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A Review Of Vali Reza Nasr's "the Shia Revival"

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A review of Vali Reza Nasr's "The Shia Revival" - By Cyan_Garamond

There are many ideas and concepts presented in Vali Reza Nasr's "The Shia Revival," more than a few of which would face a great amount of skepticism by a sizeable portion of the Shia community worldwide. Of course, that in itself does not disqualify his ideas. However, the Iranian-American professor's lack of references and the questionable nature of those presented, do promote a skeptical view toward much of the information presented in his book.

Furthermore, accepting some of the information he presented, his interpretations of them are also questionable.

While it is not my intention to get bogged down in what discredit's Nasr's book, I do believe I should briefly quote the major issues and state my misgivings. Of course, I do not claim that all what is in this book is false, indeed many of the incidents mentioned may be true, but the interpretations therein deserve some analysis.

Nasr narrates that during the Iraq-Iran War, Sheikh Mehdi Haeri Yazdi, a student of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, visited the latter in home to express his grief over the horrors of the war. There, Yazdi was reported by Nasr to have said, "It is not right for the Muslims to kill Muslims. Hundreds of thousands are dying in a war that has no end and no good purpose." Khomeini replied, "Do you also criticize God when he sends an earthquake?" Nasr than states that, apparently according to Yazdi, Khomeini considered himself to be on the last and fourth question of Irfan/Sufism, where he considered himself to be able to "function as a virtually divine lawgiver." Nasr then makes no attempt to even analyze and criticize this interpretation. His next paragraph claims that, although Khomeini used Shia ideas and history to mobilize the masses, yet "his politics and religious views reflected not so much Shia history and theology (indeed, he was something of a theological innovator and maverick) as the authority he claimed by virtue of his understanding of mystical doctrines."

Now, considering we accept the above narration, it forces us to ask a few questions. First, we are to blindly accept Yazdi's interpretation of Khomeini's words? Reading the ayatollah's words, it seems like it was his opinion that the Almighty's plan was to have a war between Saddam and Iran. Does this mean that Khomeini was functioning as a "virtually divine lawgiver," as Nasr writes? This seems like a dubious interpretation, as it was not Iran that attacked Iraq; rather, it was the reverse. Had Khomeini felt himself to be given the authority to judge how the Divine Plan, or fate, works out, would not he have himself started such a war?

It is true that Imam Khomeini did not accept many ceasefires with Iraq, but taking a look at his statements and writings it is evident that, having gotten rid of one oppressor (meaning the Shah), he felt it his religious duty and obligation to rid a Muslim nation of another oppressor (meaning Saddam). When one is following a religious duty, he is obeying the Divine Lawgiver's command, not functioning as one himself. How then one could imagine that Khomeini put himself in the role of God is beyond comprehension, especially given that this great scholar's works are full of ethical and spiritual themes all tied to subservience to God in all matters. One wonders, then, what is the extent of Professor Nasr's familiarity with Ayatollah Khomeini's works. And supposing Nasr had not meant that Ayatollah Khomeini did not consider himself "The Truth," he should have worded this very serious statement more clearly.

Afterward, Nasr makes a very sweeping and bold statement. He claims that Khomeini's theology and beliefs came not so much from Shia'ism, as from "mystical doctrines." This means that Shia doctines are separate from what is called mystical doctrines, and most likely the latter term means Sufism, or Tasawwuf.

If Nasr is contesting that his own view of Sufism/Irfan is that it lies without the fold of Shia'ism, he should have made that clear and not pretended that it was the view of all Shia scholars. At the very least, he could've given a brief background of the different viewpoints on the subject.

An attempt to divide the followers of different scholars?

I will quote excerpts of one more situation he narrated, which is particularly of interest to Shias, and which shall also be met with some skepticism. Nasr spoke many times of the relationship between Grand Ayatollahs Khoei and Khomeini, and the former's attitude toward the Islamic Revolution and the latter's views on Islamic governance, as espoused by his concept of Wilayat Al Faqih (rule of the religious jurisprudent).

