Reviewed by Charles M. Brown (Middle East Center, University of Utah)
Published on H-Levant (October, 2003)
The Same Bottle in a New Skin
The Same Bottle in a New Skin
Nakash's book on the Shi'is of Iraq through the Iraqi revolution of 1958 remains--nine years after its original publication--one of the best books on modern Iraq to appear for some time. But there is very little "new" about this new edition. The main body of the work, nine chapters that do a great service by illustrating some of the distinctions between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ism, have only two new additions to the bibliography. This book appears to be the same nine chapters that first appeared to great acclaim some years ago. Although nothing should detract from the value of this most useful work, it is particularly unfortunate that the author did not take the opportunity to consult or review nearly a decade of relevant scholarship, nor incorporate some of the minor criticisms which appeared in the reviews of the first edition. In short, this book is a re-issue, not a revision; the strong points are still very strong, while the weak points remain weak.
Because this work was so widely reviewed between 1994 and 1997 it would be somewhat redundant to add one more review to the pile, especially when the new volume is so much a mirror of the original. But some summary is necessary. The first part consists of two chapters. "The Making of Iraqi Shi'i Society" sets the stage of Iraq in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the importance of the Shi'i shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Kazimayn. The really important part of this chapter is the revelation--which Nakash excerpted for an article in IJMES --that the process of conversion of the tribes in the area of southern Iraq took place quite a bit later (nineteenth and twentieth centuries) than that of Shi'i Persians (sixteenth century) and for much different reasons. This is the basis for the distinction between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ism that Nakash illustrates throughout the book. "Years of Upheaval" describes the impact of the Young Turk Revolution (1908) and the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905-11) as well as how British administration affected the Shi'is. Part 2 also consists of two chapters which describe the relationship of the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy to the Iraqi Shi'is and the former's attempts to reign in the tribal shaykhs, the Persian-descended mujtahids, and Shi'i attempts, both conventional and radical, to gain some semblance of parity with the Sunni minority throughout the monarchic period.
The latter half of the book focuses on Shi'i practices and institutions and how these developed their own unique forms that highlighted the Arab and tribal values of Iraqi society. In general, because of the tribal form of social organization present in southern Iraq, Shi'ism became a veneer on top of this identity, and the new faith sat lightly upon it. Part 3, in three chapters, deals with "The Commemoration of 'Ashura,'" "The Pilgrimage to the Shrine Cities and the Cult of the Saints," and "The Corpse Traffic." Throughout, Nakash highlights how these Shi'i traditions differ from the practices in Iran: Shi'ism in Iraq is a much more down-to-earth affair in Iraq, without the mystical and Sufi influences present in Iranian Shi'ism for half a millennia or more (p. 177).
The last section deals with Shi'i institutions in Iraq in two chapters. "Shi'i Money and the Shrine Cities" describes the political economy of Iraqi Shi'ism, especially the Oudh Bequest, which funded both the mujtahids and the Shi'i poor for approximately a century ending in 1953, and how the British manipulated this bequest in an attempt to control the mujtahids. "The Shi'i Madrasa in Iraq" speaks eloquently of the hawza of Najaf (primarily) and Karbala, and how the rise of the modern states of Iran and Iraq contributed to the shifting of the top-tier Shi'i academic institutions from Najaf to Qum.
These nine chapters are quite strong in that they use a variety of archival materials from the British Public Record Office, the India Office Library, the Indian National Archives and the U.S. National Archives, private papers, British and Iraqi government publications, and Iraqi, Lebanese, and Egyptian journals, as well as Arabic, Persian, English, French, and German secondary source material. What is less strong is the epilogue (pp. 273-281) and the new introduction (pp. xv-xxii), which are best read as a single chapter, in this order. What makes these elements of an otherwise excellent work so weak is that they have relatively little to do with the rest of the book. While the conclusions to most of the nine chapters that make up the bulk of the book will briefly trace events into the era of Saddam Husayn, most of the book concentrates on the pre-1958 period. But the epilogue ("The Gulf War and Its Aftermath") and new introduction deal with the period between 1990 and 2002 in a somewhat general fashion with the political troubles between the United States and Iraq, without relating these trends to the Iraqi Shi'is very much.
