Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, The Shi‘ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab (RJA & MA): There were several reasons for writing the book. In the last two decades we had read several books on Shi`i Islamist movements, particularly Hizbullah, which presented secular ideologies and Communism simply as those forces and ideas that the Islamists rejected. None of the studies accounted for the way in which Shi`i Islamists in Lebanon engaged with Communism, as well as with secular frameworks and practices, especially those of the modern state. We wanted to tell a story in which the interface of the secular and the sacred would be explored and their dichotomization problematized. Another reason for writing the book was to combine a knowledge of the legal and theological Shi`i tradition with an understanding of modernist Islamist approaches and interpretations. Most of the studies on Shi`i Islamists, particularly on Hizbullah, do not draw links between their political-military activities and this legal and theological tradition developing at the hawzas (seminaries). Both of us had given conference papers on some of these questions when Juan Cole encouraged us to write a book about it. So we took his advice and wrote the book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RJA & MA: The book delineates distinct secular processes and ideas that shaped the modernists, the Communists, and the Islamists. It explores the overlays between the secular and the religious, revisiting sectarianism, the Lebanese state, and the Shi`a’s varied relations to the state. More specifically, it discusses the Islamists’ approaches to religious modernism and Communism, and the type of civil arenas they shaped through a culture of resistance (“thaqāfat al-muqāwama”) and the self-initiated application of the shari`a in the area of `ibādāt (acts of worship) that function largely outside the rubric of the state.
Historical developments in Iraq, particularly the attraction that Communism held for numerous students at the Shi`i hawzas, form an important part of the book. This part provides a corrective to the underlying reasons for the clerical discourse of takfīr (declaring blasphemous) against Iraqi Communists and challenges the oversimplified view that Communism preached atheism, and that the Shi`i exemplars in Najaf and their followers were simply defending society against rampant atheistic practices. In fact, the book tries to show how important religious symbolisms were to mainstream Shi`i Communists. The section on Iraq is also important given the fact that major Lebanese Islamist thinkers, such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, and founders of Hizbullah, such as Abbas al-Musawi, Subhi al-Tufayli, and Hasan Nasrallah, lived and studied in Najaf for a period of time.
The book critically assesses the prevalent literature surrounding Iraqi and Lebanese Communism, as well as Shi`i sectarianism, emphasizing socio-economic shifts and transformations, which led to the rise of the Islamists. In terms of its theoretical framework, the book draws upon the discussions of Talal Asad on Islamism and secularism, and Wael Hallaq’s approach to the shari`a and the modern state.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RJA: My earlier works reflect two trajectories. The first is marked by a study of the Shi`i legal and juristic developments in the medieval and early modern period, and their socio-political contexts; hence my book Converting Persia and article "‘New Ropes for Royal Tents’: Shi`i Jurisprudence, Sunnism, and the Traditionist Thought of Muhammad Amin Astarabadi." The second trajectory is marked by a study of the intellectual transformation of the `ulama, and clerical authority and leadership in modern Shi`i societies, particularly Lebanon; hence, my articles “The Shi`ite `Ulama, the Madrasas, and Educational Reform”; "Lebanese Shi`ites and the Marja`iyya"; and "The Cleric as `Organic Intellectual.`” I have devoted a lot of attention to southern Shi`i thinkers who went to study in Najaf only to embrace secularist and modernist positions (including poetic modernity, which needs a whole study by itself) and Communism. (See my “Deconstructing the Modular and the Authentic: Husayn Muroeh’s Early Islamic History.”) As such, our book builds upon some of my research in these areas, but also explores new questions such as the complex manifestations of the sacred-secular dynamics in modern Shi`i societies, including the relationship between a Karbalā`ī interpretation of history and Communist ideals.
I also wanted to use non-historical materials for this book. Being a poet, I wanted to bring literature and poetry to bear on some of these questions. I wanted to do more with Iraqi poetry of the 1960s and the 1970s, but I had to cut out a lot of it. At one point, the book was ten chapters long. Maybe this can be done in a future work.
MA: My earlier book, Militant Women of a Fragile Nation, focused on gendered experiences of work, sectarianism, and the nation. In our new book, I continue some my discussions about sect and nation within the rubric of capitalism and anticolonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. My MA thesis was devoted to the study of Lebanese Communism and the National Question, an area, which is revisited in this book. My articles "Warmed by France’s Fire or Burnt? The Maronite Clergy and French Colonial Politics in Lebanon”; “Shi`ite Peasants and a New Nation in Colonial Lebanon: The Intifada (Uprising) of Bint Jubayl”; “Contesting Space: Gendered Discourse and Labor among Lebanese Women”; and “Striving for Labor Law: Tobacco Women between French Colonial Authority and the Lebanese State” have focused on women and gender, but they have also looked specifically at working women and the way in which family and sect shape and become shaped by women’s labor struggles.