Nasr says, "Khoei and Khomeini did not like each other. During Khomeini's Najaf years (1964-78), the two had kept their distance and often exchanged barbs through their students. In fact, Khomeini's lectures on Islamic government were a response to a provocation from one of Khoei's students. Khoei saw velayat-e faqih as an innovation with no support in Shia theology or law." He goes on to claim that, near the end of the Shah's tyrannical rule in 1978, Ayatollah Khoei sent the Shah an aqeeq (agate/carnelian) ring and a special prayer. After the ousting of the Shah, "Khoei went further and denounced his theory as deviation from Shiasm." Finally, he goes on to claim that Imam Khomeini borrowed his religious governance theories from Plato's Republic, which he also claims to be ironic, and ends by saying, " This was Shiasm reduced to a strange (and, as it would turn out, violent) parody of Plato."

First, I must say that I was a little disappointed when I looked in the notes section to see his references for this event. I saw, "interview with a senior aide to the Shah" only. Apparently, he based his entire view of Ayatollah Khoei's true attitude toward Wilayat Al Faqih and Imam Khomeini solely from a senior aide to the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a person who would have had good reason to create friction between followers of the two scholars.

I am disappointed that Nasr did not reference any of the works of Ayatollah Khoei and he did not quote any students of the ayatollah (who consist of many of the great scholars of Iran and Iraq today, including Ayatollahs Seestani and Behjat). I really do wonder how he establishes his view that Ayatollah Khoei was ambivalent or against Imam Khomeini, and furthermore, that he was against the Islamic Revolution.

While it is true that Khoei had some different views on the subject of Islamic governance from Khomeini, especially regarding the extent of authority of the faqih, that is normal amongst the scholars even today. From where could he conclude with certainty that Khoei supported the Shah and opposed the revolution and Islamic government, despite any academic differences?

Scholars, and indeed our own holy infallibles, have often had dialogues with the oppressive rulers of their times, even aiding them when it was for the sake of Islam and humanity.

For example, it is narrated that the cursed tyrant Yazid bin Muawiya, after he slaughtered the Prophet's household on the land of Karbala, asked the surviving son of Imam Hussain, Imam Sajjad, what was a way of receiving forgiveness. Despite facing a request from the same cursed being who had ordered his family's butchery, and killed most of his immediate male relations and worse, the Holy Imam responded and answered this question.

Could we imply by Imam Sajjad's responding that he actually supported Yazid? Such a thing would be absurd. The fact is that engaging in dialogue with a tyrant could be for many possible reasons, and due to many possible intentions. Of course, it must be remembered that we don't know much about any of these supposed interactions between Khoei and the Shah, or if they even occurred.

Finally, on the matter of Wilayat Al Faqih and Plato's "Republic," Nasr claims that the former came about as a "reduction" from the latter. I'm not sure what "reduction" Nasr meant, but he should know that the philosophers of Islam and Shiasm have long investigated the ideas of the great Greek Philosopher Plato. This certainly does not mean Khomeini produced a carbon copy of the concept with his version of wilayat al faqih, but even if he did, what would that matter if the concept does not contradict the faith? However, Nasr does not at all discuss this delicate point and vaguely states his views of such political philosophy as being outside the fold of Shiasm due to it being Plato's idea. For those interested in the underpinnings of this complicated subject whether they agree with it or not, Nasr's analysis falls woefully short.

The goal of this book?

Although some may disagree with me, I found that a certain message, composed of two elements, was most striking.

Professor Nasr says at the end of his book:

There will also be new forces to contend with―the new Shia voices, separate from the old Arab order with which Washington is so familiar. When the dust settles, the center of gravity will no longer lie with the Arab Sunni countries but will be held by Shia ones. The center of gravity will move eastward, away from Egypt and the Levant to Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. The United States does not know the Shia well. That will have to change, if for no better reason than that the Shia live on top of some the richest oil fields in the region. It is in America's interest to take Shias and the Shia revival seriously. It will not be easy for the United States to balance the demands of Sunnis with those of Shias, or to hold the hands of the Sunni establishment as it contends with the Shia challenges and the Sunni backlash to it. It is a process that must begin with an understanding of the nature of the conflict and the future that it will shape.

