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Reaching for Power

The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World

by Yitzhak Nakash

Hardcover, 226 pages, Princeton Univ Pr, List Price: $35 |


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Excerpt: Reaching For Power

Reaching for Power

The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12529-5

Chapter One


This chapter illuminates the history underlying the uneasy relations between Shi'is and governments in modern Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Lebanon. It shows that Shi'is and ruling elites have used the past to deny or legitimize the existing social order and hierarchy of power. Both the debates between Shi'is and the governing elite, and the history discussed here, illustrate that Shi'is in the Arab world entered nationhood feeling excluded from power and seeking to redress political wrong. I will start with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where debates about the past between Shi'is and ruling families have lasted more than two hundred years.

Whose Homeland?

The Shi'is of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were bound together for many centuries. In early Islamic history, the name Bahrain applied loosely to the area embracing the oases of Hasa and Qatif on the eastern coast of Arabia as well as to the archipelago lying just a few miles offshore. Later the name came to be restricted to the islands. Yet the Shi'i population, which forms a majority both on the islands and in Hasa and Qatif, retained many similarities long after Bahrain and Saudi Arabia came under the rule of the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud, respectively. These two dynastic families originated in Najd in central Arabia, claiming descent from the 'Anaza tribal confederation. They made their appearance roughly in the mid-eighteenth century, when the modern history of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia begins.

The Al Khalifa's conquest of Bahrain in 1783 came more than a century after a famine had forced the family to leave central Arabia and migrate eastward. The family constitute a branch of the 'Utub, a subtribe of the 'Anaza. The name 'Utub means roamers or wanderers, indicating the vast distances that the tribe had covered after leaving Najd. Before their arrival in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa were based in Kuwait, departing in 1766 to settle in Zubara in northwestern Qatar. Their settlement in Zubara was an important stage in a process by which the Al Khalifa gave up their nomadic lifestyle and acquired prominence as sailors and traders in the Persian Gulf.

Bahrain was an Iranian possession for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beginning in 1602 when the Safavids expelled the Portuguese from the islands. Actual rule was in the hands of Arab tribes who submitted to provincial governors in southern Iran. On the eve of the Al Khalifa's conquest, the Arab Madhkur family of Bushire governed the islands in the shah's name. The Al Khalifa's success in gaining a monopoly over the pearl trade off the coasts of Qatar and Bahrain, and their crossing from Zubara to Bahrain to trade, provoked the animosity of Sheikh Nasr Madhkur. In 1782 an incident in the Sitra island of Bahrain led to the death of an Al Khalifa member. Madhkur subsequently put Zubara under siege for a month, but he failed to occupy the town. In 1783 Sheikh Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al Khalifa counterattacked, defeating Madhkur's army and conquering Bahrain. Nevertheless, the Al Khalifa did not move immediately into Bahrain; for several years they ruled the islands from Zubara, paying a small annual tribute to the governor of Shiraz and not openly denying Iran's claim to Bahrain. Although in 1796 Salman ibn Ahmad Al Khalifa moved from Zubara to Bahrain, the Al Khalifa's rule was still not secured. The sultan of Oman occupied the islands in 1800, and between 1802 and 1811 the Al Khalifa submitted to the Al Sa'ud. The Al Khalifa managed to consolidate their rule only after the British government guaranteed the security of their territories in treaties signed in 1861, 1880, and 1892, amounting to a British protectorate that lasted until 1971, when Bahrain gained independence.

By the time of the Al Khalifa's conquest of Bahrain, the Al Sa'ud had already established themselves as a power in Arabia. In the early eighteenth century, a religious reformer, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), began calling Muslims to return to an Islam based on what he regarded as strict Sunni teachings. The reformer made an alliance with Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, the ruler of Dir'iyya, a small market oasis in Najd, and this led to the formation of the first Saudi state (1745-1818). Twice during the nineteenth century the power of the Al Sa'ud was reduced, but each time the family managed to regain its dominance. A second Saudi state existed for most of the period between 1823 and 1887, and in 1902 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud formed the third state, which became the basis for modern Saudi Arabia. The Al Sa'ud first conquered Hasa and Qatif in 1795, defeating the sheikhs of the Banu Khalid tribe who had governed the Hasa province in the name of the Ottoman sultan. Between 1795 and 1913 Hasa and Qatif changed hands several times, and were also included in the second Saudi state. Ibn Sa'ud's occupation of the Hasa province in 1913 put an end to Ottoman rule there. The Shi'a of Hasa and Qatif subsequently became part of Saudi Arabia, followed by the small Shi'i community around Medina in the Hijaz, which Ibn Sa'ud annexed in 1925.

The rise of the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud was a blow to the Shi'is in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Whereas in Bahrain a Sunni minority came to dominate the Shi'i majority, in Saudi Arabia a Shi'i minority was subjected to a Wahhabi reform that considered the Shi'is as infidels who should be forced to conform to the Wahhabi version of Islam. In both countries, Shi'is and ruling elites offered different interpretations regarding the emergence of modern Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, each trying to lay claim to the homeland.

The Al Khalifa's account of the 1783 conquest of Bahrain is presented in a series of articles written during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 (which exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shi'is and between Arabs and Persians), and also in a book on the history of Bahrain that grew out of a conference held in Manama in 1983 to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the family's arrival in the islands. In their writings, the Al Khalifa members and other writers in their camp lengthened the historical past of the ruling family in Bahrain. They emphasized that sections of the 'Utub tribe were already living in Bahrain in 1700-eighty-three years before Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al Khalifa had conquered the islands. The failed siege that Sheikh Nasr Madhkur laid to Zubara in December 1782 is given special consideration, and the Al Khalifa are presented as a noble people whose courageous defense of the city reflected the attributes of ideal manhood of the Arabs. We are told that Madhkur assembled a force of between two thousand and four thousand fighters in preparation for the battle of Zubara. All attempts to end the siege peacefully failed because Madhkur insisted on the total and unconditional submission of the Al Khalifa, including the surrender of their women and children-a humiliating demand that the elders of the family rejected. The Al Khalifa braced themselves for the worst, and the men prepared to put their women and children to death in the event of defeat. For the Al Khalifa the choice was clear: either victory and life with honor or a brave and dignified death. Fortunately, the Al Khalifa repelled Madhkur's army and then proceeded to "liberate" Bahrain. The conquest of the islands is presented in the context of the old rivalry between Arabs and Persians, and as a landmark in Arab history. Sheikh Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al Khalifa is named the victorious conqueror (fatih) who rescued Bahrain from Iranian hands and brought it back "once and for all to the Arab fold." We are told that Bahrain's history prior to 1783, when the Al Khalifa established a new administrative power in the islands, was "full of troubles." By contrast, the conquest brought swift commercial progress to Bahrain thanks to the aptitude of the 'Utub tribe for trade and political stability, and the connection of Bahrain to Zubara where the Al Khalifa had created conditions for "free trade and the duty-free movement of merchandise."

If the Al Khalifa were the liberators of Arab lands, the Al Sa'ud were the unifiers of Islam. The Al Sa'ud claim to this role is apparent in Saudi government accounts that narrate 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Sa'ud's conquest of Hasa and Qatif in May 1913. The first account was provided in that very year by Ibn Sa'ud himself. In an interview for the Carmelite journal Lughat al-'Arab, he explained that he had reclaimed a territory that belonged to his family, one which the Ottomans had seized in 1871 from his uncle 'Abdallah ibn Sa'ud. The timing of his attack was influenced by requests that he had received from clerics and notables in Hasa and Qatif, urging him to rescue them from corrupt Ottoman officials and the menacing power of the tribes. Modern Saudi historiography has elaborated this story, presenting it as part of a process of Saudi state formation that began with the establishment of the first Saudi state in 1745. Ibn Sa'ud is portrayed as a legendary figure and as the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. A man of special virtues, he is compared both to the Prophet Muhammad, who converted the pagan Arab tribes to Islam, and to Saladin, the twelfth-century Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders and established the Ay-yubid dynasty in Egypt, Syria, and parts of western Arabia. Ibn Sa'ud is depicted as the greatest Islamic reformer and Arab leader of modern times-a hero who was injured many times in the wars that he waged in the name of Islam and Arabism. We are told that he rebelled against Ottoman and British imperialism, fought heretics, subdued the tribes, and unified Arabia, making it a secure and stable state governed by principles of social justice. His creation of Saudi Arabia stood as the major achievement of the Arabs in modern history. At the same time, the conquest of Hasa and Qatif is said to have opened a new page in the history of the Wahhabi movement, enabling Ibn Sa'ud to control the trade routes leading from the Persian Gulf coast to inner Arabia, and thereby securing the future of the country. His move on Hasa and Qatif is presented as holy war against Shi'i heretics, who cooperated with foreign imperialists to weaken Islam, and as a response to the sad plight of the people.

