Political Thought in Contemporary Shi‘a Islam: Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din

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When one thinks of contemporary political Shia Islam the Islamic Republic of Iran tends to spring to mind, a theocracy which those familiar with the subject know is based on the theory of Wilayat Al-Faqih or “guardianship of the jurist” as revived and expanded upon by Ayatollah Khomeini. Over the past 40 years, there has been a growing corpus of work in the West on Shia Islam and its political thought, this curiosity was understandably sparked by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but accelerated significantly following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein, with Iran arguably being the main benefactor. This would even prompt Jordan’s King Abdullah a year later to warn of a “Shia crescent” forming in the region.

However, the idea that during the absence of the Shia Imam, jurists may assume political authority or even that a temporal government should not be secular is not one that is readily agreed upon or adhered to by the majority of Shia scholars, although some only differ on how the guardian-jurist concept has been implemented. It is within this context that Political Thought in Contemporary Shi’a Islam is a valuable contribution to this field, as it not only explores a notable counter-thesis to Wilayat Al-Faqih but also ideas on civil government and the prospects for Shias in particular living as minorities within a multi-confessional society of a modern nation-state.

The author, Farah Kawtharani, achieves this by basing her work on the intellectual work and political career of Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi Shams Al-Din, who was among the most esteemed 20th century Lebanese Shia scholars and who also headed the country’s highest body for its Shia community, the Islamic Shi’i Supreme Council (ISCC) until his death in 2001. As a product of the Najaf seminaries in Iraq, Shams Al-Din was from a generation of young scholars who were concerned with the perceived threats of the time – secularisation and Communism – which is reflected in his earlier works. He would arrive in his ancestral homeland of Lebanon a few years after the Ba’athist coup of 1963 in Iraq as it proved increasingly intolerable under the new government for Shia scholars and activists.

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Kawtharani provides an insightful and brief historical background to modern Lebanon in the introductory chapter, examining the history of the Shia community largely concentrated in Jabal Amil, or what is today South Lebanon, under the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the 19th century, at a time when ideas of nationalism and modernisation began to take hold across the region. She points out that while the Sunnis wanted unity with other Arabs in Greater Syria, the Christians and Shia opted for Lebanese nationalism through forging ties with the French authorities, thus leading to the emergence of an independent Shia confessional group in a new political order. She later argues that Shams Al-Din’s intellectual evolution and his tenure as head of this confessional group would build on this “Amili legacy”.

The main theme of the book is Shams Al-Din’s critique of Khomeini’s absolutist Wilayat Al-Faqih theory, whereby he developed his own theory; Wilayat Al-Ummah in response to concerns he had of Iran’s growing influence on Shi’ism and Shia jurists beyond its borders. Kawtharani explains? “Any government that is not the government of the Twelfth Imam is inherently illegitimate,” according to Shia doctrine, although there are ample examples in the classical period of coexisting with such governments. Yet for Shams Al-Din, his theory underpins his earlier advocacy for an “Islamic government” which delegates a more restricted level of authority in the hands of the jurists than the system in Iran and entrusts more power to the people, or Ummah (Muslim community).

The reader learns that Shams Al-Din’s thinking would transform as his career progressed and amid the Lebanese Civil War. We learn that he later geared his attention to theorising how the Shia community can be politically integrated in a multi-confessional society like Lebanon, or in Sunni-majority countries. The fundamental shift in his thinking, says Kawtharani, would occur in the 90s, after the Taif Agreement which brought the civil war to an end. It is during this period, where Shams Al-Din formulates his ideas on civil government, or Al-Dawla Al-Madaniyya, “a government which is not Islamic in nature but is still respectful of a religious society”.

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The dynamics of the Islamic scene in Lebanon is also discussed, which inevitably includes the role of the Hezbollah movement in its formative years in the 1980s, which was established with the assistance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. At the time, Hezbollah was committed to the establishing an Islamic government modelled on Iran’s and disagreed with and competed with Shams Al-Din, eventually winning the allegiance and support of the Lebanese Shia youth who found it difficult to relate to his political ideas and instead were attracted to the armed resistance against the Israeli occupation and aggression in the south, which appealed to more existential needs.

As a comprehensive work, there is an almost obligatory chapter covering the historical development of the Shia Imamate doctrine and jurisprudence. Kawtharani goes through great lengths to present early theories on governmental authority which involved limited power to a group of jurists, as opposed to a Supreme Leader, as is the case in Iran today. Examples from the Safavid and Qajar eras are also given.

There is further impressive elaboration on Shams Al-Din’s criticism of Khomeini’s ideas and how he addresses them both from Scriptural arguments and legal-rational reasoning, however Kawtharani makes it clear that he still considered Wilayat Al-Faqih as legally legitimate despite his criticisms due to the theory being constructed by jurists in accordance to the rules of the Usuli school. This chapter in addition to one dealing with unjust rulers and modern governments in Shia thought are perhaps heavy-loaded in comparison to previous chapters and readers who have a deeper, more academic understanding of the topic may appreciate these sections more than the casual reader.

This book ultimately achieves what it sets out to in shedding light on the intellectual and political legacy of Shams Al-Din, whilst importantly, also reminding us that there exists other governmental theories within Shia political thought. The ideas presented in the book not only reveal what a theoretical alternative to the Wilayat Al-Faqih model in Iran may look like without it necessarily becoming a secular state. On the other hand, Shams Al-Din’s later theory on civil government as an alternative to the flawed confessional system in Lebanon, whereby power would be equally split between Christians and Muslims but in a way where religion would be excluded from direct interference on state affairs, certainly leads one to imagine the what ifs and the nation’s potential as a result.

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Middle East Monitor

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