Monday, January 11, 2010

Charisma, Walaya and Early Shi'i Islam

For all the paranoia of the politics of the ‘Shiʿi crescent’, it is a fruitful and exciting time to be working in Shiʿi studies. New studies have emerged examining critical aspects of the early period, theology and intellectual developments ranging from Liakat Takim’s study of the networks of the Imams (The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shiʿite Islam, Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), Robert Gleave on the akhbārī school (Scripturalist Islam: The History and Doctrines of the Akhbārī Shīʿī School, Leiden: Brill, 2007), Hossein Modarressi’s paradigm-shifting studies on the early period (Tradition and Survival: A Bibliographic Survey of Early Shiʿite Literature, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003) and Amir-Moezzi’s wide ranging studies (La religion discrete, Paris: Vrin, 2006; Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī, Leiden: Brill, 2008). This is not to mention the many studies on contemporary Shiʿism produced by Lara Deeb, Max Weiss, Roshanak Shaery-Eisenlohr, Rula Abisaab and Laurence Louër. There are even two or three competing journals specialising in Shiʿi studies both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

Maria Dakake’s revised 2000 Princeton doctoral dissertation makes an important contribution in this company by refocusing our understanding of early Shiʿism on two points: the cohesion of a counter-community coalescing around the concept of walāya both as an ontological status and authority of the Imams and as a devotion that believers owe to them, and the identity of this community as an elect, the praised few who are the true believers and the true guardians of the faith. These points are located within an insistence that Shiʿism developed not as a political doctrine of succession first to which a theology of discontent and dissent was later grafted but as a theological tendency attached to the family of the Prophet. In fact, Dakake is careful to assert that it is highly misleading to refer to Shiʿism as a ‘heterodox sect’, at the very least because it begs the question of the formation of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islam as well as the basic nuances of the concept of ‘sect’. She dates the emergence of Shiʿism from the First Civil War, and not from either the early Prophetic period (as many believers would), nor from the second century responses to various Alid revolts as many academics do.

Dakake puts forward three theses that comprise the three sections of the book. First, Shiʿism represents an early religious perspective rooted in basic principles such as the charismatic authority of the Prophet’s family as leaders of the Muslim community, a theology that remained ‘essentially unchanged from its inception in the first Islamic century through the period of its doctrinal solidification in the late second and early third centuries’ (page 3). This position is argued through four chapters on the nature of walāya in the Islamic tradition, a close reading of the famous Ghadīr Khumm tradition, walāya in the First Civil War, and the community in its aftermath. The notion of continuity in doctrine will surprise many specialists, not least the sceptics who are well represented in the historiography of early Islam. Her contention also draws upon the Weberian concept of religious charisma without allowing for a straight ‘fit’ between charisma and walāya. The first of these chapters is a general introduction. One would have wanted to see a more extensive analysis of walāya in the Qurʾan and in early texts, and the relationship between Shiʿi and Sufi notions of the concept needs further elaboration and analysis (too much of what is discussed is read through the prism of the more recent ʿirfānī understanding of the link between Shiʿi thought and Sufi metaphysics). Chapter two does well to focus on the Ghadīr tradition, far too neglected in the study of Shiʿism but is mainly concerned with identifying sources and the polemics around the text. There is no source-critical engagement here which will disappoint many students of early Islam. Chapter three focuses on the First Civil War and the articulation of communal identity and partisan adherence through a study of the historical accounts, and does well to draw out the importance of the dual notion of walāya and barāʾa (association and dissociation) so important to early Shiʿism as well as to its arch-enemy Khārijism. The final chapter of this section centres on the crystallisation of identity in the conflicts of the various uprisings both before and after Karbala. Both this chapter and the previous one draw upon the material of the Kūfan traditionist and historian Abū Mikhnaf but there is little assessment of him as a source. An important question which Dakake raises but does not examine adequately is Hāshimī Shiʿism and the legacy of the claims put forward for Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya, the son of ʿAlī who was not a descendent of the Prophet.

