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In the Name of God بسم الله

Letters of Gertrude Bell - references to Shiah

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This is from the 2012 edition of the letters, the editor is Florence Bell and the publisher is Kaf. Available on Kindle. The original date is 1927. I thought it would be interesting to see what she had to say about Shias. So I did a search and here are the results.

If you are not familiar with Gertrude Bell, this summary from wiki should bring you up to speed.

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Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist[2] who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia.[3] Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.

She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, using her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and exerted an immense amount of power. She has been described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".[4]

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell

 

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Nejef and Kerbela are you know the greatest Shiah shrines in the world and the whole of Persia comes on pilgrimage to them. The inhabitants (mostly Persian) are exceedingly fanatical; no Sunni is allowed to live within the walls of Nejef, nor may he enter the great mosque where the Khalif Ali is buried.

 

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It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shiahs, not the tribal people in the country; we're on intimate terms with all of them, but the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the Mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevant to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it–nor can they. And for the most part they are very hostile to us, a feeling we can't alter because it's so difficult to get at them.

 

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The frontiers having thus been strengthened and the Turkish menace for the time staved off, the field was free to deal with the agitation of the reactionary Shiah divines against the elections for the Constituent Assembly. By July, 1923, their demeanour towards King Faisal and towards the Iraq Government had become intolerably arrogant, and King Faisal saw no other way than to authorise the deportation of their leader, Sheikh Mahdi al Khalisi. The deportation was arranged and carried out exclusively by Arab agency, and was followed by the voluntary exodus to Persia of several other prominent Persian divines as a public protest. The Iraq Government decided that it would be unsafe to permit any of these personages to return before the conclusion of the elections and the ratification by the Constituent Assembly of the Treaty of Alliance with Great Britain. This decision, although it caused agitation in Persia, was accepted as wise throughout Iraq. King Faisal had during this period made a progress throughout the whole country for the purpose of explaining his policy and exhorting the people to take part in the elections, and I followed shortly afterwards in his steps, so that the people were left in no doubt as to the identity of purpose of the British and Iraq Governments.

 

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Apart from the Pro-Turks, the Naqib's Council has against it almost the whole body of Shiahs, first because it's looked upon as of British parentage, but also because it contains considerably less Shiahs than Sunnis. The Shiahs, as I've often observed, are one of the greatest problems ...and their leading people the learned divines and their families are all Persian subjects.

 

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I hear rumours that the Sunnis of Bagdad are considering whether it wouldn't suit their book best to have a Turkish prince as King. They are afraid of being swamped by the Shiahs, against whom a Turk might be a better bulwark than a son of the Sharif. The present Government which is predominantly Sunni isn't doing anything to conciliate the Shiahs. They are now considering a number of administrative appointments for the provinces; almost all the names they put up are Sunnis, even for the wholly Shiah province on the Euphrates, with the exception of Karbala and Nejd where even they haven't the face to propose Sunnis...

 

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We get reports about the lower Euphrates tribes preparing monstrous petitions in favour of a republic and of Shiah Alim Mujtahids being all against Faisal. I don't believe half of them are true but they keep one in anxiety.

 

Bell, Florence. The Letters of Gertrude Bell . Kaf Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

Bell, Florence. The Letters of Gertrude Bell . Kaf Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

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It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shiahs, not the tribal people in the country; we're on intimate terms with all of them, but the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the Mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevant to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it–nor can they. And for the most part they are very hostile to us, a feeling we can't alter because it's so difficult to get at them.

Is she implying that the contemporary Shia Mujtahids in that part of present-day Iraq rejected modern science and economics?

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Before I get to your question.

My impression (based on the documentary) and reading some of her works is that she was an 'enlightened colonialist'. She felt that Iraqis should be masters of their own destiny and not ruled from London.

But. And it is a big But.

She wanted to establish a playing field where Iraqis would be more likely to follow a Western socio-economic/political trajectory. I'm currently thinking of her as an early 20th century version of Paul Bremer. Ahead of her time, but deep down a colonialist.

In that context the Shia Ulema were clearly a problem. Her frustration seems to be threefold:

  • She makes much of her personal connections with tribal leaders in Iraq and what is now Saudi Arabia. She had access to important players in London. And between all of them she was involved in political horse-trading - but the absence of the Shia gave her efforts less validity.
  • Shia ulema appear to exercise a level of influence and authority that others don't seem to.
  • In Iraq a significant proportion of ulema have connections with Iran and that really does not fit with British plans.

Were Shia leaders rejecting modern science and economics? I have not read enough of her work to assess categorically. But I can certainly understand the rejection of ideas if they are accompanied by the baggage of having to be subservient to the people who bring them.

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