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Shi'i Studies and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Shi'i Studies and the Islamic Republic of Iran

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Published by Raffaele Mauriello
Appeared on the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 1, No 4, Winter 2011.
Abstract: Barack Obama’s message to the Iranian people and government on the occasion of Nowruz 1388 (2009) and the appointment of Vali Nasr earlier the same year as Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan arguably marked a turning point in the US foreign policy vis-àvis the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Shi‘as at large; indicating an enhanced role for Shi‘i Studies in shaping American foreign policy. However, a number of European and American historians of Islam have endeavored for quite some time to inform both the Western governments and the general public that there is the necessity to distinguish between Islam as an “object” of study within the framework of the history of religions and Islam as a political phenomenon – and therefore as an object of study for the political scientist. The present article, drawing on the writer’s understanding of some implications of a recent work of synthesis about the history of the academic historiography concerning Shi‘i Islam by the Italian Shi‘itologist/historian Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (November 2010), addresses the implications of the post-1979 re-interpretation of Shi‘i history in political terms. It argues that in the crisis in the relations between the West and Muslim societies two alternative approaches are conceivable. Either it is assumed that Islam as a religion has little to do with the crisis and that this is the result of geo-politics, political interests, and economic competition among states (Graham 2010), or alternatively, that Islam is in fact the relevant issue at stake, in which case it calls for a serious, scholarly discussion of Islam, primarily as a religion, and hence, a matter of theology and history.
Appeared on the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 1, No 4, Winter 2011.
Abstract: Barack Obama’s message to the Iranian people and government on the occasion of Nowruz 1388 (2009) and the appointment of Vali Nasr earlier the same year as Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan arguably marked a turning point in the US foreign policy vis-àvis the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Shi‘as at large; indicating an enhanced role for Shi‘i Studies in shaping American foreign policy. However, a number of European and American historians of Islam have endeavored for quite some time to inform both the Western governments and the general public that there is the necessity to distinguish between Islam as an “object” of study within the framework of the history of religions and Islam as a political phenomenon – and therefore as an object of study for the political scientist. The present article, drawing on the writer’s understanding of some implications of a recent work of synthesis about the history of the academic historiography concerning Shi‘i Islam by the Italian Shi‘itologist/historian Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (November 2010), addresses the implications of the post-1979 re-interpretation of Shi‘i history in political terms. It argues that in the crisis in the relations between the West and Muslim societies two alternative approaches are conceivable. Either it is assumed that Islam as a religion has little to do with the crisis and that this is the result of geo-politics, political interests, and economic competition among states (Graham 2010), or alternatively, that Islam is in fact the relevant issue at stake, in which case it calls for a serious, scholarly discussion of Islam, primarily as a religion, and hence, a matter of theology and history.

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Published by: Raffaele Mauriello on Mar 30, 2011
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IRANIAN REVIEW of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 2011, pp. 175-190.
Shi‘i Studies and the Islamic Republic of Iran: Claiming Islam Back to its OwnHistory
Raffaele Mauriello
*
Abstract
Barack Obama’s message to the Iranian people and government on theoccasion of Nowruz 1388 (2009) and the appointment of Vali Nasr earlier thesame year as Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistanand Pakistan arguably marked a turning point in the US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Shi‘as at large; indicating an enhancedrole for Shi‘i Studies in shaping American foreign policy.. However, a numberof European and American historians of Islam have endeavored for quitesome time to inform both the Western governments and the general publicthat there is the necessity to distinguish between Islam as an “object” of study within the framework of the history of religions and Islam as a politicalphenomenon – and therefore as an object of study for the political scientist.The present article, drawing on the writer’s understanding of someimplications of a recent work of synthesis about the history of the academichistoriography concerning Shi‘i Islam by the Italian Shi‘itologist/historianBiancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (November 2010), addresses the implications of the post-1979 re-interpretation of Shi‘i history in political terms. It argues thatin the crisis in the relations between the West and Muslim societies twoalternative approaches are conceivable. Either it is assumed that Islam as areligion has little to do with the crisis and that this is the result of geo-politics,political interests, and economic competition among states (Graham 2010), oralternatively, that Islam is in fact the relevant issue at stake, in which case itcalls for a serious, scholarly discussion of Islam, primarily as a religion, andhence, a matter of theology and history.
Keywords:
Shi‘i Islam, Shi‘itology, Islamic Republic, Euro-AmericanAcademia
*
Raffaele Mauriello
, PhD in Islamic Civilization from the University of Rome, is a researcherspecializing in the contemporary history of Shi‘i Islam and Iranian and Iraqi geopolitics. He served asexpert on Iran for the External Image of the European Union Project (2008-2009). His research papershave been published in edited volumes by Routledge and Edinburg University Press, and his articles andinterviews have appeared in Limes, Rivista di Intelligence, Left, and Liberal. He is also a contributor tothe Muslim Civilisations Abstract Project of the Aga Khan University. He is the author of Descendantsof the Family of the Prophet in Contemporary History: A Case Study, the Shi'i Religious Establishmentof Najaf, Iraq (2011, forthcoming).
 
