Interview with Zackery Heern, author of The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism

Dr. Zackery Heern

Interview with Zackery Heern, author of acclaimed book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran.*

The 9/11 terror attacks have created immense interest in Islam. Many books were published on Islam and Muslims, a large percentage of them written by non-specialists. A number of individuals, seeing a market for specialists, presented themselves as Islam specialists even though they had no credentials or dubious Islam credentials. At the same time, since 9/11, great books on Islam have also been written, by scholars trained in the field. One of these great books is Dr. Zackery Heern’s book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran, published by Oneworld. The Forum and Link reached out to Dr. Heern, formerly a Murray State University assistant professor and currently an assistant professor at Idaho State University, with questions about his book. Below is the interview:
Ihsan Alkhatib: Thank you for doing this interview with the Forum and Link. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Zackery M. Heern: Thank you so much for your interest in my work! I am currently an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic studies at Idaho State University in the beautiful town of Pocatello, Idaho. I am particularly interested in modern Islamic movements, and I enjoy teaching my students and the general public about the many great contributions that Middle Easterners have added to human civilization, including algebra, science, and the great literary tradition associated with luminaries like Rumi.

IK: What interested you in the study of Shi‘ism?

ZH: Shi‘ism is fascinating to me for many reasons. Shi‘i thought and practice surrounding the Imamate, Mahdi, and the relationship between Shi‘ism and politics, authority, and knowledge have been of great interest to me for a long time now. I was especially interested in understanding how a religious movement that defined itself for so long as apolitical and shunned political engagement could lead the Islamic revolution in Iran. I think this revolution is one of the most stunning revolutionary moments in world history, especially because many Western scholars assumed that religion was on its way out as societies modernized.

IK: Congratulations on your book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. Were you surprised it was written about in the Economist?

ZH: Thank you! I am still surprised that this book, which started as my PhD dissertation, was reviewed in the Economist. But, I spent several years revising it for a general audience and I think a lot of people are hungry to know more about Islam. Also, the publisher – Oneworld – has an impeccable track record of promoting their books. They recently stunned the literary world by winning the Mann Booker award in 2015, and again in 2016. So, a lot of credit goes to Oneworld for getting the attention of the Economist.

IK: What is your book about?

ZH: Most of the book focuses on Usuli Shi‘ism, a movement that has become the most powerful force in the modern Shi‘i world. I suggest that Shi‘i scholars, as well as Sunnis and Sufis, were responding to the changes associated with the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the decentralization of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century.

IK: What is “modern Islam”? “Modern Shi’ism”?

ZH: Many scholars think of modernity as the ideals and practices associated with The Enlightenment (democracy, rational thought, secularism, individual rights, etc.), which have supposedly been at the heart of European dominance in the modern world. Instead of this Eurocentric conception of the modern world, I think of modernity in terms of theories and practice that have defined diverse human experiences in the past several hundred years. In other words, there is not a single dominant narrative that defines the modern world, and therefore we must speak in terms of multiple modernities.

Therefore, modern Islam and modern Shi‘ism are the many trends associated with Muslim communities for the past several centuries. Some trends are more dominant and common than others. I focus on Usuli Shi‘ism, Wahhabi Sunnism, and neo-Sufism as important movements that are necessary to understand changes in modern Islam. Other Islamic movements are also modern, like Hamas, which is largely defined by its aims associated with nationalism, which is one of the defining features of modern global history. Additionally, movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS are radically new (and thus modern) in their ideology, practice, use of technology, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, many modern Muslims have advocated a more progressive, liberal, and feminist reading and practice of Islam.

IK: What explains the emergence of “modern Islam” during that particular time period?

ZH: As I noted above, I think of the emergence of modern Islamic movements in relation to the expansion, decentralization, and collapse of the so-called gunpowder dynasties – the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. The late eighteenth century was a critical period, not only in the Islamic world, but in the West and Asia as well. In the West, this period is defined by radical historical changes associated with the French Revolution, the founding of the United States, the Industrial Revolution, and a renewed effort to colonize the world, which began the process of European imperialism in the Islamic world.

IK: What is Usuli and Akhbari? 

ZH: Usulism and Akhbarism are schools of Shi‘i thought rooted in the tradition of Islamic law. In the late eighteenth century, the dispute between the two schools came to a head. Akhbaris are often referred to as scripturalists because they generally argue that the Qur’an and hadith are the only two sources of Islamic law. Usulis are called rationalists because they believe that in addition to the Qur’an and hadith, legal norms can be produced by reason. Usulis also argue that doctors of Islamic law (mujtahids) are the vicegerents of the Shi‘i Imams. Therefore, many Usulis argue that mujtahids, or Ayatollahs, should play a central role in worldly affairs, including politics. Akhbaris favor a more limited social role for Muslim scholars.

IK: How did Usulis become the dominant school of thought in Shi‘ism? Are the Akhbaris extinct now?

ZH: Usulism came to dominate Shi‘ism at the end of the eighteenth century. Prior to this era, during the Safavid period (1501-1722), Shi‘i schools of thought included Akhbarism, a variety of Sufi movements, illuminationist philosophy, as well as Usulism. After the fall of the Safavid dynasty in the eighteenth century, the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’ in Iraq became the centers of Shi‘ism. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Usulis dominated these Shi‘i centers and spread throughout the Shi‘i world. The founders of the neo-Usuli movement declared infidelity (takfir) on Akhbaris, Sufis, and other Muslims. Some Usuli scholars issued death sentences on Akhbaris and Sufis, who were tracked down and killed. Akhbarism is not dead but there are few Akhbari scholars in the Shi‘i world these days, especially compared to Usulis.

