Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Shi'ism in America - Liyakat Takim
I recently read Dr. Liyakat Takim’s Shi’ism in America, intending to write a review for an online Islamic magazine that I write for on a fairly regularly basis. However, the magazine editor, at the advice of a scholar, declined a review, due to the apparently contentious viewpoints that come across in the fourth chapter, Shi’i Leadership and America. I felt motivated to write something anyway, because the book represents a unique and necessary study that I find to be both interesting and informative. To be up front, I’ll say that I have met the author in person on several occasions. I find him to be an excellent lecturer with highly engaging, well-informed, and relevant topics, and I wish I had taken more advantage of the opportunity to learn from him while he lived within 100 miles of me. Dr. Takim is a religious studies scholar that has served in several universities, as well as a Shi’i community leader and scholar. What follows is largely summary but includes some personal reaction.
In the introduction, Takim provides a brief overview of Shi’i history and rationale for the study. I particularly found interesting the few paragraphs on history of the authority of Shi’i scholars. These tie-in with his fourth chapter which many conservative Shi’is judge overly critical of the current jurisprudential system and scholars. However, the introduction is entirely factual. The portion I am noting here briefly suggests the development of the authority of ‘ulama (scholars) over time. It describes the origins, “crystallization”, and some of the evolution of the concept of marji’ al-taqlid (imitation of a jurist deemed to be the most learned), including the invalidation of a believer’s actions who fails to follow a marji as a 19th/20th century development, and the use of the controversial concept of wilaya al-faqih (overarching authority of a jurist) for the establishment of a theocratic state in post-revolutionary Iran.
Chapter 1 attempts to outline a history of Shi’is in America. The earliest significant Shi’i communities were primarily working-class, Syrian and Lebanese in origin, arriving in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries and settling primarily in the Northeastern United States. Many members of these communities assimilated into the predominant culture to a greater extent than some of the later waves of immigrants. Changes in immigration law altered the make-up of the Shi’i immigrants toward the more highly-educated and religiously conservative, with some notable exceptions, by the end of the 20th century. Political and historical factors such as military drafting in the Ottoman Empire, the Iranian revolution, the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the Gulf War influenced the number and origins of Shi’i immigrants at different times. In this chapter, the author touches on the Sufi movements in America and how some of them are related to Shi’ism. He gives particular attention to accounts involving interviews of members and descendants of the earliest Shi’i American communities, as well as an interlude on the origins of the Khoja Shi’is. Dr. Takim reasonably proposes that the number and diversity of Shi’i Muslims in America may be underestimated and largely ignored in the political and scholarly spheres of influence in America. This chapter and the next provided a relevant grounding that American Shi’is could benefit from by gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of diversity and development.
The second chapter continues the examination of Shi’i communities in the United States, focusing on ethnic diversity and the pattern of ethnicity-based religious centers. The reader learns why this phenomenon is more pronounced in the Shi’i communities than the Sunni communities in America. The consequences of the ethnic structure in many of the communities, such as those related to differences in certain rituals, dress, food, weddings and language are explored. This chapter includes some brief but fascinating descriptions of marriages customs in different ethnic groups, and also a discussion of variations in and importance of Muharram observances (related to the murder of Imam Husayn (as), grandson of the Prophet (saw)). Replicas or symbols used in Muharram observances in one community or the portraits of holy personages used in another community might be seen as borderline polytheistic representations by a different ethnic group. The pattern of lectures, or majlis, during Muharram also varies, with South Asian Shi’is have certain dates dedicated to certain historical figures and other cultural groups using different styles and patterns. The complexity of Shi’i American identity is first brought to point in this chapter. A Shi’i American is a minority within a minority often several layers deep. Shi’is are minorities in the Muslim faith, and Muslims are minorities in America. Certain ethnicities are minorities within the Shi’i communities, and so on. This minority role can feature importantly in the development of individual and community identity for American Shi’is, and coincides with the minority perspective that has been inherent in Shi’ism throughout most of its history. The ethnic nature of many Shi’i centers has often been an alienating factor for youth, who identify less with their cultural homelands than the immigrant generations. Youth are more likely to prefer and pursue de-ethnicitized ways to express and practice the faith. English-language programs, summer camps, and Internet forums that are multi-ethnic are some examples of this, that if absent or inadequate can lead to erosion of Shi’i identity.
As a personal reaction to this chapter, even though I may not technically fit the profile of a second-generation Shi’i youth, I related to their experiences as a revert (convert) of Western origin. The cultural representations and traditions in Shi’i centers are fine as such, but they do not always speak to or resonate with me and have at times accentuated my sense of being outside the community. Further, the conflicts that have at times arisen when different ethnic/cultural groups did not agree on various matters have prevented the community from achieving its full potential. No matter how much time I may spend in or with a community, it never becomes my community psychologically, and I always remain a guest at best. With some physical distance between me and the nearest center and a naturally somewhat introverted nature, the personal benefit of attendance at programs is often not compelling enough to get me to make the commute. Certainly there is merit in engaging with the community in person rather than just on-line, and many opportunities to learn and be of service, etc., that I miss out on by not making myself be more engaged with the nearest center. However, at some level, this chapter validated my personal experience, not in the sense of giving me an excuse, but in allowing me to feel that some of the ways in which I do choose to participate in the Shi’i community are acceptable and relevant and are also chosen by others.