Nasr makes that point that the US will have to get to know the Shia better and mentions that they sit atop some of the richest oilfields, as an effective enticement. He seems to propose engagement with the Shia by the US, even at the cost of relations with the "Sunni establishment." I find this idea very curious, as not long ago, he spoke much against Imam Khomeini?to me it seemed he was clearly attempting to discredit Khomeini as a legitimate Shia leader by a shaky theological argument?and the Iranian Islamic Revolution and governance. Yet, Nasr desires engagement with the Shia.

Is it possible to antagonize the ruling/revolutionary clergy and yet cultivate relations with the Shia? Perhaps it would be possible if the truth were that the "revolutionary" Shias were a fringe minority. But, are they really a fringe?

There is no way to know for sure whether or not revolutionary Shias are indeed a negligible minority, even if Nasr wants to assert that. Although we lack statistics, we may notice a few things that indicate they are far from being on the sidelines in current Shia thought.

There are many rallies by Shias in countries other than Iran, many of them carrying large pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei [currently supreme leader of Iran] and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah [currently secretary general of Hizbullah].

Additionally, there is the fact that the present epicenter of Shia seminary training lies in Qom, Iran, and many of the scholars from all over the world are trained there. Their thinking and development has often been influenced by revolutionary ideas; they enjoy support from their own very large communities in part because of revolutionary rhetoric they have picked up.

Last but not least, the majority of grand religious authorities are located in Iran. Religious, spiritual and even worldly guidance for much of the Shia world comes from there. As the revolutionary Iranian government is widely viewed as giving support to these authorities, an attack on Iran would be seen by many as an attack on these authorities who religious Shias are fiercely loyal to.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic gives material aid to Shias all over the world, and this is evidenced certainly by the massive amounts of aid given to the victims in southern Lebanon of Israeli aggression and reckless state-sponsored terrorism.

With all the above points to consider, one must question whether Nasr's stated goal to focus on sidelining revolutionary Shias is an option. Is it truly possible that the US can cultivate relations with the Shias while antagonizing what may be their largest and most powerful supporter in Iran? It seems doubtful to me. Yet this important point is not considered by Nasr in his book.

If Professor Nasr truly wants to create a sort of US/Western-Shia alliance or promote such a unity, he would be best advised to first himself understand the current scholarship and scholarship on Islamic governance and the centrality of the Islamic Republic and Revolution to the worlds' Shias and even the entire Muslim World.


Edited by A follower

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A follower, Khomeini ® did not accept any ceasefire because there was none

iraqi's never wanted ceasefire

it is a common misconception

aside from that great review

Edited by Rubaiyat

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Vali Nasr is a member of the notorious neo-con group Council of Foreign Relations and his analyses reflect the US project of distorting Shi'a Islam - and making it into a religion of rituals --- hence the opposition of Nasr to Imam Khomeini and his ideological framework.

Vali Nasr is also the son of Syed Hosein Nasr

more on Vali Nasr here:


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I copy below excerpts from my reaction to Vali Nasr's book "The Shia Revival" that I shared with a few friends last year. The selection of these excerpts may have created some gaps. Hope you find it useful nonetheless.


I should mention that I enjoyed this book very much and have recommended it to many friends, albeit with suggesting them to take its arguments with a grain of salt. Nasr has produced many fine works in the past, but this book, as I read it, is more a policy study than an academic scholarship. Nasr himself admits that at the very beginning of this book that this study is "not a work of historical scholarship"; rather, he is writing to advance certain “new ideas and arguments”. Hence, like with any policy study, this book has an underlying agenda of influencing and shaping power and policy in a certain direction.

Nasr's presentation is sympathetic to the shia cause but his argument is shaped by the 'identity politics' paradigm, which is a two-edged sword (examples can be drawn from Iraq about its pros and cons). This book is a commentary on 'history in the making', but, more than that, given Nasr's access to inner circles of Washington's power/knowledge production centers and the huge popularity of this book, it is making history itself and suggesting a particular modality of shia politics in future.

