The Shia Revival
How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future

Vali Nasr, 2007

Sitting down to write this review, I'm immediately stuck by two things. The first is that I remember this being a really good book when I first read it. The second is that, rereading it today, it doesn't seem as good as I remember.

The reason for both of those is this: The Shia Revival is a brilliant introduction to the confessional split in Islam, and the impact it has had on politics in the Middle East. Indeed, unless you're extremely comfortable with your knowledge of the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, and the political implications they've had right from Karbala to Sadr City, you absolutely owe it to yourself to read this book. The Shia Revival is an excellently-written, accessible guide to one of the most important and least understood issues facing the world today, and if it were up to me it would absolutely be on every high school curriculum in the West.

The converse of this is that, as an introduction, it begins to lose its shine the more its reader knows about the subject. As a rough guide, if you know who Ayatollah Sistani is (and if you check to make sure you were right, and find out he's not the Iranian guy), you'd likely be better served passing your copy of The Shia Revival to a more neophytic friend, and reading something else instead.

Despite the publisher-friendly subtitle, Nasr's gaze here is definitely cast rearward, shooting an arrow that threads its way cleanly from the death of the prophet right to the debates taking place in Najaf and Qom today. Along the way we're introduced to every dimension of the peculiar mix of politics, demography, geography, and theology that make up the Shia community. Born in Tehran, Nasr has clearly inherited the Persian gift of language, and even readers who don't find the subject interesting are bound to be captivated with the fittingly magisterial way that the epic of Shia history is retold.

All of this is offered in a loose, freewheeling narrative that makes for a superlatively readable narrative, but offers little in the way of a framework to understand current, let alone future, events. Nasr explains the importance of Shia governance in post-Saddam Iraq, but doesn't spend much time stepping through the full extent of its implications for the region (though he does in his more policy focused book The Dispensable Nation, review forthcoming). That being said, it's almost impossible to dispute the central claim that the Iraq war has been an inflection point in the Shia story. Pointing out it's status as the first Arab Shia state, Nasr makes a compelling case that the new Iraq has been a powerful force in emboldening previously marginalised Shi'a communities throughout the Islamic (and especially Arab) world, the effects of which are still reverberating throughout the resonant cavity of the Persian Gulf, and beyond.

Ultimately, the full importance of the developments that Nasr identifies is not written between the covers of The Shia Revival. The full importance is being written on the front pages of our newspapers every single day. But for the vast majority of Westerners who lack the background necessary to understand those developments, I can not reccomend a better introduction than The Shia Revival.

Random further reading:

  • Following the 2005 elections, Iraq is now the first Arab Shia state in history. For the single best history you're going to get of post-Saddam Iraq in under 50 pages, you should read Kenneth Katzman's Congressional Research Service Report, Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights.
  • Just as in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia, religious conflict in the Middle East often straddles the line between theological dispute and nationalist signalling device. For a novel and extremely interesting look at the latter dimension of the problem, F. Gregory Gause at the Brookings Doha Center has an excellent paper examining recent events in the Middle East through the lens of an Iran-Saudi Arabia Cold War.
  • It occurs to me that the last sentence of the main review ignores the fact that most newspapers have pathetic coverage of the Middle East, and that subscriptions to NYT and WaPo aren't cheap. The Brookings Doha Center sends out a free daily news e-mail of everything newsworthy that's happened in the region.

The cover image is my own work, a photo from the inside of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran