Usuli Shi'ism: the emergence of an Islamic reform movement in early modern Iraq and Iran
Broadly speaking, this is a study in early modern socio-intellectual history. It seeks to trace the inception and development of one of the most powerful Islamic movements of the modern period: Usuli Shi‘ism. I also hope to contribute to a better understanding of the ideology and practice of the Usuli branch of Shi‘i Islam. My underlying argument suggests that the recent ascendancy of Shi‘i Islam is the culmination of a process incepted by Vahid Bihbihani (1706-1792) and his disciples, who revived a rationalist school of Islamic thought in the eighteenth century, which has become known as Usulism. Largely as a result of the Usuli reformation, the Shi‘i clerical establishment has gained unprecedented social, political, and economic power, especially in Iran, where high-ranking clerics (ayatollahs) have established a theocratic government since 1979. I argue that the Usuli revival and reform of Shi‘ism was part of a larger eighteenth century Islamic reformation that resulted from the decentralization and collapse of the early modern Islamic empires (i.e., Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal). Taking this process of political decentralization into account, most historians have argued that the early modern Middle East is best viewed as a period of decline. Rejecting the decline thesis as Orientalist, recent scholars have argued that an Islamic Enlightenment was taking place during this watershed period. Seeking to contribute to this debate, I employ a comparative approach to suggest that Sunni, Sufi, and Shi‘i Muslim scholars revived and reformed their traditions in direct response to the political destabilization of the Islamic world and directly contributed to the establishment of new kingdoms in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran respectively. I also argue that early modern reform movements, including Usulism, Wahhabism, and neo-Sufism, eventually evolved into organizations associated with Islamism or political Islam. This study, then, can be viewed as a case study in the field of modern Islamic movements. My findings are largely based on the writings of the leaders of the Usuli movement, which are primarily written in Arabic and are mostly works in the field of Islamic law. Additionally, I have studied the Arabic and Persian biographical (tabaqat) literature written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which extols the founders of the Usuli movement.
University of Utah;
Islamic movements; Shi'i islam; Usuli shi'ism; Usuliyah; Islamic reform;