Rula and I wanted to look more closely at the links between Islamism and Communism in Iraq, and so we brought our expertise to bear on questions of anticolonial struggle, and the relationship between Shi`ism and Communism, which has rarely been studied. At the same time, this book takes me to a new area of research, which I have been developing in the last ten years and around which a number of my courses have been taught: namely, Islamist thought and the nation-state.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RJA & MA: The book is of interest to all kinds of students and scholars across disciplines, but those working within the rubrics of Arab history, Islamic studies, Middle Eastern studies, and Shi`i studies will find this book especially relevant to them. We hope that this book will problematize the prevalent assumptions and conceptual tools used to understand Islamist movements and their relations to modernism and the nation-state. There is a need to look deep into the intellectual layers and historical processes shaping ideas that appear religious but are also profoundly shaped by secular frameworks. We also need to look back at transitional historical periods to understand the changing connections between Shi`i concepts of struggle/justice and Communist ideals. Our understanding of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr’s clerical leadership departs radically from earlier studies and debunks the view that a Lebanese Shi`i “awakening” happened with him, without any consideration for the long history of leftist and anticolonial struggles among the Shi`a. The book sheds light on the way Sayyid Musa’s clash with the Shi`i Communists was an attempt to facilitate Shi`i conformity to the state, and hence, allow common Shi`a to claim national modernity.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RJA: I am completing another collection of Arabic poetry and then I will turn to my monograph on the early Shi`i Traditionist (juristic) movement in sixteenth and seventeenth century Iran and the onslaught on the mujtahids. I have written two chapters of this monograph so far. It brings a corrective to a number of assumptions about early Traditionism, and more importantly, it attempts to draw out the larger socio-political context for the Traditionists` interest in the canonization of hadith.
MA: I am conducting research on women and war in Lebanon. The prevalent studies of communal unrest, civil strife, and war in Lebanon have focused primarily on men’s experiences and activities and their implications for women. Women’s agency and involvement in episodes of civil disorder, violence, and breakdown of the state are rarely explored. I want to bring women’s voices, activities, and strategies during the civil crises of the late twentieth century to the center of Lebanese history.
J: How might this book affect and change contemporary understandings of history and identity in Lebanon?
RJA & MA: This book invites scholars to rethink, first of all, the separations and the contrasts that we draw between religious movements and secular ideas. We cannot give the secular and the secularists generic descriptions or assign them peripheral roles in shaping the public and private worlds of the Lebanese. This study hopes to open a new space for studies that stress the pervasiveness of particular secular ideas and processes in Lebanese society and their complex interface with sectarianism and religion.
Second, the book hopes we can all rethink what our insistence on presenting Islamists as simply “modern” means—that is, to invite a critique of modernism itself, without shying away from presenting the ambiguities and tensions wrought in the relationship of Hizbullah’s and Fadlallah’s Islamists to modernity. There are no tidy and conclusive answers as to whether these groups are modernist or not. The book tries to show that they are both modernist and not, depending on what criteria we are using to assess them, and that they could also be seen as postmodernist. Hizbullah’s scholars try to work through these contradictions and approach them in diverse ways.
Third, the book hopes to bring social class and socio-economic factors to bear on our analysis of an Islamic movement, and to see how these forces shape ideas, sensibilities, and complex modes of thinking. Fourth, this study shows that Hizbullah’s core ideas may not change, but that many other ideas and practices are in flux, and that we need to specify the historical period we are looking at in order to give an accurate account of Hizbullah. We consider the period of pre-liberation (of south Lebanon), from the 1990s until 2001, to be the formative phase, and 2005 to be a watershed; but there are others associated with the upheavals in Syria starting more than two years ago. So we need to think about a nuanced approach to various historical phases of Hizbullah’s development instead of one analysis for the whole phenomenon of Hizbullah. We also need to see the internal diversity among its representatives as well as among its followers and supporters.
Excerpts from The Shi‘ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists
The Communists’ secular notions of justice seemed to have stimulated religious conceptions of sacrifice and redemption offered by the Karbala’ event….The modern landscape in Iraq and Lebanon offered unexpected patterns of spirituality and religious experience. As a consequence, the source of anxiety for Islamist clerics and thinkers appeared to lie not in the absence of faith or religiosity, but in the particular form each had taken under the modern state. God’s Law or the shari`a, the Islamists insisted, is the cornerstone of faith.
[Excerpted from The Shi‘ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists, by Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, by permission of the authors. © 2014 Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]