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Pilgrims, Intellectuals, and Activists: Shi’is in the Global History of Ideas and Mobility

Session VI-10, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Decolonization, the Nahda (Arab Awakening), and Mecca—are not topics typically associated with Shi’is. A dominant trend in the historiography on contemporary Shi’i societies has often siloed Shi’i actors from global Islamic movements, ideas, and exchanges. Histories of contemporary Shi’i political consciousnesses often begin only after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as having awakened a dispossessed class of passive subjects. And even then, the Islamic Revolution in the past two decades has been recast in the historiography as an exclusively Shi’i awakening with little bearing on the non-Shi’i Islamic world. Although, the decades after 1979 created deep panic across the world (well-documented in archives and memory) in fear of a global Islamic revival from Morocco to Pakistan. As this panel will show, Shi’is from Iran to Lebanon despite their marginalization in dominant Arab and Ottoman Sunni spaces were active participants, migrants, shapers, and political interlocutors in global movements, Islamic or otherwise. The papers presented here collectively write Shi’is into histories which have largely sidelined their participation and contributions—the history of the Nahda, the decolonization movement, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. The first paper centers on Iranian Shi’i pilgrims’ traumatic journeys to Mecca and Iraqi holy sites, showing how Iranian pilgrims’ pursuit of devotional rituals and experiences turned into a humanitarian disaster on Iran-Ottoman borders and within Iraq borderlands on the way to Atabat and Mecca from the mid-19 century onward in the Qajar era (1789-1925). The second paper, “The Shi’i Nahdawis” uses Shi’i periodicals from the early twentieth century to write Shi’is from Jabal ‘Amil into the history of the Nahda recasting the narrative around Shi’i political and intellectual involvement in the early twentieth century. The third paper brings the panel into the mid-twentieth century with a close reading of decolonization in Persian publications, writing Iran and Shi’is into the decolonization movement of which little has been studied and using these texts to isolate a Shia narrative on decolonization that transcended national boundaries and, in some ways, foreshadowed the religious ideologies of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
  • The Nahda (Arab Awakening or Renaissance) as it is commonly referred was a period during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of a burgeoning intellectual scene in the broader Islamic world. Intellectuals and Nahdawis (the Nahda men but there were also women often left out of the historiography) debated ideas about nationalism, Islam, the role of religion in the state, the relationship with Europe, and several topics dujour. The historiography of the Nahda, while substantial, has largely been dominated by Arab Sunni and Christian men. While the chameleon Persianate intellectual Jamal al-Din al-Afghani is often included as a “Nahdawi” who was perhaps Shi’i, his identity was notoriously fluid. The parameters of the modern historiography on contemporary Shi’ism (with few exceptions) often assumes that Shi’i political consciousness emerged in the wider Islamic world with the Islamic revolution in Iran, waking up dispossessed Shi’i masses from a stupor. As more recent scholarship on Shi’ism shows, this was hardly the case. This paper contributes to a growing scholarship which challenges assumptions around Shi’i intellectual and political participation in global intellectual exchanges and movements, the Nahda or otherwise. In Jabal ‘Amil, (South Lebanon) in the early twentieth century a little known Shi’i Nahdawi, Ahmad Aref al-Zayn (1884-1960) founded a Shi’i periodical Al-‘Irfan in 1910 which published on a vast range of global and intellectual topics of the day from nationalism to Islam to the Lebanese Syrian Shi’i community in Africa. Al-Zayn debated renowned Lebanese Nahdawi Rashid Rida living in Egypt, in his widely sourced periodical Al-Manar. Al-Zayn was only one of many of these Shi’i Nahdawis which also included Rashid Baydoun, Ahmad Rida, Sulayman Zahir and many others. While other historians have covered some of these men in their works, I have yet to come across a study that systematically treats Shi’is as part and parcel to the Nahda. This paper uses Al-‘Irfan and other popular Nahda periodicals of the era to write Shi’i Nahdawis into the history of the Nahda changing the narrative around Shi’i political and intellectual involvement in the early twentieth century.
  • A Global Fight: Persian Shia Narratives of Decolonization in Late Pahlavi Iran In the 1960s, as decolonization descended upon different regions of the world, Iranian thinkers participated in debates about inequality, social mobility, and race. Various writers – whether religious or secular in orientation – pondered Iran’s place in these narratives. This paper focuses on publications with a religious bent that dealt with decolonization in different contexts, including in Islamic communities of Africa. In particular, it tries to isolate a Shia narrative on decolonization that transcended national boundaries and in some ways foreshadowed the religious ideologies of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The essay will focus not only on the relevant writings of well-known figures such as Ali Shariati, but also on the publications of lesser known individuals that later assumed positions of relative prominence in the Islamic Republic. Some of these figures include: Seyyed Hadi Khosroshahi and Parviz Khorsand. I will explore the journals, Maktab-e Tashayyo‘ and Nashriyeh-e Ma‘aref- e Ja‘fari, to highlight the prominent themes covered. In addition, I will juxtapose these narratives against the public gestures of religiosity on the part of the Pahlavi elite, including the shah and his queen, who also performed pilgrimages to holy Islamic sites, including Shia shrines, during those years. Finally, the paper will discuss the disempowerment of the Shia in the Arab Middle East in the two decades preceding the 1979 revolution in order to map Shia efforts to “decolonize” their histories from nationalist and dominant Sunni narratives of the time. The paper considers the impact of Shia migration across different national spaces and domains on decolonizing discourses principally through a close reading of the era’s Persian publications.