The 1993 epilogue (pp. 273-281) aims to "sharpen the ... basic questions which I have dealt with in the course of this book." This is not accomplished because the author does not deal with the questions "who are the Iraqi Shi'is? What is the nature of Shi'ism in Iraq? and How did the policies of the modern state influence the position of Shi'i Islam in Iraq?" (p. 281). Instead, Nakash dwells unnecessarily on a general re-telling (there are no sources cited in this section) of the primary events in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, i.e., the Iraqi military crushing the twin rebellions and American desires to see a figure from the Iraqi military oust Saddam in the immediate post-war period. Nakash Also makes an early assessment of the relative strength of Saddam's grip over Iraq.
A much more useful exercise would have been a discussion of how the political careers of key Iraqi Shi'i figures--especially Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the late Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim--related to his treatment of Iraqi Shi'i society before 1958 or a brief excursus on a project Nakash suggested in a previous footnote: a comparison of how the works of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (especially Mujtama'una [Our Society] and al-Islam yaqud al-hayat [Islam Governs Life]) differed from Ruhollah Khomeini's conception of wilayet al-faqih (the rulership of the jurist) (p. 137 n. 62) and how Nakash's treatment of Iraqi Shi'ism could help shed light on how Iranian and Iraqi co-religionists could have became engaged in heavy fighting from 1980 to 1988. This last point would focus the book more since this is what sparked Nakash's own curiosity in Iraqi Shi'ism to begin with: "My interest in writing on the Shi'is of Iraq grew out of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, when like other observers I was puzzled by the fierce fighting between Shi'is of Iran and the coreligionists of Iraq" (p. xiii).
Likewise, the introduction to the 2003 paperback edition (pp. xv-xxii) seems somewhat artificially attached to this work. This time, from the vantage point of November 2002, Nakash discusses the effects of September 11, the so-called "war on terrorism," Iraqi sanctions, and the consolidation of Saddam's grip over Iraq during the mid-to-late 1990s. Like the epilogue, Nakash's new introduction does not mention the Iraqi Shi'is very much, cites no sources, and settles for a general re-telling of well-known events. For these reasons, the epilogue and new introduction seem somewhat out of place when attached to a book on Iraqi Shi'i society. The reader can therefore safely ignore these parts of the book while perhaps wondering why they were included in the new edition, especially after many reviewers were critical of the epilogue's inclusion in the original edition.
But concerns over the ends of this book are minor ones. Robert Olson was quite correct when he said that "this is by far the best book among all of the works, mostly potboilers, that have appeared about Iraq since the Gulf War." While other books have finally appeared that are not "potboilers," Nakash's was among the first of substance (see note 2). This book is a must for anyone with a serious interest in Iraq and Iran, but if one already possesses the 1994 edition, there is no real reason to purchase the 2003 edition since there is no updating in the main part of the book.
. The additions to the bibliography are Peter Heine, ed., Al-Rafidayn, Jahrbuch zu Geschichte und Kultur des Modernen Iraq, vol. 2 (Wurzburg, 1993); and Yitzhak Nakash, "The Conversion of Iraq's Tribes to Shi'ism," International Journal of Middle East Studies 26 (1994): pp. 443-463.
. Some of the works that could have been consulted for a new edition of the work under review include Ofra Bengio, Saddam's Word: Political Discourse in Iraq (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. chap. 7; Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende, eds., The Twelver Shi'i in Modern Times: Religious Culture and Political History (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Sarah Graham-Brown, Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris/MERIP, 1999); Meir Litvak, Shi'i Scholars of Nineteenth-Century Iraq: The 'Ulama' of Najaf and Karbala' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) (Nakash does include the latter item in his bibliography, but in the form of Litvak's 1991 Harvard University doctoral dissertation); and Linda Walbridge, ed., The Most Learned of the Shi'a: The Institution of the Marja' Taqlid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Two works he does include have been updated: Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001); and Kanan Makiya, Republic Of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
. Nakash, "The Conversion."
. For an even more concise delineation of the differences in Iran and Iraqi Shi'isms, see Nakash's chapter "The Nature of Shi'ism in Iraq," in Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State Religion and Social Movements in Iraq, ed. Faleh Abdul-Jabar (London: Saqi Books, 2002), pp. 23-35.
. Robert Olson, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, by Yitzhak Nakash, The American Historical Review 101 (1996): p. 882.
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Charles M. Brown. Review of Nakash, Yitzhak, The Shi'is of Iraq.
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