The Shi’ites of Lebanon: Book Review

The Shi’ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists. By Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. 350, with bibliography and index. $49.95 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780815633723.

Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab synthesize their research of more than a decade in this revisionist history of the Shi’ites in Lebanon. The Shi’ites of Lebanon challenges a prevailing narrative of Lebanese Shi’ism—and perhaps of Muslims more generally—that posits a neat divide between modernists and traditionalists. Local religious culture, in fact, interweaved in intricate ways with various strands of modernity in the form of reforms to Shi’ite traditionalism, Marxism, and Western ideologies.

The authors identify a gap in the current literature in that historians have not devoted sufficient attention to the Islamists’ relationship with religious modernism and Communism, as well as the influence and overlap of secular and religious concepts in the sectarian landscape of the modern Lebanese state. The main areas of inquiry involve the relationship of Shi’ites to the state, the influence of religion on left-wing ideologies, and the role of public religion in relation to civil society and the state. The conventional analytical categories of “modernity” and “tradition” fall short, they assert, of capturing the nuances of all the forces at play in shaping the contemporary social and political scene. Islamists, as it were, exhibit features that could be described as both modern and anti-modern.

Beginning with peasant life under French colonial rule, the authors tell their story from the formation of the “Grand Liban” as a national homeland through rural disintegration and political marginalization beginning in the 1950s, conflict between Communists and Islamic jurists in the 1960s, the grassroots emergence of Hizbullah Islamists in the 1980s and ’90s, and the issuance of their second manifesto in 2009. They examine the intellectual shifts that took place throughout within their complex socioeconomic and political contexts. Biographical portraits are provided of some of the Islamists’ most important figures, such as current Hizbullah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah and prominent jurist Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah.

The Shi’ites in the south of Lebanon, they argue, rejected the state at its inception due to their mistreatment by the French and the effects of militant Zionist activities. The legacy of colonialism, class, and local and national politics interacted in ways that shaped the revolts but also the discourse of religious reform and modernism. This discourse produced a religious Marxism, supported by Shi’ite notions of social justice and revolution, which promised to solve labor problems and push back against capitalist elites. Islamist jurists opposed the spread of Communism not only because of its plan to further privatize religion, but also because the wealth redistribution schemes envisioned by them threatened their financial interests. Through the conflicts with Israel, grassroots support for Palestinians, and inspiration from the Iranian revolution, the Islamists eventually gained ground over the Communists until the transformation of Hizbullah into a political entity occurred in the 1990s. The interests of wealthier classes of Shi’ites aligned with Hizbullah more so than the Communists, providing Hizbullah with a larger base of support beyond the Shi’ite poor. Throughout the development of the modern Hizbullah party, the authors demonstrate the subtle and complex ways in which politics and economics influenced conceptions of religion.

Looking at the present with a view towards the future, the authors end their history with a discussion of Hizbullah’s current relationship to modernity. The Islamists reject allegedly universal ideas coming from the West, while at the same time they have developed their own understanding of what modernity means to them. They also maintain an uneasy relationship with the Lebanese state, whose secular apparatus contradicts their belief in shari’ah or divine law. This puts Hizbullah on a difficult path of challenging Western narratives while developing an internally coherent ideological project that can reconcile itself to the social realities in which they operate. The graduates of Hizbullah’s seminaries will walk this path as they continue to synthesize traditional Shi’ite religious ideas with the demands of secular governance.

Overall, the book is a very detailed political history of the Shi’ites in Lebanon since the formation of the Lebanese state. It covers the main actors in the equation and brings a nuanced narrative in understanding the mutual influence of politics, economics, and religion in the formation of modern Shi’ite Islamist ideology. This book is most appropriate for the graduate level, as it assumes some knowledge and awareness of Lebanese and regional history. It will most interest researchers of Islamist, religious reform, and leftist movements, politics of the Middle East, and terrorism studies. A thorough bibliography points readers to many sources for further research.

Justin Parrott
New York University in Abu Dhabi