The second thesis concerns walāya as a representation of a principle of spiritual charisma at the heart of the Shiʿi ethos and articulation of the ‘profound spiritual connection and ontological affinity between the Imāms and their followers’ (page 7). This theme comprises four further chapters on the theology of walāya, salvation in the community, predestination, and the charismatic distinction of the Shiʿa. Chapter five examines walāya in Shiʿi poetry and in the nascent ḥadīth corpus. Chapter six considers walāya as a pre-requisite for salvation and locates it within the theological debate of how best to avoid the hellfire and balance the requirements of faith as belief and works as articulations of belief. Chapter seven presents an important theme of Shiʿi tradition, namely predestination; but given the later espousal of soft determinism or at least a genuflection to free will, some consideration of the rational theological reconfiguration would have been useful. Chapter eighth articulates the spiritual hierarchy of Shiʿism as sets of relationship directed towards the Imam as master.

The third thesis of the book is that walāya and the elite spiritual status of the Shiʿa provided the ideological foundation for establishing sets of rules for social and intellectual interaction in the larger Muslim community. The final four chapters make this point by discussing the interaction between commonality and the elite through the contrast between islām and īmān, the notion of a spiritual hierarchy in the community, a discussion of women’s identity in early Shiʿism, and codes of conduct for interaction with the wider ummah. In total, there are twelve chapters, numerically significant in the context of a study on Twelver Shiʿism. Chapter nine is important especially in the light of more recent Shiʿi discussions around the notion of religious and civic pluralisms. Two concepts raised here would have benefitted from further discussion: the semantic range of the term kufr and the mustaḍaʿf. Chapter ten shifts to hierarchy within the Shiʿi community determined by the twin instruments of recognition-knowledge (maʿrifa) and obedience to the Imam (ṭāʿa). Dakake’s analysis would have benefitted from a greater engagement in this context with the work of Amir-Moezzi and Karim Crow’s masterful doctoral dissertation on early Islamic notions of intellect. Chapter eleven is on both Shiʿi women and attitudes to women in Shiʿi ḥadīth. In some ways, the chapter seems rather out of place, as if a journal article were suddenly introduced into the text to make it ‘more relevant’. Once again from a present-minded perspective, if early Shiʿism were so misogynistic, then how can one account for a radical reversal in the present period where Twelver Shiʿism is arguably the most positive about women and their role in the public sphere? The final chapter is once again brief (somewhat like the first chapter) and, one suspects, in the place of a proper conclusion (which is clearly needed and lacking). It does not really detail the twin (parallel?) codes of conduct for believers as mentioned in the title of the chapter.

The method that Dakake adopts involves an approach to early history and theology through the prism of ḥadīth material, somewhat akin to Amir-Moezzi’s studies of early Shiʿism. There is no critical assessment of the value of these sources. While Dakake has a few footnotes in which she acknowledges her use of later ḥadīth and historical sources to represent earlier events and words, her only response is to claim that there is ‘strong indications’ that the terms used are authentic representations of the early debates. While it may well be that the question of the authenticity of this corpus (and by extension I mean the various uṣūl attributed to the companions of the Imāms, some purported works of the Imāms and the famous kitāb al-saqīfa of Sulaym ibn Qays al-Ḥilālī) is somehow a pseudo-problem and obsession of source-(over)critical scholars, and indeed what is often far more important is how texts are deployed and used to interrogate positions, Dakake should have made some effort to locate and explain her use of sources. After all, one cannot simply use ḥadīth in an unreflective manner in a field that is so sensitive to usage, canonisation and integrity of that corpus. Within this context, one would also like to have seen a discussion of extremism and moderation (ghuluww, taqṣīr), or doctrinal confusion (takhlīṭ) – terms that were in the early texts and early theological critiques of the tradition, and which remain very much the core of internal debate and difference within Shiʿi communities in the present.

Despite this methodological critique and the gaps that one inevitably encounters, Dakake’s book is a wonderfully rich examination of the emergence of Shiʿism as a community of walāya at the core of Islam. One feels that this is very much a heart-felt project attempting a more inclusive approach to the study of Islam, away from the binarism (orthodoxy-heterodoxy, works-faith) of much that passes for Islamic studies. In the articulation of her three core theses, she is remarkably successful. The Charismatic Community is a significant and welcome contribution to the study of the theology and sacred history of early Islam.

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