The Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs hosted a landmark international symposium entitled “Diversity and Unity in Transnational Shi’ism” in April, 2021. The symposium brought together interdisciplinary voices from across various interpretations of Shi'a Islam in both contemporary and historical contexts with leading scholars in the field who study the diversity of Shi’a thought and communities across denominational lines including Zaydi, Ismaili, Alevi, Alawite, Bektashi, and Twelver Ja'fari Islam among others. This report includes the edited remarks of the expert participants in the symposium.
While individual works and scholars have focused on distinct Shi'a groups in specific countries or world regions, less attention has been paid to addressing diversity within Shi’ism from a comparative perspective or thinking about how to approach the subject of intra-Shi’a dialogue rather than interfaith dialogue more broadly. This is all the more important as the historical and contemporary legacy of Shi'a Islam is extraordinarily rich and truly global in reach.
The symposium thus fostered a larger dialogue on the historical relationship between Shi’a groups, intellectual and scholarly conversations between them, and contemporary areas of convergence and diversity that intersect with transnational Shi'a groups ranging from Twelvers in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, to Zaydis in the Arabian Peninsula, to Isma'ilis in Tajikistan and India, to Bektashi Shi'as in the Balkans, and to Shi'a diaspora communities in the West and beyond.
We are excited to release our newly published report, "Legacies of Islamic Ecumenicism: Taqrib, Shi'a-Sunni Relations, and Globalized Politics in the Middle East." The taqrib movement was the most recent large-scale iteration of Shi’a-Sunni ecumenical relations and peacebuilding in the Middle East. This project, launched in the twentieth century, resulted in a sustained scholarly dialogue, joint publications, and flourishing engagement with contemporary and classical Islamic sources. This report focuses on the taqrib movement by featuring several articles by leading scholars in academia as well as by Sunni and Shi’a clergymen whose careers intimately involve them in Shi’a-Sunni dialogue. The authors featured in this report raise pertinent questions regarding both the history and future trajectory of Islamic ecumenicism and the taqrib movement across the Middle East.
Authors include: Rainer Brunner (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris), David Commins (Dickinson College), Mohamad Bashar Arafat (Civilizations Exchange & Cooperation Foundation (CECF)), Ibrahim Kazerooni (The Islamic Center of America & University of Detroit Mercy), and Mohammad Sagha (Harvard University & the University of Chicago).
Iran's strategy with respect to Saudi Arabia is a key factor in the complex balance of power of the Middle East as the Iranian–Saudi rivalry impacts the dynamics of peace and conflict across the region from Yemen to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain. What is Iranian strategic thinking on Saudi Arabia? And what have been the key factors driving the evolution of Iranian strategy towards the Kingdom? In what marks a substantive shift from its previous detente policy, we argue that Tehran has developed a new containment strategy in response to the perceived threat posed by an increasingly pro-active Saudi Arabia in the post-Arab Spring period. Incorporating rich fieldwork and interviews in the Middle East, this article delineates the theoretical contours of Iranian containment and contextualizes it within the framework of the Persian Gulf security architecture, demonstrating how rational geopolitical decision-making factors based on a containment strategy, rather than the primacy of sectarianism or domestic political orientations, shape Iran's Saudi strategy. Accordingly, the article traces Iranian strategic decision-making towards the Kingdom since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and examines three cases of Iran's current use of containment against Saudi Arabia in Syria, Yemen and Qatar.
Ali ibn Abi Talib is arguably the single most important spiritual and intellectual authority in Islam after prophet Mohammad. Through his teachings and leadership as fourth caliph, Ali nourished Islam. But Muslims are divided on whether he was supposed to be Mohammad’s political successor—and he continues to be a polarizing figure in Islamic history.