Shi‘i Studies a
176Introduction
The unfolding of victory of the Islof the Islamic R of Shi‘i studies ( public perceptioLikewise, the relathe Islamic Rephave been affectBrowne (1862-1of the time, haregarding his dirIran (1906-1907)few decades lateFrench authority in shaping EuropShi‘ism to be exaor at least les“Islamistic/Shi‘itrespect, I findcontribution abconcerning Shi‘Shi‘itologist/histsciita,” which apand religious knMelloni.
1
She s
nd
 
the Islamic Republic of Iran
the popular Islamic movement in Iran (1978mic Revolution, and subsequently the establispublic have come to increasingly influence tenceforth Shi‘itology) in affecting and shapinns and policy-making in the U.S. and Etions between the West proper on the one hablic – and the wider “Shi‘i World” on the oed to an increasing degree. A century ago E26), the well-known British Orientalist/Iranlargely no role in affecting the public oect witnessing of the Constitutional Revolut– and the political opportunity of supportin, however, Henri Corbin (1903-1978), a proon Shi‘i Islam, came to exert a highly influenteans’ understanding of the special place of relit – in the Iranians’ identity. However, lessers influential, was Alessandro Bausani’slogic” response to some of Corbin’s theses.of particular relevance the concise buut the history of the academic historioi Islam in the 20
th
century by therian Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti, entitledeared very recently in a dictionary of the hisowledge of the Twentieth century editedows in a very lucid narrative how part1979),hmente rolebothurope.d andther – dwardologistpinionion init. Ainental rolegion – nown,strictly n thist richraphy Italian“Islamtoricalby R.f this
 
historiography in(albeit inadvertethe promotion oCorbin, the Pahl
par excellence 
of Achaemenid histproclamation of century.
2
The essay Euro-American arelation with thbackground in w good compendiuproviding a framwhat could be cthe Orientalisticsome of its ideasThe mainShi‘i Islam, as int- The protaIran share a colanguage that for- In his discShariati subverteview, Shi‘i Islamnot an historicadeviation from thexpression only iShi‘ism is a ‘perShariati’s thoughtleast since the 1historical subjectshaped by the s
IRANIAN REVIEW of Foreign Affairs
fact sustains that the French scholar hadt) in offering the Pahlavi dynasty a justificati
 
f a peculiar nationalistic project. In this reavi project was based on the idea of Iran as texotericism in a claimed continuity froory through the Arab-Islamic conquest upShi‘i Islam as state religion by the Safavidsy Scarcia Amoretti traces the developmentcademic understanding of Shi‘i Islam particule different political conditions that formich these understandings emerged. It also conm of relevant ideas and notions in the Shi‘iework for trying to place in a proper persnsidered as conceptual distortions caused bcademic production as well as the improperproducts by Euro-American colonialist policioints of interest on the current understandrpreted by the writer, include
3
:onists of the political life of the Islamic Repusistent use of an ideological and propagaally has a religious origin.ourse the Sorbonne-educated Iranian sociolothe approach to the history of Shi‘i Islam.as an immanent model to be unceasingly re-phenomenon. He saw current Shi‘i Islais model and sustained that true Shi‘i Islam fon the origins of Islamic history. In this perspanent revolution’. The theoretical consequecan imply that at the source of the conflicts70s characterize the Middle East lies in aShi‘i Islam, and that its adherents are unitme faith. This hypothesis is clearly denied
177
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theto thein 16
th
 of thearly ind thetains aology,ectivebothuse of s.ing of blic of ndisticist AliIn hisisited,as and itsective,ces of that atnitary d andy the

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