From Black to White Shiʿism

Never has Shiʿism witnessed such overwhelming criticism from Islamic thinkers and revisionists


From Black to White Shiʿism
by Ali Vaez

In the dusk of the twentieth century, a mystical and quietist religion changed into a politico-revolutionary ideology that shook the world. How was this transformation brought about? Who were the men who transformed the faith into a weapon? What does the future hold for revolutionary Shiʿism?

Martyrology and Messianism, the two main pillars of Shiʿism, can be traced back to two transformative events in the history of Islam: the killing of the Third Imam and the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. Centuries later, these momentous historical events provided the essential ingredient for ideologization of the faith in an era dominated by revolutionary dogmas. Many prophesized revolutionary Shiʿism but only two men were able to fulfill it: Musa Sadr in Lebanon and Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.

From the Lord of Martyrs to the Lord of Time
Shia history begins with a dispute on the succession of the Prophet Mohammad. For Shias, Islam’s leadership was metaphysical and could only live on through the Ahl-al-Beyt (Prophet’s bloodline). The Sunnis, however, made a historical compromise with worldly powers, assumed the character of a natural majority and a lasting sense of the right to rule. History was not clement with the Shias. Ali, the First Imam, was assassinated after five tumultuous years in power. His son, Hassan, abdicated and according to his followers was ultimately poisoned. The burden of the struggle to recuperate legitimate religious authority fell on the Third Imam, Hossein. Then came the first turning point for Shiʿism. Hossein raised in rebellion against Yazid, the second Umayyad caliph. On the day of Ashura in 680, Hossein suffered a brutal defeat. He was beheaded, his companions killed, and his family enslaved. He became the “Eternal Martyr,” the flag-bearer for standing up to tyranny, of which Yazid became the emblem. The tragedy of Karbala was to be reiterated every year in “passion plays” in the Shia heartland. The Shia doctrine and identity of “the righteous few suffering the injustices of the evil many,” was created in the shadow of the Karbala narrative. Shia Islam slipped into a defensive mentality of victimhood.

The second major event occurred in the year 941 when, the Twelfth Imam, Mahdi, went into occultation: His return, it is said, would herald the end of time and the genesis of perfect divine justice. The physical absence of the Imam created a void for a doctrine entirely dominated by “infallible” authority of the religious leader. Consequently, the ulama (religious experts) became the functional replacements for the authority of the imams. They used ijtihad (religious expertise) to apply reason in cases left in suspense by the Quran and Tradition. Shia scholars reasoned that until the end of occultation there could not be a true Islamic ruler and anyone claiming such a title would by definition be a pretender. Thus, passive resistance replaced active rebellion. To survive, the Shias grew insular and resorted to taqqiya (dissimulation). They became a nation in waiting.

From Black to Red Shiʿism
The beginning of what came to be known as the Shia “clergy,” can be traced to the reign of the Safavids (1501-1722) and the declaration of Twelver Shiʿism as the state religion. Shiʿism now had a state and Shia clergy crafted a new theory of government. Although to them the Safavid government was not truly legitimate, they would bless it as the most desirable form of government during the period of waiting. Under the Safavid patronage, the clergy became more organized, powerful, and increasingly hierarchical. Management of profits from waqf (endowments) assured the religious clergy substantial social influence and great financial independence. Henceforth, Shiʿism was no longer the religion of resistance. Its only enduring heritage was the culture of mourning. Black Shiʿism was born.

From the Safavids to the reign of the Qajars (1794-1925), the clergy and the state had a symbiotic relationship, confirming each other’s legitimacy. The first cracks appeared in 1892 Tobacco Rebellion when the clergy opposed the state’s concession policy and the 1906 Constitutional Revolution when they restricted the King’s authority. The cleavage became more profound during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941). Through modernization and strict autocratic rule, he left no room for the clergy’s intervention in politics. Under the second Pahlavi King, the influence of the clergy was restored when the Shah enlisted their help to combat the threat of Communism. After the failed coup d’état of 1953, Mohammad Reza Shah’s increasingly autocratic rule debilitated secular groups and organizations, however, he left the clergy free to mobilize disenchanted Iranians through a wide network of mosques and shrines across the country.

With growing discontent over the Shah’s pro-western and rapid modernization policies during the 1960s and 1970s, and the regime’s systematic crackdown of Marxist and liberal activists, opposing socio-political groups were left with no choice other than to utilize Islam as a means to fight the regime. No one was more instrumental in putting Shiʿism to political use than Ali Shariati (1933-1977), an intellectual layman, gifted speaker, and brilliant pamphleteer. He successfully cast Shiʿism in a new revolutionary light. For him, Imam Hossein was a seventh-century revolutionary Che Guevara. Tinged with messianic expectations, Shariati argued that Shias should actively work to hasten the return of the Hidden Imam. The great ideologue’s lectures attracted a large segment of Iranian youth, the educated middle-class, and lay intelligentsia who were not previously swayed by the clergymen. He successfully converted Marxist ideas into Shi’ite cultural symbols and branded the new culturally “authentic” radical Islam as “Red Shiʿism”. The millenary transformation from a religion of withdrawal to a romanticized religion of rebellion was complete.

