Shi’ism, Heinz Halm

Halm, H. (2004). Shi’ism. Hill, M. & Watson, J. (Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. 216 pages

ISBN: 978-0231135870

As with much of academic Islamic studies’ literature, Shiite studies have mainly been conducted by Orientalist scholars. Despite the early 19th century Orientalists’ relatively biased discourse, recent orientalists have produced more objective works. For this topic, to classify this contemporary scholar as a pure orientalist with a prejudiced attitude would be improper. In his work Shi’ism, Heinz Halm presents a neutral perspective on Shiite Islam. Halm has offered a continuous discussion of Shiite history. He also touched upon the sect’s theology and linked it to the historic and current condition of the Shiite world. With a direct and clear narration, Halm succeeded to address both the ordinary and academic reader. Since the book’s publication in 1991, in its original language, German, it has been used as a reference for many academicians.

The author, Heinz Halm, was born and raised in Andernach, Germany. He studied Islamic and Semitic studies, and medieval and modern history at the University of Bonn; where he was a student of Annemarie Schimmel. After completing his Ph.D. in 1967, he pursued a journalistic traineeship at the Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt am Main from 1967-69. Following his traineeship, in 1969, he joined the scholarly project of the Tübingen Atlas of the Near and Middle East, which is a German-English collection of geographical and historical maps. In 1980, he was appointed as a Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Tübingen.

The author carries an academic perspective, which is beneficial to people who are interested in the field. Even if some claim that Halm holds an orientalist perspective, his method stands considerably cautious and analytical. This work of Halm has become one of the fundamental sources of the history of Shi’ism, in addition to his book Shia Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Contrary to Shia Islam: From Religion to Revolution, in which Halm focused on Twelver Shi’ism, he presents a broad perspective on all Shiite branches in his book Shi’ism. Halm utilizes primary and secondary sources, which are referenced at the end of each section. He examines Shiite authorities, historical figures, the Imams, the Shiite legal system, practices, pilgrimage places, and how Shi’ism differs from the other Islamic sects. Moreover, the book considers the charisma and effect of Imams in contemporary Shi'ism and their understanding of the social and economic issues that exist in the Islamic world. In the book’s second edition, Halm revised the sections pertaining to the Iranian Revolution and Iraqi Shiites.

The book consists of five main chapters. In the first chapter, “The Beginnings of Shi’a”, Halm addresses the roots of the names and definitions in Shiite terminology. He first touches upon the division of the sect by differentiating it from the Christian-Western understanding and then, from the Weberian approach. The author attempts to extract the terminology within the Shia tradition and discusses the concepts of taifa, madhab, and firaq. Later, a literature review of academic research on Shiites is presented. His references comprise Julius, Wellhausen, Carl Frockelmann, Fuat Sezgin, Moojen Momen, and others. He utilizes the works of these academicians together with primary sources in Persian and Arabic. Furthermore, he depends on the works of academics who adhere to the Shia creed such as Seyyid Husain Hamdani, Abbas Hamdani, and Ismail Poonawalla. In the rest of the chapter, Halm touches upon the history of the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet, concentrating on Ali's caliphate. However, by separately emphasizing both the Shiite and Sunni interpretations of the incidents, he attempts to adhere to an objective stance. In an attempt to mention primary sources, the author cites Nasr ibn Yatid al-Jufi's Kitab al-Jamal, Kitab al-Nahrawan, etc. Yet, he underlines that these Kufan origin writers may sympathize with Ali. Afterward, of the al-Husain martyrdom at Karbala by Umayyad clans hungry for power, Halm discusses the origins of the Kaysaniyya movement and explicitly accepts them as Fourier Shi’a, as they recognized only four Imams. Later, he touches on the revolts that affect the Shiite world starting with Zayd ibn Ali; then, Abdullah ibn Mu’awiya and the Abbasid revolution.