Hassan Abbas provides a nuanced, compelling portrait of this towering yet divisive figure and the origins of sectarian division within Islam. Abbas reveals how, after Mohammad, Ali assumed the spiritual mantle of Islam to spearhead the movement that the prophet had led. While Ali’s teachings about wisdom, justice, and selflessness continue to be cherished by both Shia and Sunni Muslims, his pluralist ideas have been buried under sectarian agendas and power politics. Today, Abbas argues, Ali’s legacy and message stands against that of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban.
This paper examines the next U.S. administration’s foreign policy choices toward South Asia. It argues that the turbulent nature of the entrenched India-Pakistan rivalry and the geopolitical realities of South Asia complicate U.S. policy options. While the United States’ national security interests in South Asia are enduring, the nationalist fervor in the region necessitates a rethinking of Washington’s policy choices.
A military escalation with a maximalist political stance only further increases perceptions of U.S. regime-change policy in Iran without concern for the violent consequences stemming from such a campaign.
Over the years, there are various research on cultural development seen from socio-historical perspective. The uniqueness of Islam in Malay region as it is diverse and open to outside influences is important to be look at; as it differs greatly from “the Islam” that have been practiced in the Middle East. Based on the discussions, the ulemas or Muslim clerics of this region and the Malays themselves have already practiced the supra-madhhab model as proposed by many contemporary scholars. Using Shia influences in the Malay culture, this paper attempt to show how sectarianism within Islam was never entertained by the Muslims in this region. In fact, Shi‟ism was so embedded in Malay culture. Although being dominated by Sunnism, most of the Shia doctrines and pillars were widely accepted and embraced. The axiology of Shi‟ism in Malay culture reflected in many religious texts, classical literature and cultural events. However, as sectarianism rising in this region, the Shia influence and its axiology slowly eroded and were victimized by unnecessary foreign interventions.
Shi'i students today find themselves dealing with a myriad of challenges. Between the struggles of navigating faith in America, balancing several identities, and being a minority within the Muslim community, Shi'i students need a meaningful forum to engage with these issues. Ma’rifa 2020: Self-Discovery and Imagination was a national conference organized by Shi’i students for Shi’i students to provide such a forum to explore Shi’a identity, spirituality, activism, and community. Ma’rifa 2020 was held at Harvard University on February 28th and 29th, 2020. It was attended by more than 270 university students and invited scholars, academics, and community leaders over a two day period filled with engaging panels, workshops, artistic performances, and more. This report offers a condensed summary of the conference, including its objectives, panels, audience feedback, and future steps. The Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs at WCFIA was one of the co-sponsors for the conference.
The 1996 fatwa [recognizing "Sunni Islam" as the official religion of Malaysia] was a pivotal turning point that paved the way for subsequent efforts at "othering" the Shia minority, and through this to discredit and deny them their human rights. That the fatwa was a federal initiative--rather than a state one--ought to have raised warning bells about the central government overstapping its boundaries and encroaching on to the jurisdiction state governments had over Islam. The debate touched on the historical differences between the Sunnis and Shias, or, "sects being treated as religious phenomenon", and it resulted in tremendous bias against the Shias.
We are excited to release our highly timely report, “Engaging Sectarian De- Escalation: Proceedings of the Symposium on Islam and Sectarian De-Escalation.” This report highlights the key themes and takeaways from the Annual Symposium on Sectarian De-Escalation and Dialogue that was held at the Harvard Kennedy School on April 14 and 15 of 2018. The symposium was organized by the Iran Project, which has since expanded to become the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
As part of a larger project on sectarian de-escalation, the symposium gathered key imams, scholars, policymakers and diplomats to cast doubt on simplified sectarian narratives, and to explore interlinked factors and different pathways in the pursuit of reducing the grounds of conflict. By tracing the different political, theological and socio-cultural roots of different narratives, the speakers provided nuance to our conception of sectarianism. This report highlights the key themes that emerged from the symposium, namely the importance of geopolitical literacy; the importance of religious and historical literacy and precedents for peace and diversity; and, recalling vehicles of culture and literature.