The Rebel Imam
Shariati’s friend, Musa Sadr, was the first to translate his fiery words into accessible language and spark the Shia awakening in Lebanon. Arab nationalism, the Palestinian struggle against Israel, and inter-communal strife had brought ruin and suffering to Lebanon. The young “Seyed Musa” emerged at a time when Lebanese Shias had become urbanized, wriggled away from Arab nationalism, and were searching for a new political identity. Sadr arrived in Lebanon in 1960 as a Persian, however, he rapidly gained wide acceptance through his relentless work to improve the economic and social conditions of the deprived Shias. Imam Sadr capitalized on the budding politicization of the Shia community, invigorating and rationalizing it. “Islam was once movement, vitality, and work; it now stands for lethargy and abdication,” said the shrewd cleric. For him Karbala was the epitome of “political daring,” the quintessential model to “stop tyranny and pulverize evil.” Musa Sadr wanted to remove the “dust of ages” from men of religion, empower them, and bring them into the social realm.

In practice, Musa Sadr achieved his political agenda by standing above the fragmented Shia community and filling its schisms. He united Shias from the Bekaa Valley and the South. Despite being the majority in Lebanon, the Shias had no concrete avenue to demand their due in the country’s politics until Musa Sadr founded the “Supreme Islamic Shia Council” and became its chairman. He created an extensive social-based support system around the themes of “disinheritance” and “deprivation.” The movement for the “wretched of the earth” was launched in 1974 from a series of protests and strikes aimed to bring the plight of the Shias to the attention of the Lebanese government. As the country inched closer to civil war, an armed element of the movement, Afwâj al-Muqâwama al-Lubnâniyya (AMAL), was established as a resistance force.

Imam Musa Sadr’s mark on Lebanon was deep. He disappeared in Libya in 1978, to become forever the “Vanished Imam,” but his doctrine of a “revolutionary elite fighting for Islam” lived on. The torch was passed to another cleric from Sadr’s country of birth: Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Revolutionary Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini was more fortunate than Musa Sadr, who saw but never touched his promised land. He successfully led the world’s first Islamic Revolution to victory and established the first Shi’ite hierocracy. He appeared on Iran’s political scene in the fall of 1962, denouncing the new electoral law that expanded the franchise to women and failed to stipulate “being Muslim” as part of the eligibility criteria for candidates. One year later, his fierce opposition to the Shah’s reform policies under the “White Revolution” catapulted him to fame. On the day of Ashura 1963, a mob encouraged by the Shah’s government clashed with Khomeini’s supporters in the Qom seminary, causing the death of several students. Khomeini seized the moment, marked the day as a “Second Ashura;” portrayed himself as a modern-day Hossein; and launched the sixteen-year fight against the new Yazid incarnate. After the riots, Khomeini was expelled to Turkey and then Iraq, were he continued his campaign using the symbolic language of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Like Sadr, Khomeini used Shariati’s populist and utilitarian ideas for a new phase of fighting the Pahlavi regime. He looked to Karbala to legitimize his revolt. He relied on Shia Messianism to confirm his leadership. He deliberately referred to the Shah as the Taghut (False God), a term the Shia lexicon reserved for the nemesis of the Hidden Imam. In Khomeini’s mind, mass popular mobilization and uprising would require strong, active, and intuitive revolutionary leadership. He accomplished that vision by mobilizing a vast network of supporters across mosques, universities, and the bazzar.

The millenarian dream of the Shias was finally fulfilled on February 11, 1979. The monarchy fell and the Islamic Republic was established. Khomeini assimilated an utilitarian vision of authority. With his theory of velayat-e-faghih (guardianship of the jurisconsult), Shiʿism looked to its ulama as the ruling class to protect their interests and identity. After his triumph in Iran, Khomeini turned to the rest of the Islamic realm. He redefined the revolution not as a Shia revolution but as an Islamic one. He used the emotional power of Shia lore to lay claim on Muslim politics from Malaysia to Morocco. However, except for limited influence in Lebanon, the revolution did not spread as he had hoped. Iran’s sui generis cultural features made it difficult for other Muslims to replicate the Iranian model. Khomeini died on June 3, 1989 but his brand of revolutionary Shiʿism was to challenge the status quo and the established world order for years to come.

