Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le shî‘isme ? (What is Shi‘ism?), Paris, Fayard 2004.

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:43:52

Shiites are in the public eye again this summer. Whether the limelight is on Iran’s streets, on some other tragedy in Iraq or on actions by Hizbollah in Lebanon, it is not surprising that a great number of works about them would come out, trying to explain their ever tragic and constantly changing predicament. But unlike most, the book by Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet does not look at the Shiites in the here and now but rather try to understand what they believe in by rigorously analysing the core elements of their faith.

For readers this effort can be a demanding prospect because they must accept to enter a world that is outside their mental categories, but if they do stick to it, the result can be quite rewarding. Out of the somewhat chaotic succession of events, even recent ones, they can start to see some long term trends. According to the two scholars, both well-known experts on the subject, in its original version Shi‘ism was entirely centred on the relationship between the faithful and the imâm.

Thanks to the patient work of Western and Iranian researchers, the imâm is shown to be God’s supreme revelation, historically incarnating Muhammad’s own flesh and blood through Ali. Notwithstanding a necessary note of caution, it would appear that the oldest texts are quite explicit in saying that the imâm is “God’s Face to the world”, that part of the divinity that is knowable (unlike God’s intimate life which is unknowable according to Islam).

Likewise the imâm is thought to embody a strong messianic element linked to the struggle for the instauration of the Kingdom of Justice, which early on becomes projected into eschatological time. When the chain of historical imâms ended in the 9th century, Shi‘ites went through a crisis of faith. But gradually an idea took hold among them, namely that the imâms had delegated their power to legal scholars and that, given the latter’s legitimacy, not all temporal political regimes were necessarily bad. In the second part of the book, we follow this doctrinal development and see the growing importance of the Shia clergy up to the times of Khomeini and the encounter with the Western revolutionary tradition.

In the final part, the authors focus instead on a number of philosophers who developed a non-political vision of Shi‘ism, whilst keeping alive the neo-Platonic heritage. For these masters, a relationship with the imâm after his disappearance (or ‘Occultation” according to Shia tradition) is possible through inner enlightenment. Who is right?

Between obedience and hope, making a choice divides the faithful, separating him from himself. Should he just listen to the inner imâm in the solitude of a silent initiation? Or should he get involved in the affairs of this world in order to change it and thus fulfill the teachings of the prophet and the imâms? And what is this change? How can it be realised? Through an inner transformation that works patiently on history, or through an external transformation of society and politics? (359-360 pp)

So far Shi‘ites have not yet found an answer to such questions.