Vali Nasr, the Shia Revival and President Nasser of Egypt

I am often asked to explain the differences between the Sunnis and the Shia.
A small book that does a good job of laying out the differences is Dr. Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival. The book has a good chapter- length discussion of the differences that is very useful to grasp the differences between the two groups.
But I think Dr. Nasr is too pessimistic in his presentation and focuses too much on the negative in the history of the two groups.
However, the most unfair treatment in his book is that of Arab nationalism. It is caricatured as a Sunni ideology despite the fact that the key text of Arab nationalism, The Arab Awakening , is written by George Antonious, an Arab Christian, and that the Baath ideology is primarily Michel Aflaq’s creation, another Arab Christian.
Dr. Nasr seems to refuse to see any positive in Arab nationalism. For example, Dr. Nasr argues that one period where the differences of the Shia and Sunnis was deemphasized was a time of reaction to secularism. He writes that “the challenge of secularism manifested by Nasser’s pan Arab nationalism” made Egypt's Azhar’s rector Shaykh Mahmoud Shaltout recognize Shia law as the fifth school of Islamic law. Nasr argues that this was a response to secularism that “necessitated sectarian harmony.” P. 107
Dr. Nasr gives too much credit to Shaykh Shaltout and no credit where it’s due, to the hero of Arab nationalism, President Nasser of Egypt. It was President Nasser’s “guidance” as Aburish put it in his biography of President Nasser that made the Azhar do so. It was not an independent Azhar response to secularism. It was the secular Arab nationalist Nasser pressuring the Azhar to take that stand. And the fatwa was not merely limited to the Shia but included other groups as well such as the Druze.
Said Aburish writes:
"But perhaps the most far reaching change [initiated by Nasser’s guidance] was the fatwa commanding the readmission to mainstream Islam of the Shia, Alawais, and Druze. They had been considered heretics and idolators for hundreds of years , but Nasser put an end to this for once and for all. While endearing himself to the majority Shia of Iraq and undermining Kassem [the communist ruler of Iraq at the time] might have played a part in that decision, there is no doubting the liberalism of the man in this regard." Nasser, p.201

This reality does not sit well with the narrative of Valis Nasr’s The Shia Revival. But it is a fact. The fatwa was secularism's response to the historical communal tensions and not a religious institution's response to secularism.


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