Friday, March 17, 2023

Toby Matthiesen's "The Caliph and the Imam"

Toby Matthiesen is a Marie Curie Global Fellow at Stanford University and Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, leading a project on Sunni-Shii Relations in the Middle East. In the fall of 2023, he is joining the University of Bristol as Senior Lecturer in Global Religious Studies/Global Islam, and he has previously held fellowships at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE.

Matthiesen applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Caliph and the Imam: The Making of Sunnism and Shiism, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In fact, strongly Sunni Sufi orders like the Naqshbandiyya also expanded. A founding figure of the order, after whom it is named, Baha al-Din Naqshband Bukhari (718–791/1318–89), received patronage by Central Asian rulers, who supported a shrine complex around his tomb in Bukhara. Naqshbandis retained a strong influence on Timurid rulers and their successor states. Since they emerged in a region with a marginal Shii presence, they had no major quarrels with Shiism at the outset. Yet since the Naqshbandiyya is unique amongst Sufi orders in that it traces its spiritual lineage to the Prophet back through three chains, one of them, which in time came to be the most important one, through Abu Bakr, made it especially averse to Shii attacks on Abu Bakr. Its anti-Shiism intensified when the order spread to Herat in the fifteenth-century amidst Sunni–Shia tension there and competition with some of the pro-Alid Sufi orders mentioned above that were slowly becoming more openly Shii.

Abd al-Rahman Jami (817–898/1414–92), the poet and Naqshbandi mystic, epitomises this. He and other Naqshbandis were elegiac defenders of the Ahl al-Bayt, who, they argued, had been misappropriated by Shiism. Sultan Hussain Bayqara, who had an interest in Shiism and expanded the Ali shrine, was apparently encouraged by a Shii cleric to include the names of the Imams in prayer and on coins, and the Sultan may have seen this as an affirmation in the line of the local allegiance to the Ahl al-Bayt. However, he may have been dissuaded by Jami and other Sunnis from doing this. Still, Jami endorsed the ‘discovery’ of the Ali shrine at Mazar-i- Sharif, despite himself having just returned from a visit to the Ali shrine in Najaf on the way to the Hijaz. Jami was trying to get Hussain Bayqara to prevent Shia from ‘discovering’ more graves associated with descendants of the Imams in the area. His endorsement of the Ali shrine may have been a way to limit that practice and claim the Ahl al-Bayt for Sunnism. In a poem written for the ruler, Jami refuted Shiism. The anti-Shii turn of the Naqshbandis thus came at a time when a ruler considered adopting Shiism. Unlike many other Sufi orders, the Naqshbandiyya emphasised adherence to Islamic law and Hadith. This emphasis on the Sunna and on the order’s lineage through Abu Bakr intensified after the rise of the Safavids in Iran.
Based on a synthesis of decades of scholarship in numerous languages, The Caliph and the Imam: The Making of Sunnism and Shiism, is the first truly global and longue durée history of Sunni-Shii relations. The dispute over who should guide Muslims, the Caliph or the Imam, marks the origin of the Sunni-Shii split in Islam. Moving chronologically, my book sheds light on the many ways that it has shaped the Islamic world, outlining how over the centuries Sunnism and Shiism became Islam’s two main branches, and how Muslim Empires embraced specific sectarian identities. Focussing on connections between the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, it reveals how colonial rule and the modern state institutionalised sectarian divisions and at the same time led to pan-Islamic resistance and Sunni and Shii revivalism. It then focuses on the fall-out from the 1979 revolution in Iran and the US-led military intervention in Iraq. As I show, however, though Sunnism and Shiism have had a long and at times antagonistic history, most Muslims have led lives characterised by confessional ambiguity and peaceful co-existence. Tensions arise when sectarian identity becomes linked to politics.

A book of almost a 1000 pages can obviously not be summarised just by looking at page 99. Having said that, I think the test works quite well. Page 99 deals with a topic that can be seen as almost a secret thread throughout the book: The question of Sufism and how it fits into the story of Sunnism and Shiism. In general, Sufism often straddled the line between the two and Sufis are often thought to have at least an inclination towards Shiism. Sufis usually trace a spiritual lineage back to the Prophet, often through his offspring, the Ahl al-Bayt, the Family of the Prophet, who are especially revered by Shia. Yet, historically, most Sufis would probably have said they were Sunnis, with the exception of specifically Shii Sufi orders like the Safavids. The more I investigated this question, the more difficult it became to answer. Hence, the story of different Sufi orders and the ways in which they influenced early modern Muslim Empires and later Muslim Revivalism occupies a significant space in the book. On page 99, I introduce the Naqshbandi order, the perhaps most anti-Shii of the Sufi orders, and one that played a formidable role in Islamic history, from India to the Middle East. I then outline the role of Abd al-Rahman Jami (817–898/1414–92), the poet and Naqshbandi mystic, and how he tried to convince a Central Asian ruler to embrace the Ahl al-Bayt but not go as far as embracing Shiism. The Naqshbandi order is an important exception to the story of Sufism’s alleged closeness to Shiism, and Naqshbandis were in various contexts responsible for strong anti-Shii polemics and actions. And yet, the Naqshbandi order also saw different subbranches and iterations, some of whom even accepted Shii pupils. Later in the book I explain how such different figures as Syria’s official clergy, the Turkish Islamists of the AKP, and former Baathists in Northern Iraq all have roots in the Naqshbandi order, and yet can embrace very different kinds of politics and alliances, and sometimes even more nuanced stances towards Shiism.
Visit Toby Matthiesen's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Other Saudis.

--Marshal Zeringue