A Reply to Professor Mallat
I have very little add to Professor Mallat’s enlightening comments. To the extent that I have a criticism, it is that he is perhaps too quick to dismiss his own work, upon which my scholarship is based. To be sure, Professor Mallat has focused on Sadr’s reactions to Marxism, and the role he played within the Najaf seminaries to resist its encroachment. This was indeed the thrust of much of Sadr’s work, and as Professor Mallat shows, he was largely successful in these efforts. Professor Mallat’s exposure of precisely what Sadr had aimed to do, and the effects of his efforts on the seminaries, not to mention a broader Shi’i lay population that grew increasingly hostile to Marxism after him, was no easy feat. This is particularly so given how the premier Iraq historian of the period, Hanna Batatu, was so enamored of communist influence that he minimizes profoundly the effect of the Islamic movement and suggests that Saddam’s supposed efforts (I have my doubts that any such efforts were made) to incorporate the Shi’a more meaningfully in the Iraqi regime had largely succeeded. Mallat fills in where Batatu’s largest shortcoming lies, in examining the Islamic resurgence, the seminary structure in which it took root, and the influence it has had and continues to have on Iraq. This is not to disparage Batatu’s efforts, none have described the rise of the social classes prior to the 1958 Revolution or the Communist Party after it better than he has, only to point out a shortcoming that is too infrequently discussed and that, if more thoroughly examined, would give Professor Mallat his due as one of the premier Iraq scholars of the period.
Nevertheless, the question that remains these many years later, now that Batatu’s notions, at least concerning Shi’i integration into Ba’ath Iraq, have been proven so profoundly wrong, is why Sadr still retains such broad popularity among Shi’is. If the communists are no longer with us, and nobody is really interested in hearing Sadr’s theories on Islam’s incompatibility with Dialectic Materialism, why does virtually any bookstore in any Shi’i mosque I have seen in the United States carry a copy of Iqtisaduna alongside a collection of material from others concerning how to pray, the unassailable historical claims of Shi’ism concerning Apostolic succession, and similar works that are, for lack of a better word, considerably more down market? Why would it be the picture of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr that sprang up in communities of the Iraqi Shi’i faithful days after Saddam had fallen, carried aloft by young men whose knowledge of Marxism is entirely from works of history? Why would Basra’s girls’ school be named for his sister? If it is not antipathy to communism, which had grown so irrelevant in Iraq that the Islamist parties bearing Sadr’s mantle did not even bother to protest the appointment of communists to Iraq’s Governing Council, then what, exactly is it that so animates Iraq’s Shi’a?
This, unfortunately, has been little discussed in much contemporary literature. Scholars from the leftist Hanna Batatu to Juan Cole have at various times dismissed Sadr’s ideas as being either hackneyed or naïve, attributable more to some incomprehensible loyalty than to anything original or interesting that Sadr may have said. What I have attempted to show in my work, and my earlier entry, is that this is quite far from the truth. Sadr’s work is not only original, it is also deeply, profoundly resonant with the sensibilities of so many modern Muslims in its calls for functional jurisprudence, and economic and political resistance to a global order with which so many Muslims are dissatisfied.
As for Professor Mallat’s comments on Islamic finance, I am perhaps less enthused by the substance of Sadr’s work Al Bank Al La Ribawi fil Islam (The Interest Free Bank in Islam), mostly because it seems that by considering borrower and lender as part of a single economic transaction, it minimizes the fundamental importance of the financial institution in aggregating and pooling risks and liquidity demands. The bank does more than connect one customer to another, after all, it provides its depositors with immediate liquidity over their relatively small deposits and its lenders considerably larger long term loans (aggregated from the depositor funds) whose repayment takes place over a period of years. This aggregation and pooling is the core of the bank’s service.
Nevertheless, Professor Mallat and I agree entirely on the substance of Islamic finance, and he is certainly right that Sadr’s approach is quite interesting and indicative of his functional style. If, Sadr wonders, the bank is using the capital of one group of people to fund another, why not simply consider transactions across the financial intermediary to be one collective whole, disregarding as a result the formal existence of the intermediary? While that particular idea may not be attractive, the approach, of seeking to attach an Islamic substance to a shar’ia form, is more satisfying than the deceptive nonsense that dominates the practice of Islamic finance, as Professor Mallat properly points out.