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MSU History Professor on 'The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq & Iran'

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Matt Markgraf, WKMS
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Murray State University Assistant Professor of History Dr. Zackery Heern says modern Shi'ism started with the "modernity" in general - around the 1700s, roughly the same time as the Enlightenment in Europe, birth of the United States and French Revolution. He's published a book titled The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte speaks with Dr. Heern about his research and gains some context and clarity into the historical differences between Shi'ism and Sunnism.

In his book, The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran, Dr. Heern specifically focuses on the rise of modern Shi'ism, which the transformation, he says, began with the decentralization and collapse of the so-called 'Gunpowder Empires' of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires. The Usui movement was the most dominant Shia movement in the modern world, beginning as an intellectual debate within Shi'ism that stretches back to its beginning as a more rational approach to the reading of foundational texts, he says. In the 1700s, it became an independent movement of the state and took on a more political role claiming that laymen follow certain clerics and had authority to collect "charitable endowments" whereby if one doesn't pay they might face certain judgment. It became a supreme authority of not only religion but also politics.

Shia and Sunni Islam dates back to the beginning of the history of Islam in the 600s after the death of the prophet Muhammad. The divide can be traced back to the question as to who should be the successor, Dr. Heern says. Shias accepted his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was first in line for the majority of Shias 12 imams. Sunnis accepted the father-in-law Abu Bakr. Over time, this evolved into the two major branches of Islam similar to Christianity's division between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Geographically, the biggest Shia population in the world is in Iran where 90% or more identify, but there are also Sunni and Christians. Iraq is the second biggest population at around 60%, mostly in the southern part of the country in the cities of Karbala and Najaf. Lebanon also has a large Shia population somewhere around 1/3, also Bahrain and northern India. The rest of the Arab World is mostly Sunni, including South Asia and north Africa. But, Dr. Heern says the populations in the Arab world have been changing rapidly.

The major players of early Shi'ism historically began with the 12 imams, Dr. Heern says, but beyond that authority devolved to scholar clerics. In the late 1700s, power shifted to the Usuli clerics, whom we now call the Ayatollah. In his book, Dr. Heern writes about a leader who started consolidating power, WaheedBehbahani, who he says is an important intellectual, teacher and organizer of the Usulis and his successors.

The succession of kinds and clerics is quite numerous, but he focuses on the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722 and adopted Shi'ism as the state religion for the first time in hundreds of years. This transformed the dynamic of the region and led to a renaissance of scholarship and learning. When the empire fell in 1722, clerics were left without patronage and many migrated to southern Iraq. Iraq clerics were referred to as Akbari with a more scriptural perspective whereas scholars from Iran focused on a more rationalist perspective. They dominated the region and came close to establishing a state in the 1800s, he says.

Dr. Heern hopes his book adds to the study of Islam. He says his book is an effort to contextualizeShi'ism within the broader region or the Middle East and the Islamic World. It ties the emergence of modern Shi'ism and the Usuli movement to the decentralization and collapse of Islamic empires and the rise of the Industrial Revolution. In his first chapter, he questions the meaning of "modern" saying it's a word often thrown around that means "new" without being necessarily good or bad.

As Iran moved into the 20th Century, when the British and Russians were eyeing their oil fields, railroad development never fully took off in the country. Iranians are proud to say they were never fully colonized, he says. The oil company BP began as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company when oil was first discovered in Iran in 1908. This interest in their oil fields is what prompted the British Navy to change their ships from coal power to oil power.

Dr. Heern's next book will take a look on the history of Islamic movements in general, including the major Islamic organizations that develop over time with an effort to understand the complexities that we often hear about in the media.

The Emergence of Modern Shi'ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran on Amazon

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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