Abbas Milani: An intellectual history of the Green Wave (Re: Iran)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Abbas Milani is Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.]

What we are witnessing right now in the streets of Tehran is, first and foremost, a political battle for the future of the Iranian state. But closely linked to this political fight is also an old theological dispute about the nature of Shiism--a dispute that has been roiling Iran for more than a century.

Shiism, like most religions, is no stranger to heated schisms. Shia and Sunnis split over the question of whether Muhammad had designated his son-in-law, Ali, as his successor (Shia believed he had). Some Shia, called Alawites, believe the only divinely designated successor was Ali, while another group, Zaydis, believe there were four imams. A large, intellectually vibrant third group is known as the Ismailis because it believes the line of imams ended with the seventh, Ismail. And the largest Shia sect is called the Ithna Ashari--or the Twelvers. Dominant in Iran, they believe in twelve imams and posit that the last imam went into hiding some 1,100 years ago. His return, bloody and vengeful, will mark the redemptive dawn of the age of justice.

It is within this branch that a further split took place beginning in the late nineteenth century--the moment when the Iranian elite began to confront the challenge of modernity. Ideas like rationalism, individualism, constitutionalism, rule of law, equality, democracy, secularism, privacy, and separation of powers began to find currency in Iran's political discourse. By 1905, these ideas, prevalent primarily among the intelligentsia, led to the Constitutional Revolution--the first of its kind in the Muslim world. The Shia clergy were faced with a historic challenge not unlike what the Catholic Church experienced with the advent of the Renaissance. How two rival ayatollahs reacted to that challenge would divide Iranian Shiism--and lay the groundwork for what is taking place today.

Over the years, many scholars, both in Iran and the West, have argued over the years that Shiism shares less with Islam than with pre-Islamic Persian ideas. They point to the fact that, while Iran became Muslim in the seventh century, it refused to accept Arabic as its language. Islam won the battle, these historians argue, but pre-Islamic ways and values won the war by surviving in a Shia veneer. As an example, they cite the Zoroastrian belief in messianic eschatology. The messianic role of the twelfth imam, they say, is essentially a Muslim version of the same Zoroastrian idea. Shiism, according to this view, is really a thinly disguised form of Iranian nationalism. And this helps explain why so much of Iran's political debate has over the years played out in the realm of theology....
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Mahmoud Aziz - 7/2/2009

Abass Milani states that, "a large,intellectually vibrant third group is known as the Ismailis because it believes the line of imams ended with the seventh, Ismail."

This is incorrect.

The Ismailis do not believe the line of Imams ended with Imam ismail, but believe it continued on with his son, Muhammad bin Ismail, in an unbroken direct lineal succession culminating in the present, 49th Imam of the Shiah Ismailis, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan (who is the 49th direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, through his cousin and son-in-law, Aly, the first Shiah Imam).

The Iranian (ithna'ashari)Shiah and the Ismaili Shiah split after the death of the 6th Shiah Imam,Jafar Al-Sadiq, on the disagreement of his rightful successor. The Ismailis believed it was his first son, Ismail, whereas the Ithna'ashari believed it to be his second son Musa Al-Kazim. The Ismaili Imams continued on from Ismail to the present 49th Imam, the Aga Khan whereas the Ithna'ashari Imams continued on from Musa Al-Kazim to their 12th Imam, who went into hiding or occultation.

I trust this corrects and clarifies the error.