The accounts of the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud are intended to legitimize the rule of the two families and discredit the Arab origin and Muslim credentials of Bahraini and Saudi Shi'is. While the Al Khalifa's case rests on the assertion that the family has turned Bahrain into a prospering state and a bastion of Arabism, the Al Sa'ud's is built around the commitment of the family to spreading and preserving the "true spirit" of Islam. Whereas the Al Khalifa's account suggests that the Shi'is of Bahrain have an indelible "Persian connection" going back to 1602, when the islands became an Iranian possession, the accounts narrating Ibn Sa'ud's "liberation" of Hasa and Qatif depict the Shi'is as heretics who are beyond the pale of Islam. This type of presentation of the past has cast doubts on the national credentials of Shi'is in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and undermined their sociopolitical position in the state.

In coping with this challenge, Shi'is claimed to be the indigenous populations of Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif, pointing to the long history of sedentarization in the area as proof that their civilization was more enlightened than the brusque tribal culture of the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud. Bahraini and Saudi Shi'is asserted that their Arab origin was evident from the similarities between their dialect and the early dialects of central and southern Arabia. They emphasized their shared historical past, the family relations tying Shi'is on the islands to those on the mainland, and the fact that until the mid-eighteenth century they were commonly known as Baharna, Bahrainis. To give further credence to their Arab origin and right to the homeland, Shi'is highlighted the fact that their Shi'ism is very old. Tradition has it that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, members of the 'Abd al-Qays tribe, who were spread in Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif, were strong supporters of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib's right to the caliphate. Some of the families in the area, Shi'is relate, are descendants of the 'Abd al-Qays.

While it is generally accepted that Shi'ism first appeared in Iraq around the mid-seventh century, and sometime later in Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif, it is not clear when Shi'is became a majority in this region. The rise of the Carmathians in the late ninth century probably gave a boost to Shi'ism in the area. The Carmathians were a branch of Isma'ili Shi'ism. They defeated the 'Abd al-Qays who ruled Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif, establishing their own powerful state in the region. This state was destroyed in 1077 by 'Abdallah ibn 'Ali al-'Uyuni, who recognized the suzerainty of the Fatimids of Egypt-adherents of a different branch of Isma'ilism. It is possible that parts of the population of the former Carmathian state accepted Twelver Shi'ism during the 'Uyunid period, which lasted until around 1237. In any case, the development of Shi'ism on both the islands and the mainland was influenced by the emergence of Bahrain as a center of Shi'i learning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and by its status as an Iranian possession in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The increase in the number of Shi'is may also be attributed to the settlement of Sunni nomadic tribes whose members subsequently converted to Shi'ism. This pattern is more evident, however, on the Saudi mainland, where a third of the Shi'i population are said to be descendants of settled tribes. A good example is the Banu Khalid. After the Al Sa'ud broke the power of this powerful tribe in the nineteenth century, some of its sections settled down around Hasa and Qatif and espoused Shi'ism. The makeup of modern Shi'i society in the area reflected migration waves between Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif, as well as emigrations from Iraq and Iran to both the islands and the mainland. The long history of Shi'ism in Bahrain, Hasa, and Qatif is evident in the rich Shi'i endowment (waqf) property in the area. In Bahrain, the sizable Shi'i waqf stands in marked contrast to the scarcity of Sunni endowments. That property has sustained the activity of Shi'i religious institutions (ma'tams), several of which are reported to be quite ancient.

At the time they encountered the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud in the mid-eighteenth century, the Shi'is of Bahrain did not form one community with those of Hasa and Qatif. The differences between Shi'is on the islands and those on the mainland were already evident when the Portuguese arrived in the area. The Portuguese ruled the islands for eighty-one years beginning in 1521, but they did not establish themselves in Hasa and Qatif. While the islands were an Iranian possession between 1602 and 1783, Hasa and Qatif were under Ottoman rule, starting in 1534 when the chief of Qatif traveled to Baghdad to swear allegiance to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In the eighteenth century there was apparently no single religious figure accepted by the Shi'is of the islands and those of the mainland. This may be attributed in part to the role of Bahrain and the city of Qatif as the strongholds of the Akhbari Shi'i ulama. Unlike the Usuli ulama, their Akhbari rivals prohibited the following of living mujtahids, thus rendering the emergence of a charismatic religious leader difficult. The rise of the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud further pulled Bahraini and Saudi Shi'is apart, and since the mid-eighteenth century they have used different self-designations. While Shi'is on the mainland increasingly came to be known as the Hasawiyya, the term Baharna has been used almost exclusively for Shi'is on the islands. The Baharna have further used this term to distinguish themselves from Sunnis of Bahrain, and to make the point that they were the native islanders and hence the legal owners of the land confiscated by the Al Khalifa.