Shi‘i Studies and the Islamic Republic of Iran: Claiming Islam Back to its Own History

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Raffaele Mauriello
27 April 2011

Barack Obama’s message to the Iranian people and government on the occasion of Nowruz 1388 (2009) and the appointment of Vali Nasr earlier the same year as Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan arguably marked a turning point in the us foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic republic of Iran and the Shi'as at large; indicating an enhanced role for Shi'i studies in shaping American foreign policy. However, a number of European and American historians of Islam have endeavored for quite some time to inform both the Western governments and the general public that there is the necessity to distinguish between Islam as an “object” of study within the framework of the history of religions and Islam as a political phenomenon – and therefore as an object of study for the political scientist. The present article, drawing on the writer’s understanding of some implications of a recent work of synthesis about the history of the academic historiography concerning Shi‘i Islam by the Italian Shi‘itologist/historian Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (November 2010), addresses the implications of the post-1979 re-interpretation of Shi‘i history in political terms. It argues that in the crisis in the relations between the West and Muslim societies two alternative approaches are conceivable. Either it is assumed that Islam as a religion has little to do with the crisis and that this is the result of geo-politics, political interests, and economic competition among states (Graham 2010), or alternatively, that Islam is in fact the relevant issue at stake, in which case it calls for a serious, scholarly discussion of Islam, primarily as a religion, and hence, a matter of theology and history.