[P4805] De-centering the study of Shiism

Created by Mirjam Kuenkler
Monday, 11/20/17 3:30pm


Much of the study of modern Shi’ism has (legitimately) focused on towering figures and the institution of the marja'iyyat as the center of religious authority. Thus, studies of individual leaders, such as Sadr, Khomeini, Sistani, Khoei, Fadlallah abound, as do representations of Shi‘i belief and practice as necessarily organized around the marja’, the source of emulation. This panel aims at de-centering the gaze on Shi’i religious authority by shifting perspective in two ways: For one, it proposes that bottom-up studies of Shii authority ought to complement the dominant approach of a top-down perspective. Most studies take the marja and his beyt (office) as the starting point in order to ask questions such as: what is his fiqh, what services does he provide to the community, which hawza does he run. Seldom have scholars taken the viewpoint of the muqallid, the believer, who needs to choose between different marja’s, to navigate the copious jurisprudential literature, and the various vukala (representatives of the marja’) who present themselves to him to collect khoms and offer religious advice. Second, the panel aims to shed light on contexts where the importance of the marjaiyyat as the beacon of religious authority recedes into the background. Many Shiites of Pakistan, for example, either do not follow a marja at all, do not follow one faithfully, or accept authorities as maraji who in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon would not be considered as such. The Pakistani context is hardly unique in this regard, as comparable observations can be made in Morocco or Indonesia, where hierarchies of religious authority are more diffuse, and the leader-follower relationship less stable. Third, the panel turns attention to the vast part of the Shiite population to whom religious authority, in particular the marja’iyyat, was long closed off and for the most part still remains so: women. Following the pressure of women who sought training in the Islamic sciences, the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1980s has invested enormous resources into the build up of a system of women’s seminaries where women can begin the stony path that may lead to the attainment of religious authority. Yet, most of the extant programs teach women to reproduce regimist interpretations rather than to develop the skills needed for autonomous exegesis. The panel then proposes to de-center the study of Shi‘ism by treating on new geographic, gender, and methodological grounds.


Rel Stds/Theo



Said Arjomand

(Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS))
Panel Participating Role(s): Discussant;

Meir Litvak

(Tel Aviv University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Chair;

Mirjam Kuenkler

(University of Göttingen)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Hafsa Oubou

(Northwestern University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Thomas Fibiger

(Aarhus University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;