IK: How much did Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon contribute to the rise of the Usuli school?

ZH: Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon were especially influential during the Safavid period. And the Shi‘i community in Lebanon was certainly influenced by the spread of neo-Usulism. As you know, Hezbollah is closely linked to Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran, certainly holds sway over many Hezbollahis. The late Ayatollah Fadlallah in Beirut was also a product of Usulism.

IK: When were the titles of Ayatollah and Grand Ayatollah created? Are they connected to the rise of the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Scholars within the neo-Usuli movement took on grandiose titles from its inception. The founder, Wahid Bihbhani, was referred to as the “reviver of Islam” and “the teacher of all.” Some Usulis were referred to by the titles of their books, like Bahr al-‘Ulum (the Ocean of the Sciences) and Kashif al-Ghita’ (Remover of the Veil), which are now the family names of great clerical dynasties in Iran. Others took on religiously significant titles, including Hujjat al-Islam (the Proof of Islam). Starting in the nineteenth century, clerical titles became routinized and institutionalized, which include “the source of emulation” (marja‘ al-taqlid) and Ayatollah. Usuli scholars still debate whether claimants to the title of Ayatollah or Grand Ayatollah deserve the designation since the process of becoming an Ayatollah is not clearly laid out the way clerical authority operates in Catholicism, for example. Therefore, after a scholar finishes his studies and publishes scholarship, he must take additional steps to become an Ayatollah, including the acquisition of followers, the collection of khums money, and so on. So, becoming an Ayatollah, like twitter, is partially a popularity contest since Shi‘is can choose which Ayatollah to follow.

IK: Historically, at the core of Shi‘ism was that politics is corrupt until the return of the Mahdi and even religious obligations, such as Friday prayer, were suspended until the return of the Mahdi. How did that change? Were the Usulis influenced by the Sunni tradition?

ZH: This change is linked historically to governments that adopt Shi‘ism as the state religion. Therefore, in more recent times, these attitudes changed after the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501. In fact, Shi‘i scholars during the Safavid period hotly debated whether or not Friday prayer should be held, and if it is held who should lead it in the absence of the Imam. Usulis are highly influenced by Sunnis. In fact, one of the original arguments that Akhbaris used against Usulis was that they were introducing Sunni methodology and practice into the Shi‘i legal system.

IK: You compare the emergence of modern Shi‘ism with the emergence of the Wahhabi movement and neo-Sufism. How are they similar and/or different?

ZH: Ideologically the movements of Wahhabism, Usulism, and neo-Sufism are very different. They are influenced by three entirely different traditions within Islam. However, since the late eighteenth century they have faced a similar set of questions – including how to respond to perceived crises in the Islamic world, imperial decentralization, and how to save Muslims from incorrect theoretical and practical approaches to Islam. Each movement was led by charismatic teachers who were concerned with the sources of knowledge and authority in Islam and charged mainstream Sufis with corrupting Islam. Additionally, the movements were politicized. Wahhabism became the state religion of Saudi Arabia and Usulis established themselves in power after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

IK: What is the contribution of Ayatollah Khomeini to the dominance of the Usuli school?

ZH: I see Khomeini’s relationship to Usulism from two perspectives. On one hand, he represents a culmination of the Usuli movement, which advocated more involvement for mujtahids in worldly affairs. Khomeini utilized Usuli ideology and its social movement to gain power. On the other hand, Khomeini’s conception of guardianship of the jurist (wilayat al-faqih) and his Islamic Republic of Iran were innovations that caused a serious fissure in the Usuli movement. Those who disagreed with his politicization of the Usuli movement in Iran were marginalized. In Iraq, many Usulis, including Ayatollah Sistani who probably has more followers than any other Ayatollah in the world, do not subscribe to Khomeini’s conception of Shi‘i politics.

IK: Today Sunni extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are referred to as takfiris. What are takfiris and is takfirism a phenomenon in all schools of Islamic thought, including the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Takfirism is the practice of declaring infidelity on Muslims and excommunicating them from the community. This is a very old practice in Islam and is common to both Sunnis and Shi‘is at various times in history. Takfirism was not common under the rule of pluralistic empires like the Ottomans. However, the Wahhabis and Usulis revived the practice, but neo-Sufis generally refrained from takfirism.

IK: Some say that Sunni Islam is Arab Islam and Shi‘i Islam is Persian Islam. Is there any truth to this characterization given the role of Vahid Bihbihani?

ZH: This is an oversimplification based on the fact that the majority of Iranians are Shi‘is and the majority of Arabs are Sunnis. However, this assumption does not consider the historical reality of Sunni and Shi‘i communities in Iran and the Arab world. Currently, there is an important Sunni community in Iran. Additionally, the overwhelming population of Arabs in Iraq and Bahrain are Shi‘is, in addition to significant populations of Shi‘is in Lebanon, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Bihbihani, the founder of neo-Usulism, was from Iran but spent much of his career in Iraq and most of his writings are in Arabic.

IK: Iran was a majority Sunni country until the sixteenth century. How did it become a Shi‘i majority country?

ZH: The majority of Iranians became Shi‘is as a result of willing and forced conversion when Iran was ruled by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1777), which adopted Shi‘ism as the state religion. Also, the majority of southern Iraqis converted from Sunnism to Shi‘ism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which parallels the rise of Usulism and the Ottoman policy of settling of nomadic tribes. However, the cities of Qum, Najaf, Karbala’, and others have been associated with Shi‘ism since the early history of Islam.

*Interview will appear in the Forum and Link of 12/17/2016.


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