Chapter three of Shi’ism in America addresses sectarian differences. Dr. Takim provides some evidence that until the 1970’s, Sunnis and Shi’is generally worked together in America with a Sunni lead due to majority. Then the revolution in Iran threatened the power and control of some Sunni governments, such as the House of Saud, and strengthened the presence of Shi’ism around the world. Many Muslims were inspired by the revolution and experienced a sense of rebirth. The rising of Shi’ism increased conflict between Sunnis and Shi’is in America and elsewhere, particularly through a Saudi-sponsored spread of a Salafi/Wahabi puritanical interpretation of Islam that is highly disparaging of Shi’ism. Shi’i organizations are late in forming and so far less impactful than Sunni organizations that have benefited from foreign state-sponsorship and a longer history of development in America, as well as majority status. Organizations that have pretended to represent all American Muslims such as CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, and MSA have in fact often excluded, ostracized, and misrepresented Shi’is. Shi’i Muslims in correctional facilities have faced enormous struggles obtaining rights granted to Sunni Muslims and have faced serious threats from Sunni inmates. Shi’is have faced the burden of terrorism committed by the Salafi Al-Qaeda and similar groups, while themselves being predominantly innocent of it, and also being the greatest victims of the same groups, a fact which goes largely unrecognized by an American majority that does not understand the heterogeneity of Muslims.
The next chapter apparently has rankled some people in the Shi’i community. It provides a fair explanation of the general workings of the system of marji’ al-taqlid and elucidates some of its extreme advantages over Sunni jurisprudence, including the superior ability to handle modern situations, and a general independence of religious jurisprudence from the political leadership. The controversy arises in what amounts to an expression of opinion about the responsiveness and understanding of the marji’ and the current hierarchical system of taqlid to matters of Western context. Although it is couched in the context of survey responses, the presentation is unbalanced toward what some might call a reformist position, leading to a claim that it is disrespectful of maraji’ and exaggerating the size and importance of a Western Shi’i community as well as the need for reform. Personally, I find that interpretation of this work to be overly sensitive and dramatic, as well as antithetical to productive dialogue. I think there needs to be an avenue through which possibility of reform can be entertained, and that squelching of “unorthodox” viewpoints tends to seem heavy-handed and alienating. On the other hand, if one supposes that the unorthodox opinion is incorrect and is a potential source of confusion and misguidance to a population that does not possess the base knowledge to weigh the matters properly, then one might conclude the existence of a responsibility to minimize the confusion or misguidance. I do not feel qualified to advocate a position, but it is certainly possible for me to envision a system of jurisprudence that might still meet all required religious constraints, whatever those might be, and yet would be more beneficial and accessible to me personally than what currently exists. Therefore, I did not find offense in this chapter as some others have. However, given the multifarious audience of this book that extends well beyond the Shi’i community itself, I can appreciate that the airing of intracommunity issues raised in this chapter and others can feel to some like the public airing of dirty laundry and thus potentially damaging, instead of the informative and constructive nature that is presumably intended.
The fifth and final chapter addresses Shi’i outreach in America. American Shi’i communities are often developing and insular in nature, and therefore outreach activities are mostly in their infancy or not considered high priority. Modern political and social context has, however, spurred some growth in this area. There is evidence that American Shi’is are becoming more civic-minded, taking greater roles in community service and leadership by organizing blood drives, running food banks, advocating for voter registration, and so on. Of particular note in this chapter is an examination of the African American Shi’i experience as juxtaposed with those of immigrants and African American Sunnis, and the general weakness, so far, of Shi’i communities in reaching out to and including native Muslims, Muslims of other ethnicities than their own communities, and non-Muslims.
In his conclusion, the author basically calls for the continued development of the American Shi’i identity in positive directions, with the results of his study as a valuable picture of where-we’ve-come-from and where-we-are-now. Interestingly, even though this book is recently published, the quickly changing human landscape of America and the world begs the question of how this snapshot is already becoming dated. As I read it, it was highly relevant and timely, yet I could already begin to see how certain current events would have potentially added to or changed some of what appears in this work. Also, I wish the footnotes had been included in context rather than in an appendix, because although most are citations, a few of them provide additional detail important enough that failure to read the note could be problematic. I personally found this book to be of great benefit as well as highly engaging, albeit slightly repetitive at times as it made similar inferences from a limited data set. It is unique and does indeed fill a true gap in the literature of its genre and thus comes highly recommended by this reader.