Book Review: The Shi'ites of Lebanon

The Shi'ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah's Islamists by Rule Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab analyzes the history of Lebanon through the lives of the Shi’ites living there. The book is a valuable resource about the Shi’ites in Lebanon which can sometimes be an understudied group. The authors start by articulating how Shi’ites lived in Lebanon after 1920, after WWI when the Ottoman Empire fell. Sometimes, they do refer briefly back to their time under Sunni Ottoman rule. The book starts by giving historical background and an overview of Shi’ites, their history and their beliefs.

The first chapter focuses on an overview of the history of Grand Liban under French rule, 1920-1943. The chapter does go a little into the history before French rule, Ottoman rule, and a little after French rule, when Lebanon gained full independence. It explains how Shi’ites lived and were treated under the Ottomans, the French, and how they responded to these rulers. Rule Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab describe the Shi’ite revolts, resistance, and attacks on the Ottoman Sunnis and French Christians, who both did not give them ample representation in the government. This overview is helpful because it lays a foundation for the parts of Shi’ite life in Lebanon that are looked into more deeply in later chapters.

The second chapter looks at the Shi’ites views on the government, their job grievances, and their education. One of the biggest centers for Shi’ite learned was not in Lebanon, but in Iraq. Some Shi’ite Lebanese scholars did their study there. Shi’ite learning differed a lot of the Sunni style of learning so most Shi’ites did not go to the government funded schools. Shi’ite schools did not receive government funding. The authors explore that many Shi’ites did not have money and lived in mostly poverty. The lack of support they received from the government, caused them to distrust the government. This chapter helps to conceptualize why the Shi’ites were upset with their lives and turned to groups that often distrusted or opposed the French government.

The third chapter explores the Communist movement. The authors explain why the Communist movement was so attractive to the struggling Shi’ites. A lot of the Shi’ites blamed their problems on the European government and the Zionists. Therefore Communism, which opposed the European styles of government, gained popularity among poor Shi’ites. Communism offered them relief from their struggles and the ideas of justice and freedom promised by Communism resonated with the Shi’ites belief in their invisible Imam, Mahdi. The chapter goes on to assess why the Communist movement did not die with Lebanese Independence. While the Communists opposed European rule, the party was still attractive to Lebanese Shi’ites who were struggling economically. Schools, whose teachers were often Communist, were a breeding ground for activism. Even without European rule, the Communist party in Lebanon supported Arab nationalism against the Zionists. The third chapter is about one of the ways that Shi’ites expressed their grievances with the government.

Chapter four explores the response to Communists mostly through the 1940s-1960s. This is after Lebanon gained independence from French colonial rule. The clerics did not support the Communist movement because, while some Communists were practicing Muslims, Communism in general opposed religion. However, this did not entirely hold true for Communism in the Middle East. The Shi’ite Communists had different levels of religious devotion. However, the lack of religion often expressed in Communism upset the clerics, because even though many Shi’ites still remained true to ritual and doctrine, they opposed the Shari’a (Islamic religious law). Some saw Communism as fitting with Shi’ite religion and the Quran and others saw it as secular and at opposition with religion. The clerics did not like the atheism that, in their minds, Communism promoted. This chapter analyzes how the clerics and the clerical movement opposed the Communists and the Communist movement in Lebanon after independence.

Chapter five goes into the life of Shi’ites in the 1970s. In 1973, the Israelis attacked southern Lebanon and occupied it. The south was mostly Shi’ite. The Shi’ites did not get any assistance against Israeli occupation from the Lebanese government. The authors explore how this lack of help from the government and violence by Israelis led many young Shi’ites to Palestinian organizations. The Israeli occupation also led to Shi’ites fleeing their homes in the south and heading to the capital, Beirut. Gaining representation in government, the Shi’ites tried to show how Shari’a could work in line with the laws in the Lebanese Constitution created by the French. This chapter explores some Shi’ite politics that were at odds with Communism that came out of Palestinian support against Israelis.

Chapter six goes into the 1980s and the nexus and rise of Hizbullah. The Israeli occupation was the biggest cause of radicalization of Shi’ites in Lebanon. Hizbullah (The Party of God) was a movement out of Iran, a Shi’ite country. Hizbullah was attractive because it advocated militant resistance to Israeli occupation. Many Shi’ites were ready to die for the cause, and so that they were still holy in the eyes of God, they were seen as martyrs and not suicide bombers, as outsiders saw and called them. Hizbullah received much support and funding from Iran where it began. As a mostly Shi’ite country, Iran led Hizbullah to be a Shi’ite group. Unlike the Communist movement, Hizbullah was rooted in religion and supported the creation of Arab nation-states. In chapter six, the authors trace the nexus and evolution of Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Chapter seven talks about the politics of Lebanon and the tension between different political groups among Shi’ites. Life in the south (Shi’ite area) became very politicized. Many different political groups came out of this area and were at odds with each other. They all resisted Israeli occupation but had different views on how to fix that problem. Many Shi’ites funded resistance efforts and fought globalization. They boycotted imported goods and tried to be mostly insular. While the groups did not all get along, staying Lebanese, Shi’ite, and fighting off Israeli occupation was a common goal. Chapter seven outlines how the group all existed in the southern part of Lebanon.

Chapter eight goes into how Jihad and Hizbullah move forward in Lebanon. The future of Lebanon is complex. As a country with three religions that all have a significant population, there is no one religion that is a national religion. This is different from most countries in the Middle East. Therefore, looking at other Middle Eastern countries does little to show where Lebanon might go, so the authors do not even begin to speculate that way. They look at the active groups and ideas in Lebanon and what those groups want for the future. However, most groups do want a modern state. However, for them, modern does not mean Western, like it does for some people. For them, religion should be tied into social and political life and is part of a modern state.

Rule Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab end their book by reiterating that the Shi’ites were the group that were the most persistent and militant in their resistance of the Grand Liban state made by France. They then go on to again explain how Communism was attractive and the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Their book gives a good look at the lives of Shi’ites in Lebanon throughout Lebanese history. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Shi’ites resisted rule much more than before. They had more freedom to do so. Rule Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab do a good job of delving into the lives of Shi’ites to show how they exist and live in a multicultural country like Lebanon.

For more on Shi’ites, Lebanon, and other groups in the Middle East, there are a number of books that are wonderful sources of information: The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States and Postwar Imperialism by William Roger Louis, The Twelver Shia in Modern Times: Religious Culture & Political History, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists, and Free Officers by Hanna Batatu, and All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer. All of these have more information on Shi’ites, Lebanon, and the Middle East. Many have a wealth of information on Shi’ites in other countries or their interactions which can help conceptualize the lives of Shi’ites in Lebanon and the rest of the world.

Amy Wallis is a graduate student at Texas State University

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