).
2. Heinz Halm, Shiism [Schia], translated from German by Janet Watson and Marian Hill, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).
3. Juan R. I. Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture, and History of Shi‘ite Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002).

** For an informed introduction to religion in Iran see:
1. Alessandro Bausani, Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster to Baha’ullah [Persia relgiosa da Zaratustra Baha’u’llah], translated from Italian by J. M. Marchesti (Milan: 1959; New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000).

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