‘A Religion of Protest’

Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest’ is Professor Hamid Dabashi’s latest book which was published recently and presents unusual insights into Shi’ism’.  The New York Times carried a review of the book here.


According to the Professor Dabashi, Shi’ism is not so much a sect or minority tradition of Islam as it is ‘a state of mind’. This is so because Shi’ism has ‘always defined itself in opposition to the mainstream discourse’ in Islam. Once in a while every other Sunni Muslim can be in such a state of mind, he believes. In a very quotidian way, he describes Shi’ism as being dominated either by ‘very old men sitting in their mosques or very young revolutionaries, fighting wars’. This binary argument can be projected onto his descriptions in his book of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Iraqi firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, as “two Shi’is at the two opposing but complementary ends of their faith, defending their cause and sustaining the historical fate of their community in two diametrically parallel but rhetorically divergent ways”.

Among other unusual observations he asserts that, “The more volatile, unstable, and impulsive the charismatic outbursts of revolutionary movements in Shi’ism have been throughout its medieval and modern history, because of its traumatic origin, the more precise the exactitude of the Shi’i law has sought to regulate, to the minutest details, the affairs of Shi’i believers—from their rituals of bodily purity to the dramaturgical particulars of their communal gatherings, to their political suspicions of anyone’s claim to legitimate authority”.

One of the most interesting discussion in the book is that of Professor Dabashi’s use of a Freudian notion of the ‘Death of the Father syndrome’ that characterizes the Jews and results in a ‘delayed obedience’ on their part through the adoption of systematic rituals. He posits this as an analogy with his idea of the ‘Death of the Son’ concept where in the wake of Karbala tragedy, Shi’ism becomes characterized with a ‘delayed defiance’  being ‘overcome with the guilt of not helping Hussain ( the Third Shi’i Imam)’ which causes it to always ‘say no’ and protest.  He believes that the Shi’i proclivity to denunciate everything has be completely historicized in this sense.

Below is an introductary video of Professor Dabashi speaking about this book.


2 responses

  1. Do you not find it problematic to reduce a religious tradition to an ideology or state of mind? Is it not perhaps highly distorting to take a complex religious tradition imbued with competing beliefs/perspectives… and simply decide that the singular essence of the entire faith community is “protest”?

    Many Shia (historically as well as today) would take exception to such a characterization and even call it dangerous in that it makes Shiism a political ideology like marxist or secular liberalism.

    Also a point of clarificaiton… islamic law is virtually identical for both Sunnis and Shia in its form and coverage.

  2. I think that there is a lot of generalization and essentialism in Professor Dabashi’s argument, which has been one of the biggest that he has faced regarding the assertions that he makes in the book.. Interestingly he has found fault with almost all other scholars who have written about Shi’ism for presenting distorted representations of Shi’ism which ostensibly serve to “facilitate the US military domination of a strategic area”. Such as he accuses Vali Nasr for being a “native informer” who reduces the “multifaceted, polyvocal, worldly, transnational, and cosmopolitan” culture of Shiism to a “one-sided, divisive, sectarian, and factional” system. But the same argument can be applied very easily to his own work as well. It can be said that Professor Dabashi is more interested in the socio-political historical aspects of Shi’ism rather than the theological traditions, and has a definitive Persianized perspective on Shi’ism, factors which possibly shape his present outlook.

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