The second, and largest, chapter of the book entails the history of the Imamiyyah. Halm emphasized, starting with the 6th Imam Jafer al-Sadiq, who is considered as the true heir of Ali, even by Kaysanites, that political inactivity in the Huseynid line had come to an end. When it comes to explaining the lesser and the greater occultations, Halm delineates the concept of the Hidden Imam. He mentions the four safirs and their related sayings. The author explains the terms ghayba, muammeran, al-muntazar, al-gaim bi'l-haqq, sahib al-sayf, and all related terminology. Further, he examines the beginnings of Imami literature and the formulation of the Twelver doctrine. Moreover, he claims that an early characteristic of Twelver literature was polemical and apologetic. However, with the propagation of the books Schism of the Shi'a (Firaq al-Shi'a) by Ibn Musa al-Navbakhti and The Book of Treaties and Schisms (Kitab al-Magalat wa'l-Firaq), the correct Imami doctrine has been made clear. Later, the Shiite had an opportunity to commemorate the martyrdom of Husain at Karbala, with the support of the Buyid as being the protectionist ‘church father’, in the words of Halm. Moreover, according to Halm, Baghdad school emerged as a center for rationalistic theology and principles of jurisprudence.

With these intellectual developments in Shiite history, Halm critically highlights the relation between the Shiite scholars and the political power of that time. Moreover, Halm intensely assesses that the Seljuk and Mongol Empires and their implications, along with further impacts, have led to the transformation of Shiite ideology. With the help of nearly thirty sections, Halm presents a broad perspective of Twelver Shiite history. He later discusses the evolution of Shiite theology, jurisprudence, theosophy, and further intellectual developments. Lastly, he gradually exhibits the changing political position of the Shiite clergy within the existing ruling power. Starting with the Safavid era, Halm discusses the Shiite clergy and their position in the face of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. Moreover, Halm describes the process of the Iranian Revolution in a clear narration. He reviews the language of the Iranian constitution and its state structure concerning the former sections of the chapter on the role of mujtahid. Finally, he runs through the regional patterns of Shia’s in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent.
In the last three chapters, Halm briefly explains the extreme Shia (ghulat), Ismaili and Zaydi, traditions, respectively. He mentions the historical journey of extremist Shias coupled with their contemporary descendant groups, the Ahl-i Haqq and Nusayri sects. Regarding the Ismailiyya, he first handles the misconception of the Sevener Shia, as they have only seven Imams rather than having a continuous lineage. Accordingly, Halm discusses the succession complications of the Ismaili groups throughout history. He presents the Fatimid understanding of Shi’ism with their regional and historical distribution. He later applies the same process to the Druze, Nizaris, Tayyibis, and Bohras. As a well-known phenomenon, Halm discusses Nizari assassins to a wider extent. In the last independent chapter “The Zaydiyya”, Halm covers historical and contemporary material related to the minor groups of Shia origin.

Considering the book’s content, Halm provides a general descriptive overview of Shiite studies. Although a thirty-three-year-old book, it remains an essential reference book on the subject. Moreover, prior to its publication, he utilized all literature that was available on the topic. Therefore, he explicitly presents concise and accessible knowledge. The explanations of Shiite terminology and the intellectual development of the Shiite scholars have been successfully reflected by the author. Thus, the book has avoided having a pure historical base. However, the relative disregard of Ismaili and Zaydi Shiites could draw criticism from pluralistic perspectives. Nonetheless, Halm and his immense contribution continue to offer abundant information for introductory parts of academic works. It is advantageous to all who desire to read this book, be from the professional field or not. This means that readers from different backgrounds of knowledge on the subject will have a chance to reach a general overview of the Shiite world with necessary and interesting details. Furthermore, the reader seeks to attain a literature review of any historical or religious aspect of the Shiite Muslims, they will directly find resources at the end of each section and chapter. Therefore, I would suggest the book to both my colleagues and interested friends as an enjoyable academic book.