Research / Projects

Negotiating Authority in Contemporary Shi‛ite Thought and Practice

The last decade bear witness to massive changes within Shi‘ite Islam. Since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideological and theological idea that Islamic jurists should wield di-rect political power has vastly dominated the discourse and everyday practice of Twelver Shi‘ites worldwide. This is now changing. In Iran, the Khomeinist system is challenged in hitherto unseen ways and critique of the dominating ideology is articulated also within the Islamist establishment. In Iraq, the American invasion of 2003 has led to drastically increased political influence of the coun-try’s Shi‘ite majority as well as to the international public exposure of high-ranking Shi‘ite clerics with interpretational stances that differ from Iranian Khomeinism. In Lebanon, the Cedar revolu-tion of 2005 and the Israeli war of 2006 brought about increased influence of the Shi‘ite Hezbollah-party in the country’s politics. In 2011 the largely Khomeinist organization became a member of the country’s government for the first time. The last year’s uprisings in many Arab countries, further-more, have had great impact on Shi‘ites, not least in Bahrain where followers of this denomination constitute a politically marginalized majority. In addition, war and political instability have resulted in the migration of Shi‘ites out of their traditional heartlands. Migrant communities are now in the process of negotiating how to interpret and practice their religious tradition in their new religious, cultural and political environments. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that this multi-facetted religious tradition is in the midst of a process of profound reinterpretation and change. At the heart of this process lies the question of authority: what authority should Islamic law have in contempo-rary society? Who should decide this? How far reaching should the influence of the clergy be? By what criteria can it be decided whether authority is legitimate? The general aim of this project is to analyse how religious authority is interpreted and negotiated in contemporary Shi‘ite thought and practice.

Purpose and aims

The specific aims of the project are:

(1) To describe and interpret the political and theological alternatives to Khomeinist theocracy that are being articulated by leading Shi‘ite ‘ulama (clergy) today.

(2) To describe and make a quantitative sociological analysis of how grass-roots Shi‘ite Muslims in the Middle East and Europe relate to religious authority today.

(3) To describe and make a qualitative analysis of how political, theological, and social alternatives to Khomeinist theocracy are lived and articulated in a number chosen Shi‘ites communities on grass-roots level in the Middle East and Europe today.

(4) To describe and theorize the ways in which elite and grass-roots discourses interact, influence and challenge one another. And to thereby contribute to our knowledge about the ways in which religious authority is created, construed, maintained, and challenged on public as well as private levels.

By “Khomeinist theocracy” we refer to the concept of Velayat-e faqih (Providence of the jurispru-dent) which is the constitutional principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the most pivotal aspect of Khomeini’s legacy. Khomeinism holds that knowledge of best practice in all fields, includ-ing political and social life, should spring from religious authority. Inherent to this understanding are far-reaching claims concerning the scope and comprehensiveness of Islamic authority and the role of the ‘ulama. The project studies lived and thought alternatives to this principle on two levels. On the one hand, we look at the elite level – the public debates carried out amongst leading Shi‘ite thinkers in Farsi, Arabic and English – and, on the other hand, we look at the grass-roots level – the thoughts and practices of Shi‘ite Muslims in the Middle East and in Europe.

 

Full project description

Publications

In: Life here and hereafter. : .

Based on fieldwork in Qom, this paper explores the ritual and theological meanings of death among members of a Shi’ite revivalist movement in contemporary Iran. The heyyati movement represents a charismatic development in the religious landscape of the Islamic Republic. The movement expanded on massively during the last decade and played a pivotal role in the mobilisation of popular support for former president Ahmadinejad. The movement circles around an independent type of preachers known as zaker or madha. Although the heyyati movement represents a form of Iranian folk religiosity that in connection to certain holidays entertains broad popular support, it has also developed into a particular subculture with its own lifestyle, ritual repertoire and ideological profile. Lately this development has created controversy as some preachers, more or less openly, have challenged the clerical establishment in the country. Stories about the martyrdom of historical Islamic heroes, ritual manifestations of one’s own readiness to die and meditations about death, constitute important features in the religious life of heyyati men. Despite these mournful expressions in their ritual life, however, present and former members of the movement predominantly speak of their engagement in terms of joy and friendship. In this paper the amalgamation of politics, joyful youth culture and death awareness is presented and analysed.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject
David Thurfjell

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe

No
2015

School/Centre

School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies

Historical Studies

In: . : .

The heyyati-movement is a folk-religious movement in Iran circling around the practice of chest beating and ritual mourning of the martyred household of the Prophet. During the last decade, since the presidential period of Mohammad Khatami, the structure of this movement has changed. The heyyati-groups were mobilised in the campaign that led to the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005 and since then what may be described as a new type of heyyati-culture has flourished in certain layers of Iranian society and it has frequently been a matter of controversy. Today, the movement can be described as a charismatic alternative to the religious authority of the clerical establishment. Based on interviews and ethnographic observations this paper describes and analyses one heyyati-community in Qom.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject
David Thurfjell

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe

No
2015

School/Centre

School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies

Historical Studies

In: Islam. Stockholm : Liber, 2015. 308-321.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject
David Thurfjell

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe

No
2015

School/Centre

School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies

Historical Studies

In: Islam. Stockholm : Liber, 2015. 62-78.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject
David Thurfjell

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe

No
2015

School/Centre

School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies

Historical Studies

Status

Started

Project Manager

David Thurfjell
Professor, Professor
School of Historical and Contemporary Studies

People linked to the project

Mohammad Fazlhashemi
Uppsala universitet/Uppsala university
mohammad.fazlhashemi@teol.uu.se

Torsten Hylén
Högskolan Dalarna/Dala University
thy@du.se

Gärde Johan
Ersta Sköndal högskola/Ersta Sköndal University College
johan.garde@esh.se

Ingvild Flaskerud
Oslo Universitet/Oslo university
Ingvild.Flaskerud@ahkr.uib.no

Thomas Brandt Fibiger
Universitetet i Aarhus
etnotbf@hum.au.dk

More information

Project start: 2013
Project end: 2016

Financier: Vetenskapsrådet (VR)

Research linked to the Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe: No

Information på svenska

Subjects to which the project is linked

School/centre to which the project is linked

Research area for doctoral studies to which the project is linked