Shi'ism and Minorities

Published February 15, 2019

The Woolf Institute in conjunction with the Hikma Foundation hosted a highly engaging scholarly discussion between interfaith specialists on the topic of "Shi'ism and Minorities" at University of Cambridge's Faculty of Middle Eastern Studies on 5 February 2019. Given the increased attention on Shi'ism across the globe - particularly in the Middle East which has been experiencing a resurgence of Shi'a identity and practice - this panel provided timely and relevant insights on a religious tradition which has historically been treated marginally within the larger Islamic studies discipline. The panel focused on historical and contemporary understandings between Shi'ism and the larger Christian and Jewish faith traditions, especially the historical legacy of Near Eastern cross-cultural encounters between these monotheistic Abrahamic faiths which shared a deep intellectual and spiritual milieu.

Dr Sayed Ammar Nakhshawani with Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, Director of Research at the Woolf Institute, discussed the historic significance of the intellectual heritage of Fatimid Cairo under which notable minority communities of Jews and Christians co-existed in a multi-ethnic and confessional empire which stretched from North Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant and Arabian Peninsula. She presented her research, entitled "Jews, Christians, and Shi'i Thought: A Fatimid Melange", highlighting the culture of manuscript preservation and rich intellectual discourse in Fatimid-era centers of learning, particularly focusing on the issue of the inheritance and dispute of the Fadak lands which represents an important episode in the succession to the Prophet Muhammad.

Sheikh Nuru Mohammed

Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, presented his research on "Shi'ism and Ecumenicism in West Africa" on the diverse religious regional landscape, focusing particularly on modern Ghana and Nigeria. These countries, hosting sizable Lebanese diaspora communities, experienced renewed Shi'i-Sunni dialogue in the late 20th century. This was, in part, facilitated by the prevalence of Sufi Islam and the shared deep veneration for the Family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt) that both Shi'is and Sufis traditionally share.

Father Christopher Clohessy

Finally, Father Christopher Clohessy presented on "The Mother of Jesus and the Mother of al-Husayn in Catholicism and Shi'i Islam", in which he highlighted the doctrinal and narrative parallels between the sanctified position of these women, their titles denoting virgin status, and their sons who inherit salvific, expiatory and redemptive archetypes for humanity. The panel was chaired and moderated by Dr Sayed Ammar Nakhshawani, a world-renowned specialist on Islamic thought and history, and an Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Dr Sayed Ammar Nakhshawani meeting researchers at the Woolf Institute

The event was well attended by members of the academic community as well as the larger public and involved a beneficial question and answer session involving the audience and speakers. This panel was part of the "Shi'i Encounters Series" hosted by the Hikma Foundation and Woolf Institute at University of Cambridge's Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. The next event of this series will be held on 4 March 2019 at the Woolf Institute and will examine the legacy of Fatima al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. See the events listing here for further information.

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