Multiculturalism in Shi’ism: diversity of ethnic and religious identities among European Shias

Akif Tahiiev

Research on religious, national, ethnic, and gender identities is very relevant, but at the same time, aspects of research and interconnections within such identities are omitted (the exception is rather gender and religious identities - Islam and gender issues are quite well researched). Thus, a huge array of studies of ethnical identity within the religious framework remains little noticed. These studies are of significant practical importance and can manifest themselves in different dimensions.

Firstly, this research project will concentrate on the display of multinationalism in Shia sacred history. So, for example, the well-known black slave Bilal Khabashi is perceived by the Shias as a Shia and a follower of Imam Ali and Ahl al-Bayt. One of the most famous companions of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali ibn Abu Talib was Salman Farisi, a Persian by ethnicity. Analysing the events of the battle of Karbala and Ashura, which are of fundamental significance for the Shias, one can see the participation of representatives of different ethnicities and races, among which the story of the dark-skinned slave Jawn bin Huwai is very famous.  Amina Inloes (2014) researching the ethnical origins of the mothers of 12 Shia Imams concluded that although the first Imams were Arabs, the latter already had a multi-ethnic origin (for example, the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari was 96.9% African; 2.7% Arab; 0.4% Iranian or Indian, and the 12th Imam al-Mahdi 98.4% African, 1.4% Arab; 0.2% Iranian or Indian; or 50% Anatolian, 48.4% African, 1.4% Arab; 0.2% Iranian or Indian). There has been almost no research in this field, and here I mentioned only very few events and personalities that need to be studied in a similar vein.

Next, I move to how these issues of ethnic diversity and denominational conformations are becoming more relevant in the European context particularly. While in Eastern Europe Shia communities are usually more monoethnic, in Western Europe Shia multiculturalism is represented more obviously. Related to this issue are references to the processes of transmission of religious and cultural repertoire, especially the use of various languages, such as English, Russian, French, German in religious rituals. Most practicing Shia communities are based on a common language such as Arabic (mainly Iraqi and Lebanese Arabic), Persian (Iranian and Afghan Dari), Turkish, and Urdu. In Germany there are also communities that attempt to give sermons in both Arabic and Persian, complete with sequences in German for the younger generation. In some cities they strongly promote the use of the German language in all activities (except for ritual prayers). So there are already some attempts to integrate and overcome the migrant ethnic identity through religious practices. But at the same time, there are many factors preventing this. One of the main ones is that each Shia people has its own cultural heritage in the form of marsiya, poems and other religious literature in the respective languages. Given the poetic form and other literary features of these works, their creation requires a high knowledge of the language, as well as considerable creative abilities. Therefore, even if there are such authors who are ready to create such literature in European languages, it is not known how long it will take for these works to be accepted by the local Shia communities. But at the same time, the failure to solve this problem creates a situation when Shi’ites who are not familiar with Arabic, Persian or Turkish find themselves in a situation where they feel like "strangers" among their fellow believers. So ethnic and linguistic factors affect the specifics of European Shi’ism and Shia communities, which explains why sometimes communities prefer to gather separately. Thus, looking at the traveling of the ideas of multiculturalism and ethnicity in Shi'ism through time, we can discover the roots of the problems of the Shias of the past and present, as well as predict possible ways to solve these problems in the future.


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