Although each work has a different focus, there are great similarities between Faleh Abdul-Jabar’s Ayatollahs, Sufis and ideologues: state, religion and social movements in Iraq, Abbas Amanat’s Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism and Homa Katouzian’s, The Persians: ancient, medieval and modern Iran.
There are clear differences among the writings of Amanat, Abdul-Jabar and Katouzian. Amanat and Katouzian focus mainly on traditions in Iran, while Abdul-Jabar focuses also on Iraq. Both Amanat and Katouzian, therefore, focus their efforts almost exclusively on Shi’ism, while Abdul-Jabar also explores the experience of the Sufis. Katouzian, meanwhile, focuses less on religious matters than the other authors and provides her readers with a rich history of Iranian battles and political conflicts. Her discussion of Shi’ism is incorporated into this history, which provides the historical context for the evolution of Shi’ism which the other authors do not give. Amanat, provides the most in-depth discussion of Iranian Shiism, defining terms the other authors use without explanation, and giving his readers a deep understanding of how each group in the hierarchy of Shiism emerged, developed and gained or lost power.

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Though each writer’s works are different, there are commonalities in their discussion of the nature and evolution of Shi’ism. The three writers all acknowledge how essential the idea of the Twelfth Imam to the Shiites. According to Katouzian, he is considered the messiah – a savior, hidden from sight in the physical world, but always present within someone who was alive. Abdul-Jabar, for his part, suggests that the Persian clerical classes underwent a renaissance and changed from Sunnis to specifically “Twelver” Shi’ism – demonstrating how powerful and politically influential the idea of the Twelfth Imam really was.

Each of the writers also acknowledges the primacy of knowledge to Shi’ism. According to Amanat, to be considered marja’iya, an individual must demonstrate that he is superior in learning and. Most importantly, superiorly skilled in deducing the law of God and in understanding it from presented evidence. Knowledge, he said, is considered by the Shiites as an even greater value than justice. Theoretically, he says, the three priorities in Shi’ism are knowledge, justice and piety. Similarly, Abdul Jabar writes that knowledge is a cornerstone of Shiite belief. He notes that infallible, God chosen imams are meant to be sources of knowledge, justice and “meditation with the divine.” He also notes that the Ulama, who were originally teachers, gained their high status because of their ability to codify and transmit Islamic tradition. Their ability, then, to teach and to help others gain knowledge, made them essential in the world of Shi’ism.

Abdul-Jabar also suggests that for Shiites, knowledge is holy. There is, he says, a battle between mundane knowledge and sacred, infallible knowledge. The mundane leads people astray, while the infallible leads them closer to God. Learning the right things, therefore, from the right sources is of extreme importance to Shiites. Katouzian, too, notes the importance of knowledge and reason to the religion, stating that the Oslulis advocated ejtehad – rational interpretations of religious law. They also expected followers to emulate the pronouncements of the learned. Because knowledge was so respected, the Oslulis believed that the Ulamas opinions were to be respected, sometimes even over the rules pronounced by the state.

Questionable Authority
Each work, for instance, describes the problematic nature of establishing authority among Shi’ites. According to Katouzian for instance, that there was an ancient tradition of distrust of the state and that many Iranians saw state power as illegitimate. Some, therefore, looked to religious authorities for guidance, although the authority of most religious figures might have been questionable, due to the belief of the ulama that a state could only legitimately be run by a single sinless Imam. Similarly, according to Abbas Amanat, “Some obstacles are inherent in Imami Shi’ism, which make defining superiority difficult.” Among these, he says, is the “inescapable presence of the Hidden Imam.”

Each writer acknowledges the importance – and the disputed nature of Marja’ism to Islam in Iran. Faleh Abdul-Jabar suggests that leaders such as Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr believed that Marja’ism emerged prior to 939 and that the ability of religious leaders to project the “present reality” of Marja’ism onto the past has allowed them to give current forms of authority “a centralized and institutionalized nature.” Although Abdul-Jabar himself disputes the idea of the tradition going back so far, he acknowledges that the establishment of it as a religious institution “denoted the growing autonomous power, wealth and social networks of the ulama.” Nevertheless, he also suggests the Marja’ism comes with inherent and characteristic disorder. Amanat concurs, noting, “There is no institutional scheme, as for instance in the Catholic Church, to govern the choice of the supreme clerical authority.”

Religion and the State
The three writers also suggest that there was tension between the Usulis and the rulers of Iran, and that the Usulis often gained their power through popular support. Amanat writes the following:
The Shi’i merchants of Baghdad who presumably found the Persian Usulis more cooperative and useful for their business than the Akhbaris. The pro-Shi’i Mamluks of Iraq, sometimes in rivalry with the Zand rulers of Iran, were also willing to extend their patronage to the Usuli ‘ulama.

Katouzian, meanwhile suggests that the ulama held an even deeper dislike of the ruling powers. They believed, she says, that the state had essentially usurped God’s kingdom. On the other hand, Abdul-Jabar suggests that some critics saw the Ulama as the usurpers, suggesting that they were meant to follow the authority of existing rulers, rather than to try to make princes of themselves.

He also notes how deep the divisions between the Ulama and the noble estate were, saying that the two groups competed over issues including: taxation, religious services and revenues. They were also divided among classes, status and even language. The nobles, he suggests, held great resentment toward their ruler for protecting the Shi’ites, who they deemed as intrusive. Although the Ulama clashed with the nobles, they were, as Abdul-Jabar notes, protected by their sovereign. And Katouzian notes that they were not just protected, but patronized. They relied on the state, she says, forth both financial and public authority. On the other hand, she notes, they also derived some of their power from the people, who supported them when they confronted the state and also paid them religious dues.

Each writer offers his or her own strengths and views of the emergence of the Shiite religion in Iran. Katouzian is more concerned with the political and historical factors which led to its rise, while Abdul-Jabar and Amanat write more about its religious development and the conflicts inside Shi’itism and Islam itself. Nevertheless, each writer recognizes similar issues of importance. Each one recognizes, for instance, the importance of knowledge in Shi’ism over other virtues, even piety and justice. Each one also recognizes how essential conflicts between the populace, the learned and the state were in advancing Shiite leaders to their positions of power. Each also recognizes the important role of the state in patronizing and advancing the leadership of the Ulama. Each writer discusses the concept of infallibility and the way in which this concept lead to disputes within Shiite circles. Furthermore, each one recognizes the way in which the idea of the Twelfth Imam shaped Shi’ism and both enhanced and challenged its conception of infallibility and the differences between knowledge and presumption.

  • Abdul-Jabar, Faleh. Ayatollahs, Sufis and ideologues: state, religion and social movements in Iraq. London: Saqi Books, 2002.
  • Amanat, Abbas. Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
  • Katouzian, Homa. The Persians: ancient, medieval and modern Iran. New Haven: Yale Univ.
    Press, 2010.