This study will evaluate the relationship between Sufism, ethnicity and sectarianism, through the prism of the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya orders in Syria and Iraq, during the last two decades. It will demonstrate that the complex interaction between religion and politics in Iraq and Syria resulted in dynamic and even contradictory positions within these two orders in regards to questions of sectarianism and ethnicity. With the growing struggle over religious identities in the region, this research highlights the role of informal Sufi leaders in blending political participation with a mystical inclination, within a dynamic relationship with the state. This nominal Sufi inclination provided an opening for combining Islamic mysticism with other, and at times, opposing affiliations, ranging from nationalism to Jihad. As a result, some Sufi supporters showed sympathy towards Shi‘is while others tended towards a Salafi Jihadist orientation, with its exclusionist worldview. These non-affiliated Sufi voices play an important role in promoting new and diverse blends between mysticism, orthodoxy, activism and sectarianism. As a result, the historical role of Sufism as a cross-sectarian agent is maintained only in particular conditions, within a balance between the doctrines of a particular order, relations with the holders of power and ethnic membership.
This paper evaluates the intellectual roots of ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, the leading ideologist of the Islamic revolution in Iran. It focuses on his unique worldview of tawḥīd and places his writings within the broader context of both Western and Muslim thought. Sharīʿatī created a new merger between a holistic approach to Islam promoted by both Sunni and Shiʿi reformists, and an existentialist worldview, tied to a religious-philosophical basis. Through this exchange with existentialism, Sharīʿatī sought to transform Shiʿi Islam into an all-encompassing faith, anchored in human existence and reaching its full realization through political action. His aim was to mobilise the Iranian intelligentsia towards an Islamic revolution by relying on a dualist Muslim-existentialist vocabulary. The outcome was a new blend between ontology, ethics, society and politics, and a new inter-connectivity between God, man, this world and the hereafter, resulting from Sharīʿatī’s effort to promote religious renewal and social justice, through his innovative interpretation to tawḥīd.
In the modern era, Shiʿis in their diverse locations began debating the relationship between their core sectarian identity and their wider political, cultural and religious affiliations. Muḥammad Fadhel Jamalī, an educator, intellectual and statesman, exemplified the position of the new Shiʿi intelligentsia in Iraq whose drive towards political integration and cultural assimilation within the nation-state, as well as in the broader Arab milieu, contrasted with the sectarian identity of the Shiʿi masses. Jamalī’s memoirs provide important insights into the views of the Iraqi Hashemite administration, which negotiated its position between commitment to Arabism and a pro-Western policy. Taking another perspective on contemporary Shiʿism, Liyakat Nathani Takim sheds light on the rich composition of the Shiʿi community in the US, which has not been widely studied. His book depicts a shift from the more universal orientation of the Shiʿi elite, which emerged during the twentieth century, towards traditional sectarian and ethnic identifications. Yet the book also shows the complexity of Shiʿi group membership in a globalized world. While sectarianism is on the rise, Shiʿi youth in the West are contemplating their relationship with the broader Muslim milieu and Western society, as well as their loyalty to a national civic framework.