The History of Shi'ism and Iranian Shi'ism

Essay, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 85


Ervand Abrahamian introduces his work Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic with a discussion of two terms interesting for an analysis of the Islamic Revolution, particularly considering Western images of Khomeini and his movement: fundamentalism and populism. These ideologically loaded concepts depict the book’s central thesis, namely that fundamentalism is not an appropriate term for describing Khomeini, his ideas and movement. According to Abrahamian, it alludes “religious inflexibility, … political traditionalism, … social conservatism, the centrality of scriptural-doctrinal principles, [and] … the rejection of the modern world.” He instead presents populism as a more apposite term, which “connotes attempts made by nation-states to enter that world.”[1] The scholars Daniele Albertazzi and Duncam McDonnell define ‘populism’ in a widely accepted definition as

an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.[2]

Essentially approving of Abrahamian’s cited thesis, this essay attempts to illustrate that the Islamic Revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, does not represent a movement driven by “religious fundamentalism” or “fanaticism,” but the Iranian way of emancipation from domestic and foreign oppression and domination, materialized by the Shah and the West.[3] This thesis will be developed through exploring the Shi’ite history and especially its appearance in Iran. Furthermore it will continually explore the religion’s revolutionary and supposedly fanatical characteristics and its contribution to the 1979 revolution, which, as its leader Khomeini, Western mainstream media often denounce as fundamentalist and radical.

One essential characteristic that, form the early days of Islam on, has distinguished Shi’ism from Sunnism is the importance of the concept ahl al-bayt: according to the Shi’ite view, the legitimate leader of the Islamic community has to be a descendant of ‘Ali, through his marital bond with Prophet Muahmmad’s daughter, Fatima. Connected to this is the Shi’ite understanding of charisma; Shi’ism regards itself as the rightful interpretation of Islam as introduced by “Muhammad’s charismatic revolution.”[4] ‘Ali as well, whom, according to ahl al-bayt, Shi’ites recognize as the first imam, possesses this charismatic authority, resulting from the hierarchical “link of Allah/Muhammad/’Ali.”[5] In the Shi’ite belief, ‘Ali’s charismatic authority is validated by the particular characteristics his followers bestow upon him and by his appointment as the Prophet’s successor by Mohammad himself. However, ‘Ali’s charismatic authority is not understood as divine but more as a result of his proximity to the Prophet. It differs not only hierarchically from the Prophet’s charisma, but it lacks the revolutionary character of Muhammad’s authority. According to Shi’ites, its mere purpose is to establish and preserve the social and cultural order which Muhammad revealed and aspired for his religious community. This perspective can be invoked against the often ready labeling by West, that Shi’ism—considering its role in the Islamic Revolution—is a “radical,” and intrinsically rebellious religious movement.[6] After the murder of ‘Ali, the succession of imams represented the charismatic figures that continued to guide the Shi’a community.[7] The concept of the imamah answers the claim for a leader belonging to ahl al-bayt, and it is built on ‘ ilm.’[8] In opposition to Sunnis, Shi’ites deny that the righteous leader can be chosen by and from common members of the Muslim community, as the latter are fallible and thus will commit mistakes in their decisions; furthermore they are considered unable to comprehend and apply the commands of the Qur’an.


[1] Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2.

[2] Daniele Albertazzi, and Duncan McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 3.

[3] Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 2.

[4] Hamid Dabashi, Authority in Islam from the Rise of Muhammad to the Establishment of the Umayyads, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993), 110.

[5] Dabashi, Authority in Islam, 105.

[6] Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 16.

[7] Ibid, 115.

[8] “The esoteric knowledge of the Qur’an to be transmitted from one imam to the other,” quoted in: Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 115.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The History of Shi'ism and Iranian Shi'ism
Ben Gurion University
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ISBN (Book)
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religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, emancipation from domestic and foreign oppression, ahl al-bayt, Shi’ite understanding of charisma, taqiyyah, Ashura rituals, Safavids, ulama’s major role, Islamic Revolution, Khomeini
Quote paper
Sophie Duhnkrack (Author), 2009, The History of Shi'ism and Iranian Shi'ism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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