Sunnism versus Shi'ism? : rise of the Shi'i politics and the Ottoman apprehension in late nineteenth century Iraq

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Bilkent University
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The resurgence of religious political activism had predominantly been one of the foremost themes of structural transformations among societies during the nineteenth century. The major characteristic regarding the history of religion in the Middle Eastern context was a bilateral process, that of the mobilization of society and of the consolidation of organized social movements followed by a subsequent process of politicization. As for the Iraqi region, the influence of Shi’ism increased over certain segments of society thus “the spread of Shi’ism” primarily meant the increased activity and organization of Shi’i communities, which increased their weight in political spectrum rather than the magnitude of “the spread” itself. There were internal and external reasons for the rise of Shi’i politics. On the one hand, the intensifying governmental cohesion over the very segments of society during the process of centralization deeply influenced the existing social structure through dislocating various populations and many large tribal confederations. On the other hand, the rise of Usulism at the expense of the Akhbari interpretation of the Shi’i jurisprudence generated an innovative tendency, stimulating the Shi’i scholars to understand and interpret the worldly affairs in a different manner. It gave an impetus and a peculiar function to the position of Shi’i clerical notables, particularly the mujtahids, consolidating their authority in social as well as political matters. The growing influence of Shi’ism in the Iraqi region gave rise to Ottoman apprehension. As a common theme in the Ottoman official documentation, a strong emphasis was made upon the seriousness and urgency of “the spread of Shi’ism.” Ottoman officials embraced a policy of educational counter-propaganda to deal with the Shi’i Question. The major strategy, which they utilized, was not the use of forceful measures but the promotion of Sunni education through opening medreses and sending Sunni ulema to the Iraqi region. However, indoctrinating Sunnism at the expense of Shi’ism had much to do with the political unity and the social integrity of the empire rather than the pure religious motivation. This study further examines selected aspects of the social relations between Shi’is and Sunnis of Iraq in the late nineteenth century. However, the strong emphasis is made upon the relations between the Iraqi Shi’is and the Sunni Ottoman government drawing some conclusions on the antagonistic relations between governmental authorities and certain segments of Shi’i masses. This study also discusses a two-dimensional view developed by the Ottoman officials regarding Shi’ism and the Shi’is of Iraq, perceiving the former as a theological deviation from the “true” path of Islam and recognizing the latter as being similar to those of other local figures who made up the Iraqi society.

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Abdülhamid II, Mujtahid, Ottoman, Iran, Iraq, Sunnism, Shi’ism
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