Review: The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr

The Shia Revival

It was a killer deal which I got for this hardbound book. The annual Strand Book Sale had a lot more surprises in store. I had got to know of this one after finishing All the Shah’s Men. Vali Nasr is a professor at Naval Post Graduate school and is a PhD.

The title meekly suggests that Shias are gaining more prominence in the global Islamic political world. Shia Muslims form around “10-15%” of all Muslims. He starts with a description of a procession of Ashoura – which falls on the “tenth day of the holy month of Muharram” – marking the anniversary of death of Imam Husayn, grandson of prophet Muhammad”. He explains in free flowing yet simplistic terms how the “rivalry goes back to the early days of Islam and the succession crisis that followed the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E.” The elder Sunni Muslims chose Abu Bakr, father-in-law of Muhammad, as the successor while a small group wanted Ali ibn Abi Talib (commonly referred to as just Ali) to
lead the community. Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, Uthman and later by Ali. Vali then outlines how Ali faced a troublesome time facing mutinies and fights with Uthman’s cousin Muawiya and ultimately murder by extremists. And this, according to him, was the crucial juncture of differences between the two sects. Nasr’s intentional observances of intermingling of cultures across the world and Islam make for an interesting read – how Hindu practices have crept into Shia practices, how “sunnification” had its effect on Ayatollah Khomeini and the like. One very interesting line which caught my eye was: “Some have explained this difference by saying that Sunnis revere the Prophet because he relayed the Quran to Muslims, whereas Shias revere the Quran because the Prophet relayed it”. For Sunnis, the only essential attribute for one to lead Muslims was to be able to uphold religious beliefs, practices and laws and no special spiritual endowments, while for Shias the bloodline of Muhammad is of paramount consideration.

A lot of information about Shiism is shared: the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in 939 C.E.; the different kinds of Shias: Usuli, Akhbari, Umayyad, Zaydi, Ismaili, Bohra, Druze, Yezidi etc.; the various eras of Salafists, Safavids and their impact on Shiism. He analyses how Saddam persecuted thousands of Shias despite of being a majority in Iraq. The book was published in 2006 and hence is outdated with reference to current facts. The aftermath of Iraq war resulted in a Shia resurgence with US support. This resulted in Sunni anger from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and other Sunni countries. Zarqawi’s role at the head of opposition to US presence in Iraq and against the rise of Shia is well documented (Zarqawi, though, is dead now). Sistani is shown as a cleric and he praises him with no end in sight. After reading the hagiographic account of Sistani, you believe he is too good to be a human with only love and compassion in his heart. Sistani, to me, was practical enough to consider ground realities of the shift in balance of power in Iraq, and hence chose the safer and surer route under the tutelage of US (the word ‘tutelage’ should not be taken literally here). Khomeini is criticized abundantly because of his politicization of religion.

Nasr also covers the Shia crescent of the region. He writes on Hizbollah, Aman, Syria, Pakistan (including the attempt of the Bhuttos to appear Sunni despite being otherwise), surprisingly writes meagerly about Palestinian struggle and PLO, touches briefly Muslim Brotherhood, Al-qaeda and Taliban. He brings to fore how Wahhabism (the ultra conservatives) has crushed the Shias in Saudi Arabia, how the texts in schools are twisted (this happening in Pakistan as well, documented in Tinderbox by MJ Akbar). 

It has been a short book to read covering a long period. As mentioned by Nasr in the beginning, “this book is not a work of historical scholarship”. Hence, it does not give you in-depth correlation between various events across different times and regions. It does, however, mention the important events and names. He draws lot of parallels between Islam and Christianity. I personally believe the book is biased in favor of Shias probably because he himself is one. Undoubtedly the Shias have suffered at the hands of Sunnis because of numbers in most of the regions, but his view that Shiism is on a path to revival and may become an equal force with Sunnism is hard to believe. He concludes by saying, “future stability must be based not on the hegemony of one sect over another but rather on an inclusive vision of Islam and the Arab world that will recognize the identity and beliefs of both Shias and Sunnis and distribute wealth and power in accordance to numbers”. This intent, though genuine and well meaning, is purely academic and theoretical. After having read The Shia Revival, whenever I would come across a terrorist act by a Muslim, the question that will pop in my head will be “Sunni or Shia?" 



  1. Your effort for the book reviews is really appreciable and encouraging enough to pick up a book of one's interest. I am going to get Shia Revival soon again!
    Keep up the good work!