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Reviews of The Shiites: A Short History

“This very readable and useful account of the travails of the Shi’a begins with the martyrdom of al-Husayn in 680 and advances to the eleventh Imam, with the twelfth’s fate being uncertain. The work is divided into five parts. The first recounts the life and fate of the twelve Imams, including the one in occultation. Part 2 details the lamentations, flagellations, processions, and passion plays associated with the death of Husayn, including the accounts of the earliest Western travelers and their observations. Part 3 focuses on what is termed ‘The Islam of the Mullahs,’ who purportedly serve as representatives and spokesmen of the hidden Imam; it includes their formulation of Shi’i law and how they related to the established government. The fourth part deals with the revolutionary ideology of the ayatollahs toward the outside world, focusing on Khomeini’s role and on Qom as the center of their authority as mujtahids. The last part treats the Shi’ah outside Iran, including Iraq, the Indian subcontinent, and Lebanon. This all-encompassing short history is illustrated with some print reproductions of Shi’ite rituals. Short bibliography. A concise, timely work that should appeal to those who have no prior knowledge of Shi’ism.” — Choice Magazine

“In this slim volume, which is a translation by Allison Brown of the 1994 German original, Professor Heinz Halm, a leading scholar of early Shi’ism, offers his interpretation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in a historical perspective, reaching back to the formative era of Imami Shi’ism. The subtitle [of the original volume, now out of print] From Religion to Revolution is a clear indication of his main argument. Rather than accept the rhetoric of the Islamic militants in Iran on the essentially revolutionary character of Shi’ism, Halm prefers to see the transition to revolution as a turning point in the evolution of Shi’ism as a religion.

“Halm’s historical perspective is a welcome corrective to the ahistorical shallowness of the vast majority of the accounts of the Islamic Revolution, and goes farther back than those adopted by the few historically minded observers, including this reviewer. The depth of Halm’s historical perspective is most valuable for this reason, and also because his sketch of the Shi’i history, despite its concision, offers quite a few novel points and emphases. Here, Halm’s erudition stands him in good stead. In part 1, for instance, on the origins of Shi’ism and history of the imams, he can bring out the importance of the hitherto neglected and oldest account of the movement of the penitents (tawwabun) in 684–85 by Abu Mikhnaf of Kufa (d. 774). As the penitents — the Kufans who accused themselves of abandoning Husayn and being responsible for his death in Karbala (p. 680) — were the core group out of which Imami Shi’ism grew, Halm is right to highlight the importance of Abu Mikhnaf’s report. However, he goes too far in his contention that it contains ‘all the essential elements that characterize the Shi’i religion today’ (p. 18).

“Be that as it may, consonant with this contention, Part 2 is devoted to the historical ethnography of the passion plays and rituals of self-flagellation that commemorate the tragedy of Karbala during the first ten days of Muharram. The theoretical rationale for focusing on this aspect of Shi’ism is that ritual is more important for the formation of community than the regulations of the sacred law. The ethnography of the Muharram rituals is accompanied by fourteen figures, including interesting nineteenth-century illustrations, folk drawings from popular books, and contemporary photographs. Once again, the historical account is rich in detail and insight, but one is not compelled to assent to the concluding inferences that the statements he quotes from the contemporary flagellants ‘clearly demonstrate the element of penitence for the collective failure of the Shi’a’ (p. 83), or that ‘sinful Shi’ites are seen as worthy of death and only their death can expiate their guilt’ (p. 85).

“This overemphasis on sin and guilt strikes me as a Protestant reading of Shi’ism. One can concede the importance of the rituals of Muharram for fostering the attitudes and dispositions of the Shi’is but disagree about how they are understood and, therefore, about their effects. An alternative psychological interpretation would be that the seventh-century penitents’ emphasis on sin and repentance developed into a theodicy of martyrdom and the suffering of the Shi’i as (innocent) victims. The guilt for the martyrdom of Husayn and his family, together with usurpation of the rights of the subsequent imams (and their alleged poisoning), came to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the usurpers and tyrannical governments. It was not the wronged Shi’i but the wrongdoing usurpers who were guilty and sinful. A further development I would emphasize is the other-worldly compensation for Husayn, Lord of the Martyrs, who can now intercede for the oppressed Shi’i and obtain salvation for them in the other world. After all, the Shi’i consider themselves the saved sect (firqa-ye najiya).

“Halm calls the second half of his book (part 3), ‘The Government of the Expert — the Islam of the Mullahs.’ Here again, Halm provides us with a concise historical perspective on the growth of clerical authority in Shi’i history, and emphasizes (p. 110, esp.) that the dualism of royal and clerical authority in the structure of power in Iran since the Safavid period is crucial for understanding the Islamic Revolution of 1979. With that revolution, clerical authority overwhelmed royal authority, but in doing so, it also radically transformed Shi’ism. His account clearly shows that the conversion of the Shi’i tradition into a revolutionary ideology was ‘a very modern phenomenon and it demanded considerable modification of the religious tradition’ (p. 132). ‘The political revolution also served to revolutionize Shi’ism itself and led to many essential changes … The most important innovation is the principle of “government of the expert [jurist would have been a more accurate translation]” (velayat-e faqih)’ (p. 138). Halm traces the implementation of this principle under Khomeini and his successor, confirming his assertion that ‘Khomeini thus revolutionized not only the Iranian state, but traditional Shi’ism as well’ (p. 145).

“The translation [by Allison Brown] is fluid and readable … a most welcome event. It provides the English reader with an authoritative conspectus of Shi’i history and an accurate description of the revolutionary transformation of Shi’ism since 1979, including some useful information collected by the author in Iran in 1993. As a short historical introduction to Shi’ism, it is serviceable to the general public and has no rival or substitute.” — International Journal of Middle East Studies

“A solid, knowledgeable, and readable book without ideological baggage …” – Listen

“Recommended …” — Library Journal

“An authoritative account.” — Middle East Quarterly

“Illustrations, glossary, and index make this primer accessible and informative to nonspecialists … recommended for courses on Islam and comparative religions, especially at the undergraduate level, and as a welcome addition to the literature on Shi’ism in general.” — Digest of Middle East Studies

“Heinz Halm, an internationally renowned expert on Shi’ism, provides a concise and highly readable introduction to the historical and intellectual development of Twelver (Imamite) Shi’a Islam. He also presents Shi’i rituals as seen by European travelers. Halm considers these rituals as more important than Shi’a legal codes in terms of influencing culture. For example, he maintains that the 1979 Iranian revolution selectively utilized those historical and cultural symbols of Shi’ism that appealed to the sentiments of the masses; these symbols thus became tools in the hands of religious leaders.” — Journal of Palestine Studies