Thursday, February 23, 2006

Shia, Sunni and other states of mind....   posted by Razib @ 2/23/2006 05:51:00 PM

Over the past day the query Shiite vs. Sunni in google has sent us a swarm of traffic, for obvious reasons. Religious taxonomy is a nasty thing. Godless Capitalist once expressed the opinion that trying to figure out the stamp collections of religous sects was as worthwhile as comic book systematics...the only problem of course is that people don't kill each other over comic book differences. As an unbeliever I have expressed the opinion that I don't think most religions are that special or distinctive cognitively, but as a student of humanity I also am aware that believers imbue their religious affiliation with deep and powerful significance. People kill each other over religious differences...but these motivations are also usually in part a mask for other fissues and factions. The Greek pagans of the 4th century quipped that the Christians killed each other over a letter, homoousia, the same essence, being the Trinitarian position, and homoiousia, the similar essence, being an Arian position. There was certainly more to it than one letter,1 many have noted the power of heresies in non-Greek regions of the Eastern Roman Empire, ergo, the implication that theological disputation was a mask for nationalist dicontent. This begs the question as to the validity of "nationalist" identities during this period, and further ignores the reality that Aramaic speaking Palestine was firmly orthodox while the primary propagandizers for the heretical movements within the Eastern Church were Greek speakers themselves.

In regards to this "Shia vs. Sunni" schism, and the barbarity of impending civil war, it makes us reflect on our suppositions about the "unity of Islam." One might suppose that this conflict has deep roots in the conflict between Shia and Sunni in Iraq, but the historical reality is that the Shia majority of the geographical region which composes Iraq today is an artifact of the 19th century! As European engineering reopened vast swaths of southern Iraq to farming, traditionally Sunni nomads began to settle and become farmers. The non-nomad population of southern Iraq at this period consisted of Shia, many of them derived from pilgrims who had settled in the holy cities of the region and were Iranian in origin.2 The new farmers picked up the religious affiliation of the long-standing residents of the area, and there you have the Arab Shia majority in the nation-state that became Iraq. The shift from "Sunnism" to "Shia" identity suggests a fluidity that is belied by the fact that people kill each other over these differences. It has been suggested that the number of Shia in Pakistan increased in the 1980s in response to the partial imposition of Sharia in Pakistan during the rule of Zia-ul-Huq because the Shia traditions were more liberal. As I have noted before, the Alawites of Syria seem to have shifted in their identity quite a bit in the 20th century, going from the gray land between Islam and non-Islam to Twelver Shiism. If you may indulge me a bit, the idea that the Alawites are Twelver Shia is ludicruous when you compare their beliefs and habits with non-Twelver Shia who are far less heterodox. But, it makes more sense when you consider that the declaration that the Alawites were Twelver Shia occurred during a time when sectarian conflict in Lebanon made it politic for the Lebanese Shia to express solidarity with the religious elite of their larger neighbor.

The point is that there are layers within layers, and peeling the pages of this book back you become less and less sure of the boundaries, categories and definitions you once thought were hard and fast. On the one hand, I am suggesting that religious identity is far more fluid and subject to the vicissitudes of personal and social history. But I also do not deny that people kill themselves in part due to religious motivations. I suspect part of the answer lay in understanding the cognition of human beings, and stepping back from the assumption that humans are unitary reflective beings. Rather, we are decomposed into various sub-entities with specific axioms and utility functions, and to top it off many of these sub-entities are not exposed to our conscious mind.

Weird Addendum: In the "I don't get religious people category," please read about the Domneh. Also, in No God but God Reza Aslan writes that Shah Ismail, founder of the Safavid dynasty which converted all of Iran to Twelver Shiism, proclaimed himself mahdi by declaring "I am God, very God, very God!" Here is something via google print (type "Shah Ismail I am God"):

My name is Shah Isma'il. I am God's mystery.
I am the leader of all these ghazis....
I am the living Khidr, and Jesus, son of Mary.
I am the Alexander of my contemporaries.

The Perfect Guid has arrived. Faith has been brought to all.
All the ghazis are full of joy at the coming of the seal of the Prophets.
A man has become a manifestation of the truth.
Prostrate thyself!
Pander not to Satan! Adam has put on new clothes.
God has come.

Tell us what you reall think buddy (remember, Islam abominates idolatry!)....

1 - Some historians had asserted that the espousal of Arianism by Constantius II was the primary factor in sustaining that faction as a force deep into the 4th century. Why was Constantius an Arian? Many contend it was the influence of his tutor, the bishop Eusebius. The point is that major historical dynamics may be rooted in such capricious and arbitrary convergences.

2 - I say Iranian specifically to include the large Turkic population of Iran.