  • This paper explores the development of the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus, Syria, from the 1930s-1970s, tracing its transformation from a modest gravesite to a site of transnational importance. The shrine would become a microcosm of the conflicts over authority, ideology, and identity in the developing nation-state, providing a window into the distinct ways that sectarianism was produced. In the 1930s, driven by the new transnational narratives of Zaynab’s importance and the work of the marja’ Syed Muhsin al-Amīn, religious clerics, political elites, and the Syrian Murtadha family undertook efforts to create a shrine that would rival the pilgrimage sites of Iran and Iraq. For al-Amīn’s ideological reformism, Zaynab represented the ideal mourner in character and behavior, and the presence of her grave in Damascus could be a place to raise the status of Shi’as under the French Mandate, a site where his modernist vision of Karbala rituals could be enacted. Historiography on the Syrian nationalist movement has privileged the role of a Sunni urban elite, yet in the Mandate era, the shrine provided a space for local Shi’a elites to engage in the nationalist enterprise. In the aftermath of independence, a shrine committee was formed in 1952 to administer and promote ziyārat to the shrine. The politics of Shi’a personal leadership and charismatic authority was critical at the Sayyeda Zaynab, and the Murtadha family was central to propelling the growth of the shrine in the 1950s and 1960s, calling on the support of ‘marja and individual pilgrims as a modern and nationalist expression of devotion. The rise of Hafez al-Assad in 1971, growing popularity of the charismatic Shi’a scholar Musa al-Sadr, and intensifying unrest of Shi’a ulama in Iran and Iraq would have a significant impact on the Sayyeda Zaynab. While Muhsin al-Amīn had first emphasized the Arab heritage of the shrine, by the end of the 1970s rhetoric about Zaynab had framed her as a Shi’i revolutionary. Her shrine became a distinctly sectarian space. This shrine was a space where a modernizing elite, religious authorities, and ordinary pilgrims could enact their vision of the ideal citizen and articulate their Shi’ism in a country where Shi’is represented a small but visible minority. Exploring the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine allows us to read a community being made in an explicitly nationalist context, grappling with growing transnational forces - Islamic reformism, Arabism, and then Shi’a movements - even before the Iranian Revolution.
  • This paper aims to show how Iranian pilgrims’ pursuit of devotional rituals and experiences turned into a humanitarian disaster on Iran-Ottoman borders and within Iraq borderlands on the way to Atabat and Mecca from the mid-19 century onward in the Qajar era (1789-1925). Drawing upon diverse sources in Persian, English, and Ottoman Turkish, this study sheds light on the fact that physical boundaries worked far beyond their geographical, political, and economic roles and illuminates how religious migration and associated rites and customs left pilgrims vulnerable to persecution and other forms of abuse. The study of religious mobility from the lens of the frontier helps us understand that although territorial boundaries provide socio-political and economic affordances, they also construct hostile institutionalized and non-institutionalized limitations. Demarcation is a means by which one can monitor the exploitation of travelers in different ways. Pilgrims’ traumatic experiences in borderlands range from inadequate transportation, climate variability, lack of food, inadequate health services, and contagious diseases, to assault, insult, plunder, bribery, and even murder by Ottoman officers and Bedouin Arabs in quarantines and/or in borderlands. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the development of railway routes in the Caucasus intensified religious mobility and expanded opportunities for Iranian pilgrims to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy Shi’a shrine cities of Iraq. Travel accelerated, yet pilgrims fulfilling this holy ritual faced unforeseen persecutions and challenges. Despite many hardships, people of all echelons of society continued to regard performing pilgrimages as an essential religious duty. The challenges, capacities, and spiritual values of these pilgrimage sites made them exceptional for pilgrims and demonstrate the extent to which pilgrimage played a fundamental role in Qajar society. These practices made pilgrims vectors of both natural hardships and human persecutions in multiple ways. This paper suggests that religious mobility in the form of pilgrimage across borders demonstrates multiple humanitarian aspects of frontiers and shows how the study of religious mobility and boundaries is inextricable. I argue that the religious mobility not only helped to account for the role of borders in victimizing pilgrims and turning certain Islamic rituals into socio-political opportunities for those who sought to instrumentalize people’s faith but also to explain various forms of abuse and neglect that religious pilgrims experienced at the hands of local populations and Ottoman officers alike. Keywords: boundaries, Iranian Pilgrims, Atabat, Mecca, persecution