This report is a critical contribution to future research and policy making. Through our research domain, Sectarianism and Sectarian De-escalation, we will continue to expand on this knowledge and to explore pathways for durable peace-building and conflict resolution.
On this episode of SEPADPod Simon speaks with Melani Cammett, Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government and Chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University along with a secondary appointment in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Melani is the author of a range of books and articles on governance in the Middle East including the fantastic Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon, published by Cornell University Press in 2014. On this episode Simon and Melani talk about the politics of welfare distribution, what this means for community politics and identities, along with possible ways out of - or beyond - sectarianism in Lebanon.
Historically, South Asia’s many literary traditions have provided both the structure and the idiom for Muslims across a broad spectrum of ideological persuasions to express and transmit their ideas. As is well known, Sufis affiliated with different tariqas have commonly employed genres of vernacular folk poetry as a means of elucidating and popularizing mystical ideas. Over the last century, thanks to a variety of intricately related set of factors such as the revolution in media technology, globalization and the spread of popular western culture and the rise of religiously based nationalisms, the form, content and context of South Asian Muslim devotional expressions have been radically transformed. This chapter explores the emergence of Sufi Rock, a new genre of Muslim devotional expression that has become increasingly popular in South Asia, particularly Pakistan. A genre which fuses western rock music with traditional Sufi poetry and imagery, Sufi Rock is commonly associated with one of its earliest exponents, Salman Ahmad, a guitarist and vocalist in one of South Asia’s biggest rock band, Junoon. The chapter explores Salman’s role in the emergence of Sufi Rock, specifically with reference to his professional development as a musician and spiritual development as a Muslim who deeply identifies with Sufism.
Following secret negotiations pursued with unusual intensity by Washington and Tehran, the two sides signed a nuclear agreement under the supervision of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the European Union in 2015. The agreement was also legally strengthened by a Security Council resolution (resolution 2231), through which it became part of the international law. However, this did not prevent the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump from breaking the deal and re-imposing sanctions on Iran and making 12 additional demands before the sanctions will be lifted. As a result, the Iranian–American relationship has fast deteriorated just two years after the signing of the agreement.
Despite its importance, the breakdown of this agreement is not the sole reason behind this escalation. In fact, internal disagreements in the United States and conflicts between regional axes in the Middle East have also affected the current escalation between the two countries. In this paper, we will discuss the reasons behind the escalation in hostility between Washington and Tehran and the powers affecting it at the regional and international levels. The paper will also examine the possible ways out of the current escalation.
In 1941, in the midst of World War II, two imperial powers, the USSR and Britain, threatened Iran with invasion, although the country had officially announced neutrality in the conflict. While the Iranian leadership acknowledged the gravity of the situation, it refused to cave in to the Soviet-British ultimatum. For them, resistance and military defeat was more bearable than "treason and capitulation".
Ever since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, Arab societies have remained vulnerable to cross-border identities. Arab collective identity has been exploited by Arab states to strengthen their regional reach and might. Without this foundation, Abdul Nasser, for instance, would not have been able to embolden Egypt’s regional position. Once a useful tool at the disposal of Arab rulers, this same collective identity turned problematic in other periods. Because of his pursuit of Arab nationalism, Nasser was forced to take action in Yemen and at Egypt’s borders with Israel, which brought about devastating repercussions that lead to the decline of Arab nationalism (see Ajami 1987). The same goes for Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of Salafism as a tool in its foreign policy, which backfired through Al-Qaeda’s ‘internal Jihad’ campaign (see Ahmadian 2012). Therefore, cross-border identities are now a challenging variable for Arab states. Besides cross-border identities, identity crises in Arab states have also emanated from ethnic and sectarian realities. The Kurdish issue, Muslim-Christian conflicts, and Shiite-Sunni rifts in the modern Arab history, are examples of conflicting identities leading to national catastrophes. Although identity is not the only determining factor in conflicts, it is surely an analytical category that is very useful for understanding some of them (Panic 2009, 37).