Several years ago I heard an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Vali Nasr, the author of the book The Shia Revival:How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.
I must have found the interview interesting because I vowed to someday
read his book. Last week or so I found his book on the shelf of my
neighborhood library so I thought I would give it a chance. After
finishing it the other day I quickly concluded that Nasr's book is one
of the best books on Islam and the Middle East I have ever read.
Making up roughly 10-15 percent of the world's Muslims, Shia are
considered by some to be the forgotten people of Islam. In most
countries they are a marginalized minority. However, as Iraq's Shia
emerge triumphant in the post-Saddam political order and both Iran and
Lebanon's Hezbollah feel increasingly confident in today's Middle East,
the region's status quo is being redefined. Nasr does a fine job
addressing this reshaping of the Middle East and the factors driving it.
I thought I knew a lot about Islam and the Middle East but Nasr's book
touched on a number of things that were completely unknown to me. His
portrayal of Iran as a complex and sophisticated nation was especially
fascinating. For example:
- Persian is now the third most popular language on the Internet.
- There have been more translations of Immanuel Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language.
- Iranian research centers rank among the world's best in the field of string theory.
- There are over 300 Shia seminaries in the holy city of Qom.
is one of the few nations in the Middle East to hold regularly
scheduled elections. While their electoral process is severely
restricted by the ruling conservative clergy, it might be the only
nation in the region to have a living former president who stepped down
at the end of his term.
Also according to Nasr, Shia while being marginalized in some
countries, have from time to time held positions of power and
influence. Pakistan's Bhuttos, were, technically Shia. Although
thoroughly secular, so was that nation's founder and first president
Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In addition, Shia have traditionally been the
leadership as well as rank and file of the Iraqi Communist party, (much
of course to Saddam's displeasure).
By the way, this book makes a great compliment to two other excellent books, Dream Palace of the Arabs by Fouad Ajami and No God But God by Reza Alsan. Oddily enough, I believe both books were written by Shia.
This book is must read for anyone wanting to understand the Islamic world and the Middle East.