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Call for Papers: Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Authority in Twelver Shia Islam

This conference invites papers on the topic of clergy-state relations in Twelver Shia Islam, from the post-ghayba period (ca. 941 CE) to the present.

The question of what constitutes legitimate authority – both religious and secular – has been a core theological concern of Twelver Shia Islam. Emerging with the question of the succession of the Prophet Muhammad, Twelver Shia theological discourse invested sole sovereignty and legitimate authority with the Imams, the male members of the ahl al-bayt, designated to lead the Muslim community. The occultation (ghayba) of the Twelfth Imam led to the emergence of the notion of the collective deputyship (al-niyaba al-‘amma) of the learned class within Twelver Shia Islam, the ‘ulama’, who assume some of the prerogatives of the Imam. From the period, Twelver Shia clerical authorities had to address the question to what extent secular political authority is legitimate and how to relate to it.

With the establishment of the first Twelver Shia state in Iran in the 16th century, clerics had to define their relationship to the Safavid dynasty and the extent of their support for it. During the Qajar period in 19th century Iran, Twelver Shia clerics assumed a more pro-active political role, considering themselves as mediators between the ruler and the people. The rise of the modern nation-state in the Middle East in the early 20th century led to debates around the role of the clergy in the state and the nature of an Islamic state. While Khomeini’s understanding of the “guardianship of the jurisconsult” (wilayat al-faqih) has been the most prominent and influential intervention, other models of clergy-state relations, that have emerged, do not advocate direct clerical involvement in the affairs of the government. Clerical figures nevertheless play a central role in Shia Islamist parties, networks and movements across the Middle East and South Asia, remaining thereby important political actors in the context of weak or failed nation-states, ripped by sectarian divisions, civil conflict and corruption.

This conference invites papers on the topic of clergy-state relations in Twelver Shia Islam, from the post-ghayba period (ca. 941 CE) to the present. Placing clergy-state relations in the context of Twelver Shia discourses on sovereignty, legitimacy and authority, the conference seeks to investigate clerical positions towards secular authority and power in different historical periods. While the focus of the conference will be the Middle East, it intends to adopt a wider geographical perspective with contributions welcome on similar debates in South Asia and other parts of world where Shia clerics were or have become influential political actors.

Papers can address – but are not restricted to – the following issues:

– definitions of sovereignty in Twelver Shia theological and jurisprudential discourse
– conceptions of legitimate political authority in Twelver Shia Islam
– approaches and conceptions of clerical authority and its relation to secular power in Twelver Shia Islam
– case studies of clergy-state relations from past and present
– binary between clerical quietism and activism and its validity and relevance
– clerical responses to the rise of the modern nation-state
– role and position of Twelver Shia seminaries (hawza) in the context of the modern nation-state
– conceptions of an Islamic state in modern and contemporary Twelver Shia discourse
– role of clerical leadership in modern and contemporary Twelver Shia political movements
– transnational and diasporic reach of clerical movements and networks
– mediatisation of clerical authority as actors within the state and transnationally.

Important Data

Deadline for abstract submission: 15 March 2020

Notification of acceptance: 3 April 2020

Dates of the conference: 10-11 September 2020

Venue: Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) Berlin

Papers can address – but are not restricted to – the following issues:

– definitions of sovereignty in Twelver Shia theological and jurisprudential discourse
– conceptions of legitimate political authority in Twelver Shia Islam
– approaches and conceptions of clerical authority and its relation to secular power in Twelver Shia Islam
– case studies of clergy-state relations from past and present
– binary between clerical quietism and activism and its validity and relevance
– clerical responses to the rise of the modern nation-state
– role and position of Twelver Shia seminaries (hawza) in the context of the modern nation-state
– conceptions of an Islamic state in modern and contemporary Twelver Shia discourse
– role of clerical leadership in modern and contemporary Twelver Shia political movements
– transnational and diasporic reach of clerical movements and networks
– mediatisation of clerical authority as actors within the state and transnationally

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Prof Andrew J. Newman (University of Edinburgh)
Prof Rula Abisaab (McGill University)

The deadline for abstract submission is 15 March 2020. Abstracts of up to 300 words and a short bio of (up to 200 words) should be sent in MS Word format as an email attachment to alterumma@bham.ac.uk. For enquiries about the conference, contact Prof Oliver Scharbrodt (o.scharbrodt@bham.ac.uk).

The conference is part of the Alterumma project, funded by the European Research Council and hosted at the University of Birmingham. The conference will take place at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin.

A number of travel bursaries are available for conference presenters. Enquiries should be made to Prof Oliver Scharbrodt.

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