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Interfaith Implications of a Recent Research Trip

Published April 24, 2020 by Chris Cooper-Davies

Shi'ism, Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Najaf, Iraq, Interfaith

Having recently returned from the United States following a – somewhat shortened – research and conference trip, I wanted to share some interfaith observations relevant to my ongoing doctoral research. My PhD concerns the activities and aspiration of Shi'i reform minded intellectuals and activists from the city of Najaf during the early twentieth century. Through analysis of their journals, newspapers, published books and pamphlets, I explore their priorities for social and political reform as well as their attitudes towards the state and the Sunni population of Iraq. A recurring current in all this work is a firm commitment to imaging and creating an interfaith future, in which Sunnis, Shi'is, Christians and Jews could live harmoniously in the novel Iraqi nation state. The reality of this imagination is a comforting rebuke against popular understandings of Iraqi history, which are invariably predicated on the failure of interfaith initiatives.

Entrance to the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Iraq (1920s)

In February this year, I was lucky enough to attend the Iraq Studies: Past, Present and Future conference at Columbia University in New York. As is so often the case when listening to historical research, I was left with a feeling of acute intellectual inadequacy by level of detail and analytical finesse displayed by the participants. Interestingly for me, the overall direction of study coincided with that of the subjects of my research. Across the board, scholars were calling for reappraisals and revaluations, away from tired arguments about communal and sectarian strife, artificial statecraft and religious fanaticism, towards those which capture the complex and nuanced reality of one of the worlds most scrutinised yet misunderstood national entities.

We heard analysis of Euphrates irrigation alongside boisterous and entertaining research on the cosmopolitan cinema culture of Hashemite Iraqi; we received a timely reminder of the role of Iraqi intellectuals in the Arab literary and political awakening (Nahda) of the nineteenth century alongside reappraisals of Iraqi tribal justice based on research in the recently reopened Iraqi National Archives; we heard new research which rehabilitated the role of Iraqi women in the early Middle East feminist movement alongside much, much more. And we heard four keynote addresses from Orit Bashkin, Eric Davis, Dina Khoury and Sara Pursley, all of which drove the message home that Iraqi studies is in an exciting state of flux, with new unheard voices being inserted into the national story. Taken collectively, these could challenge the tedious narratives of social and religious disharmony and violence which have plagued the discipline to date. The interfaith implications of this work are evident, even where the work itself is not concerned with religion per se. If we reposition Iraqi history away from one of a failed interfaith project and show that – not infrequently – a cosmopolitan, multifaith society has reigned in Iraq, in which the vast majority of constituents have rejected factionalism, religious discrimination and violence, we will be much better placed to image and help foster just such a reality for the future. The protest movements which erupted in Iraq at the end of the 2019, all of which adopted a distinctly anti-sectarian agenda, are clear indications of a move in this direction.

Leaving New York, I travelled to Princeton to explore its impressive collection of Iraqi journals and newspapers published in the city of Najaf in the 1920s and 1930s. I became immersed in the world of the subjects of my study: young men from the Shi'i faith who aspired to use journalism and publishing as vehicles to push for social reform. Although the social world of these writers was almost entirely Shi'i and Shi'i religious and cultural concerns were among their diverse subject matter, it was immediately evident that their outlook and vision was anti-sectarian and interfaith. This was the same time that reformist members of the Shi'i religious establishment and Sunni ulama from al-Azhar were promoting ideas about Islamic unity between Sunnis and Shi'is, at points even postulating that Imami Shi'ism might become a fifth mainstream Islamic law school. The intellectuals and journalists of Najaf were inspired by these interfaith initiatives, as well as the universal language of Arab nationalism. Religious unity became a by word for the progress and development of society while schism and sectarianism were synonymous with its decline.

Practical steps for achieving unity were often lacking; it was a vision more than a carefully defined programme, as, so often, interfaith initiatives are. Assessing the success of their endeavours is therefore fraught with difficulties. As any cynic can point out, the fact they were discussing the issue of unity so explicitly in print might be proof of its absence in society at large. But the important thing to take from this movement is not so much its success or failure; this is liable to change over time depending on the length and breadth of one's historical perspective. What is important is that efforts towards harmonising religious conflict and uniting religious sects appeared alongside – if not before – moves to de-harmonise or disrupt them. The two, unity and discord, emerged concomitantly in Iraq as two divergent visions for the national future, which struggled among each other for the ensuing decades.

I had to leave Princeton earlier than planned in the end, as the Coronavirus pandemic struck Europe and America. Armed with reams of scanned journals and photographed books, I travelled back to the UK to begin long hours of translation in isolation. After a few days, I stumbled across a speech delivered by the Iraqi Mujtahid, Muhammad Hussein Kashif al-Ghita, at the al-Aqsa Mosque for the occasion of the third General Islamic Congress in 1931. Al-Ghita was the first and only prominent Shi'i mujtahid to attend and speak at a pan-Islamic conference. His message promoted unity as a defensive strategy to confront colonialism and what he considered one of the biggest threats of the day: Zionism. To support his argument, he highlighted the spirit of diversity of thought and opinion running through the texts of the Sunna among the companions of the prophet Mohammad, who disagreed on a great many issues but still prayed together and respected each other's views. Unbeknown to many of the attendees of the conference, it would mark the beginning of a prolonged national and religious struggle in Palestine between Muslims and Jews for control of the land and religious spaces, in which vitriolic and discriminatory discourses would be adopted by both sides. Of course, al-Ghita and the Najafi reformers would have stood united on one side of this ongoing conflict, maintaining that such a position was compatible with their commitment to religious toleration. In this regard, it is a shame that they, and indeed everyone who attended or heard about the 1931 conference, did not pay more attention to the spirit of al-Ghita's address.

Chris Cooper-Davies is an AHRC doctoral scholar in History at St John's College, Cambridge. He is also an Honorary PhD Scholar at the Woolf Institute. His research explores the social, cultural and political manifestations of communal identities in mandatory and monarchical Iraq, looking specifically at how processes of colonialism and state and nation building facilitated the reconfiguration and politicisation of an Iraqi Shi'i identity.

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