Class and Class Conflict in Jabal 'Amil Before and During the Establishment of the Lebanese State

By Pascal Abidor
Submitted to Session P3743 (Social Approaches to Lebanese Shi'i History, 2014 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Historiography; Identity/Representation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the history of the Shi‘i community in what is known today as “South Lebanon” through the lens of their self-understanding as the Shi‘is of Jabal ‘Amil. I argue that acceptance of the Lebanese state by the Shi‘i elite was as much the product of class conflict within the Shi‘i community of Jabal ‘Amil as it was a result of the ineluctable will of the Great Powers. Before incorporation into Lebanon was accepted by the Shi‘i elite, it was Jabal ‘Amil that was understood as the geographic basis for the community’s inclusion in an independent Arab polity governing Greater Syria.

First, I analyze a set of texts from and about Jabal ‘Amil to show that the notion of the region as a Shi‘i milieu inclusive of all members of the community is a recent historical development. Before the twentieth century, Jabal ‘Amil existed, primarily, as a construct of the Shi‘i ulama, especially those living abroad in Iraq and Persia. A transformation occurred during the early twentieth century in which the Shi‘i laity – of all social classes – came to be included within this region’s history. Before this, the non-ulama Shi‘is of Greater Syria as a whole, bore the laqab Mutawali and never the nisba ‘Amili. Including all strata of the community under the rubric of Jabal ‘Amil created a framework for a sect-based, though not sectarian, form of communal solidarity connected to an Arab-led Greater Syria that still maintained the traditional elite’s position therein.

After outlining the class dimension of Shi‘i appellations, I examine the material and political transformations that occurred before and during the Mandate period that made this terminological evolution possible and necessary. The notion of Jabal ‘Amil served as an alternative to the French Mandate’s model for Lebanon while also providing a means of guaranteeing and reproducing the Shi‘i elite’s privileged position within the community in the face of an increasingly politically active Shi‘i peasantry. The idea of Jabal ‘Amil came to threaten the Shi‘i elite themselves, however, by empowering the Shi‘i laity to challenge not only the French authorities but to act without sanction from the community’s traditional leaders and to make demands upon that very leadership. Abandoning the political possibility of Jabal ‘Amil, starting in the 1930’s, was thus part of the Shi‘i elite’s attempt to contain unruly lower classes by accepting the leadership roles afforded them by the Lebanese political system.