It is worthwhile to draw a comparison between Sadr and Khomeini. Musa Sadr had a law degree from the University of Tehran, traveled widely, and had a deep understanding of Western thought. Khomeini’s religious ranking was higher than Sadr but he lacked academic credentials, had never traveled before his exile, and had no regard for Western philosophy. Khomeini was a conservative, whereas Sadr bravely faced the old rituals and prohibitions. Both men had the title of “Imam”, evoking Imam Ali and his eleven descendants. While in Lebanon “Imam” literally meant “leader”, in Iran it gave Khomeini an aura of sanctity and elevated him above all other senior ayatollahs.

Despite these differences, both men used Shia martyrology and eschatology to forge an uprising. Unlike Shariati, both clerics believed that it was upon the ulama to lead such an upheaval. Although Khomeini appropriated many of Shariati’s formulations, he never openly endorsed him. He boasted that his ideas were directly based on the Quran and that he was influenced by Islamic scholars such as Ibn al-Arabi (1160-1240) and Mulla Sadra (1571-1640). Sadr, however, never dissociated himself from Shariati and even presided over his 40-day memorial in 1977. Nevertheless, Shariati’s “Red Shiʿism” came to define the movements both men led.

From Red to White Shiʿism
Political Islam, as an activist ideology, was made moot by Sayyid Qutb in Egypt; adapted by Bagher Sadr in Najaf; translated into popular mobilization by Shariati; transformed into social movement by Musa Sadr; and taken to revolutionary conclusion by Khomeini. The theoreticians of “Red Shiʿism,” however, had not devised a plan for after their victory. How should the revolutionary aura be transformed into doctrines and institutions that legitimize social order? To hold sway, Khomeini decided that the state’s interest was above all. Raison d’état and maintaining the Nezam (Islamic regime) would have “priority over all other Islamic tenets.”

The clergy did not follow Khomeini’s initial instruction of staying above the political fray and lost their status as defenders of the moral order. As Ayatollahs Khoi and Shariatmadari feared before the revolution, Islam was blamed (to a certain extent) for the failures and injustices of the regime. Three decades of pretentions Islamism, totalitarian rule, disastrous economic mismanagement, and cruel violations of human rights have led to frustration and resentment towards the theocracy. Even Ashura ceremonies are now organized by the state and have lost their genuine appeal. Hamid Dabashi exposes the soul of Shiʿism as a religion of protest, successful only when in a warring position. He argues that not only is Shi’ism losing its political legitimacy, but that it can never politically succeed because its success equates to its moral failure.

Although Shariati, Sadr and Khomeini were successful in turning the passive tide of Shiʿism, they unintentionally contributed to its secularization. Never in its history, has Shiʿism witnessed such overwhelming criticism from Islamic thinkers and revisionists. The most famous of them, Abdolkarim Soroush uses hermeneutic effervescence of Shiʿism against itself to restore its inaugurating authority. Other thinkers, like Arash Naraghi, believe that the very fact that in the Islamic Republic, expediency and survival of the regime takes precedence over the Islamic tenets is a giant leap towards secularization. Today, Iran is closer than ever to become a secular state. Such an event will have momentous repercussions in other Shia realms.

Shiʿism had its moment in history, a moment rife with perils and promises. It is difficult to predict what Shiʿism will yield in the future. Nevertheless, it is certain that Shias will remain Muslims, but Shiʿism is again going through transformation and might even become “White”.

Ali Vaez, Ph.D, M.I.P.P. student, Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


Recently by Ali VaezCommentsDate
Supreme Loser
Jan 07, 2012
Grab this Opportunity
Oct 27, 2011
Tunis Not Tehran
Jan 26, 2011
more from Ali Vaez
Maryam Hojjat

Thanks, very interesting

by Maryam Hojjat on

  Although Shariati, Sadr and Khomeini were successful in turning the passive tide of Shiʿism, they unintentionally contributed to its secularization.

I can not wait for the day Iran becomes a secular, Free country without Akhoonds.

Down with IRI/ IRR


White Shiísm has always existed

by Aryana-Vaeja on

It is called the Sufi Orders of Iran. What your analysis fails to address is that with the discrediting and fall of Usuli ecclesiastical Shiísm (whose climax was reached in Khomeinism and the VF), this does not necessarily translate into the end of Shiísm in Iran en toto. On the contrary. Alternative Shiía discourses have existed side by side during the entire period of ecclesiastical Shiísm's hegemony and these will certainly thrive once the regime finally collapses. Whether we're speaking of the Sufi Orders,  the Ahl-e-Haqq/Yarsan, the Shaykhi school or the Ismaílis (not to mention post-Islamic Twelver Shiítes such as the Bayanis), we're still inhabiting the worldspace of the greater Shiá continuum.

Foucault once opined that the margins are the center. Given that these alternative Shiísms have been continuously marginalized (even violently persecuted) by the official ecclesiastical establishment, don't be surprised to find a novel Shiá resurgence in the mold of these alternative Shiísms once Iran is finally free. Iran and Iranians are homo religiosus and that will never change.


May we be amongst those who are to bring about the transfiguration of the Earth - Yasna XXX 9