Saturday, August 19, 2006

Marxism and Shi'ism as Theology of Discontent

Hamid Dabashi sums up Shi'ism as a theology of discontent: "Shi'ism is a religion of protest. It can only speak truth to power and destabilize it. It can never be 'in power.' As soon as it is 'in power' it contradicts itself. Shi'ism can never politically succeed; its political success is its moral failure. And that paradox is at the very soul of its historical endurance" ("Ta'ziyeh as Theatre of Protest," The Drama Review 49.4, Winter 2005, p. 91).

A Shi'i ritual drama of ta'ziyeh -- which stages the martyrdom of Hussein (a son of Fatima, Muhammad's daughter) and his 72 comrades, who were killed by the forces of Yazid, the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, in the battle of Karbala -- embodies the spirit of Shi'ism: "The central thematic of ta'ziyeh as drama is the notion of mazlumiyyat, which is the defining aspect of Shi'ism itself. Mazlumiyyat constitutes the moral/political community in terms of justice and its aberration. Mazlumiyyat is the absence of justice that signals the necessity of its presence" (Dabashi, p. 93). Ta'ziyeh, therefore, gives Shi'is a powerful narrative that they can invoke any time they fight the power, be it a foreign power or their own government: the spirit of Hussein and his fellow martyrs are on the side of revolutionaries who fight for justice, against the tyranny of a modern-day Yazid.

The manner in which ta'ziyeh is performed is more Brechtian than Brecht's own epic theater:
In ta'ziyeh, acting is not mimetic; it is entirely suggestive -- with a full contractual agreement, dramatically articulated, between the actors and the audience that they are just acting. Actors hold their script in their hands, not because they don’t know the lines but because they want to demonstrate distance and suggest a dissimilitude. If the Aristotelian mimesis is based on similitude, ta'ziyeh is predicated on dissimilitude. The director of ta'ziyeh is always present on the stage, not because the actors don’t know what to do, but because the audience needs assurance that this is just acting. The stage is not really a stage, not because the villagers and townspeople who staged the ta'ziyeh are poor and could not afford an amphitheatre, but because the stage must be an extension of the rest of the physical habitat of the actors and the audience. In fact the actors come onstage directly from their houses, alleys, streets, and markets. The stage never loses sight of its not-being-the-stage. Nonactors have easy access to the stage area; actors move in and out of character at will. There is fluidity between reality and acting because the actors are performing no act of fiction. They are acting reality. Imam Hussein and his 72 companions were really killed in the battle of Karbala by Yazid and his cohorts in the year 60/680. . . . One has to understand how, in the doctrinally charged collapse of the then and the now, the moral and the political, and the real and the ideal, the charismatic paradox at the heart of Shi'ism informs the dramatic tension at the heart of ta'ziyeh and all of its suggestive symbolics of acting, staging, showing, and representing. (Dabashi, pp. 95-94)
Such a theater of protest, which prompts actors and the audience to understand conflict in their own society allegorically through the battle of Karbala and vice versa, has a potential to destabilize any state, including a state ruled by Shi'ite clerics, for, after all, clerics in power may very well come to resemble Yazid rather than Hussein in popular imagination. Thus the state seeks to domesticate and neutralize ta'ziyeh: "Ta'ziyeh has been thematically theatricalized, overtly aestheticized, Orientalized, anthropologized, and ultimately museumized" (Dabashi, p. 98). And yet, that is "not the destiny of either Shi'ism or of ta'ziyeh" (Dabashi, p. 98). The day will come when Shi'is will, again, grasp the constellation which the present has formed with the era of Hussein, establishing "a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time" (Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History").

Like Shi'ism, Marxism, too, is "a religion of protest. It can only speak truth to power and destabilize it. It can never be 'in power.' As soon as it is 'in power' it contradicts itself" (Dabashi, p. 91). The career of Marxism as the official philosophy of socialist states has been, if anything, sadder than that of Shi'ism as the official philosophy of a theocratic state. Communism, when it becomes the opium for the people administered by a state, tends to narcotize and depoliticize them more than any religion can. But that is not the destiny of Marxism either. It has returned to its original vocation in Latin America and Nepal. Can it in the Middle East?

Benjamin lived in an age when theology was "wizened" and "[had] to keep out of sight." He thought that historical materialism, if it enlisted the service of theology, could easily be a match for any force. Today, it is historical materialism that is "wizened" and "has to keep out of sight," but its service will be indispensable to any theology of discontent.


john_m_burt said...

The martyrdom of Hussein has always fascinated me. An annual national observance of The Day We Blew It. A Day of Shame specifically for a sin of omission. Interesting.

by Nèdeem al-Mahjoub نديم المحجوب said...

There's a fundamental flaw in this argument. First from a Marxist point of view what existed in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe , etc were not socialist states as the author claims. Second, In accordance with Marx, socialism requires an indsutrial developed economy and world revolution to triumph. Thus, the failure of the Soviet Union and the other attempts to establish socialism confirm the Marxist ideas as those attempts were carried out in economic backward countries and with the theory of 'Socialism in one country' (Stalin).

CEJ said...

I sum up Shiism--in its dominant forms--as a theology or set of theologies providing some counterpoint to Sunni Islam. Iraq was a country that perhaps had gone the furthest in integrating the different traditions, until the US destroyed Iraq.

Talmudic Rabbinical Judaism, because it displaced to Europe, provides a similar counterpoint to European Christianity.

It's interesting to note that both come out of the same place--the Mesopotamian nexus of Arab, Persian, and Turkish cultures and religions.

That is far from a mere coincidence, since what we see of modern/post-modern Judaism is a result of early middle ages, just as with Christianity and Islam.