However, at the same time, I find this 'identity politics' framework to be the most interesting contribution of this work. This framework is something that Shia thinkers need to engage with very seriously. By engaging I do not mean, you agree with all of it or reject all of it, but to evaluate its merits and problems, so as to study the history of shia plight and formulate strategies for their future actions.


(The problems with how Nasr treats Imam Khomeini's personality and his politics has already been outlined in the first post of this thread. I mostly agree with that evaluation.)


The crux of the problem in this book is 'Identity Politics': Is that the best strategy for ending the plight of the Shia people (the question of ‘should’)? Is that the future of Shia politics (the question of ‘is’)?

Nasr's policy focus probably explains, why the important explanatory variable of the 'foreign hand' is conspicuously missing from his analysis, and why he focuses only on the ‘internal conflict’ (see the subtitle of this book). I am referring to the same 'foreign hand' that exists in the imaginations of the masses since the colonial time that always conspires to divide them to be able to rule them. Where is a discussion of colonial construction of sectarianism, for example, in South Asia ? (See Gyan Pandey 1991) The absence of this crucial factor suggests a ahistorical and essentialized ‘continuity’ of sectarianism unhampered by geographical differences and variations in cultural experiences.

Further, later in history, where does he address the possible involvement of actors beyond the status quo regimes of the middle east to the more powerful actors that protect these regimes from their own subjects and that find in augmenting sectarian divisions an effective means to curb the Iranian revolution and the resistance in Palestine , Lebanon , and Iraq ?

The failure to consider the proportional weight of these other factors and a focus primarily set on a centuries-old continuity of the ‘internal conflict within Islam’ have important implications for Nasr’s analysis, in terms of undermining the causal value of power, politics, and personal interests in shaping and changing the internal dynamics of Sunni-Shia politics. And it has same implications for our understanding too, of what could be done to confront the sectarian conflict.


An important ingredient of that alternative thinking (alternative to the 'identity politics' paradigm) would be to unlearn ‘essentializations’ about the different sects. For we have many examples - notwithstanding the weakness in their voices - that suggest contrary to these essentializations. I can think of a couple of anecdotal examples here from a well known speaker of subcontinent renowned for his pro-muslim-unity efforts in which he was approached by Deobandi and Barelvi leaders extending hands for creating sectarian harmony. In one case, they (I believe Barelvi) asked his majalis organizers to hang loudspeaker on their masjid for better listening in Muharram near Khaliqdina Hall in Karachi.

The reaction to Hezbollah's victory last summer in the Muslim world (including Pakistan ) is also a telling example. I am sure you have heard about the dates people named after Nasrallah in Egypt in last Ramadhan. Similarly, we need to rethink Ayatullah Sistani’s strategy in these alternative terms that, as I understand, has been to play a more impartial and broader leadership role. Instead of siding with any one group, and for that matter, any sect, he wishes to side with the interests of all of the Iraqi people. You may not agree with this statement because of the apparent consequences of his call for general elections (and the obvious victory of the Shias, as has been charged by some commentators), I still believe that his strategy consistently has been about playing above the identity politics (for example, his instructions on protecting the rights of all sects when the Iraqi leaders were making the constitution).

By citing all these examples, I am suggesting possible avenues where we may recuperate these alternative possibilities, the alternative modalities of politics, that are already in effect on the ground, but that Nasr does not give their due weight. This alternative politics may not be as detrimental to the future of Muslim Ummah as the belligerent version of Identity Politics has been and this alternative politics may keep us from playing into the hands of enemies, who wish to see the Sunni and Shia divided.


Let me come back to Nasr's contention that is summarized succinctly in the subtitle of his book: “how conflicts within Islam will shape the future”. Although he presents a much nuanced analysis inside, he still, as I see, fails to give due weight to politics, policy, and interests in shaping sectarian identities and politics. I contend that the political outcome of the current turmoil in the middle east would have as much impact on the future of sectarian conflicts as the historical conflict and division between the two sects might have on the political outcomes. And, therefore, the future of sectarian relationships remains cloudy and the modality of future sectarian politics remains uncertain as such.

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