The Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at the Weatherhead Center undertakes advanced research on the multifaceted and diverse manifestations of Shi’ism in the contemporary world. The study of Shi’ism, religious mobilization, and the challenges of sectarian conflict is more pressing now than ever in modern history. From the war in Yemen, the civil strife in Syria, and the devastation in Iraq and beyond, a diverse array of ethnic and confessional Shi’a movements have emerged as a significant dynamic on the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape witnessing a historic mobilization of Twelver, Zaydi, Alawi and other minority religious movements. In this context, Iran’s foreign policy in the region and its network of allies under the umbrella of the “Axis of Resistance” is a significant topic of study given its outsized role and influence in regional geopolitics. This is all the more salient given the ongoing nuclear standoff between Iran and the United States and the Iran-Saudi cold war. Beyond concrete regional effects, these emerging developments impact global politics—including international security, foreign policy concerns, and global energy markets. It also fosters broader theoretical debates on modernization, religion, and politics.
The Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs encompasses an interdisciplinary approach with a focus on the history, sociology, theology, and politics of the diverse Shi’a communities and nations across the globe—who number at least 220-250 million individuals mainly spread across the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Africa, and the West. From the flourishing of global Shi’a diaspora communities in the West to the growth of highly interconnected state and nonstate actors in the Middle East to pressing intellectual debates in the Islamic world, the study of Shi’ism is of growing importance in world affairs. Indeed, the rise of modern Shi’ism has been one of the most eventful developments shaping the cultural and sociopolitical landscape of the Islamic world. To facilitate in-depth scholarship on such a rich and expansive field, this project is organized according to four primary domains of research and study: 1) Shi’a history and identity, 2) Shi’ism and geopolitics, 3) ethnic and religious sectarianism and sectarian de-escalation, and 4) the global Shi’a diaspora.
Funded in part through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs conducts a rich content-based study of Shi’a thought and identity across transnational Shi’a contexts inclusive of a diversity of denominational (Twelver, Ismaili, Zaydi, Alawi, Alevi, and beyond) as well as diverse ethnic groups across the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Africa, and Shi’a diaspora communities across the globe. This is crucial given the interlinked institutional nature of Shi’a political and social networks that span well beyond modern boundaries of the Middle East state system. Yet scholarly research on these topics face two primary challenges: (a) the historical marginalization of the study of Shi’ism that has been problematically treated in academia as “nontraditional” Islam, and (b) the theoretical underdevelopment of the intersection of religion and politics within Islam, including on the issue of sectarianism.
Our work—based on past experience at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and our focus on Middle East geopolitics and “sectarian de-escalation” at the Iran Project—engages political scientists, historians, policy makers, religious leaders, and other specializations at the WCFIA. With these diverse constituents, this project provides valuable comparative reference for larger debates in international affairs, sectarianism, political identity, Shi’ism, cultural studies, and religion and politics. While our focus is mainly on Shi’ism, the project’s general theoretical questions are relevant to scholars working on religion, sectarian identity, and politics across the globe.
Payam Mohseni is the project director. The project offices are located at 1727 Cambridge Street.
Photo Caption (first photo): Arabic calligraphy of an invocation known as Call to Ali (Naad-e Ali) in the form of a lion at the Agha Khan Museum.