Book Review of "Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution" by Heinz Halm

Thesis (M.A.) 2009 13 Pages

Theology - Comparative Religion Studies


Professor Heinz Halm’s work Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution deals with the origins and developments of Shi’ism in general and the Shi’i history of Iran, with special attention paid to the Iranian Revolution, which gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Professor Halm’s study aims to synthesize these two major thematic blocks which are located in quite distant historical periods. Within the analysis of Shi’ism the author depicts the major rituals and their history, utilizing travelogues and descriptions of majorly European observers. He compares and examines historical processes which led to the revolution, as well as the revolution itself and its outcome on the basis of previously described characteristics of Shi’ism. The author is a well known scholar and professor for Islam studies at the University of Tübingen. He published several works about Islam and especially about Shi’a Islam, and furthermore he is co editor for the magazine Die Welt des Orients. Firstly this article will give a short presentation of the book’s structure and a summary of its contents. Further on, it will compare the work with Jonathan Berkey’s The Formation of Islam and Ervand Abrahamian’s Khomeinism: Essays of the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to examine different approaches and interpretations of various issues covered by all three works. Successively the article will focus on the methodology, the use of sources and the style of Shi’a Islam and it will conclude with some criticism and suggestions for further reading in this field.

The study Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution is divided in three main parts; the first portrays the early history of Islam and the origins of Shi’ism until the occultation of the twelfth Imam in 873, 874 C.E. The chapters are structured, for the most part, chronologically and they provide an overview of the earliest tensions in the Muslim community and the origins of the Shi’a. Furthermore it describes the line of the eleven known Imams, their respective particularities and the circumstances they had to deal with, and in turn their significance for Shi’ism. Beyond it, the author illustrates some basic concepts of Shi’ism, such as the meaning of the tragedy of Karbala- the “climax of a divine plan of salvation”, and its connection to the concept of guilt in Shi’ism.[1] The author uses on several occasions comparisons to Christianity in order to illustrate similarities or differences and to clarify his arguments. This section ends with the notion of the return of the Mahdi and its meaning, especially for Twelver Shi’ites.

The second part begins with a link to the “central point in [the Shia] belief”, the Ashura Ritual; Halm explains extensively its significance and history by means of quotations of European Reports about the celebrations.[2] He proceeds to describing single parts and characteristics of the Ashura celebrations, as the Elegy and the passion play. Since Halm’s study later deals with a contemporary topic as well, he constantly compares the earlier version of these religious performances and their subsequent development with the political sphere, as well as with the very actuality. Halm describes for instance how “the Persian passion play suffered a hard blow when it was prohibited by the first Pahlavi ruler…” and that it never “regained the significance it once had in Iran.”[3] The last chapter of the second part examines chest beating and flagellants connected to their religious significance and the rules applying to it.

The last and by far the most bulkiest section of the book covers many important concepts of Shi’ism continuing where the first section left off. The two initial chapters of this part illustrate the consequences of the absence of the Imam, as the emergence of the Ulama, its evolution and dealings with the challenging situation. In this context the author chiefly focuses on the aspects of power and authority. Further on he points out the Imam’s money, the “Fifth”. The remaining chapters follow the course of history, starting with the ‘Iranian Intermezzo’ or “Shi’i century”.[4] Halm illustrates the achievements made in this period and later, under the Buyid rule in Iran. Indeed, the foundation of Shi’i law is located in this period. In chapter five he presents the reign of the Seljuks and the following Mongols and their impact on Iranian’s religious life. In order to describe the emergence of the Shi’i Clergy, which occurred in the 16th century during the domination of the Safavids, Halm explains preliminary the fundamental concept of ijtihad (“legal ruling based on rational considerations”), mujtahid (the one who exercise it) and taqlid (“imitation, sujection to an authority”).[5] After the establishment of the Ulama as a class, the author describes the since then existing rivalry between the monarchy and the clergy, which sometimes decreased to phases of cooperation, while at other times increased to real tensions. In the new center of al-Hilla emerged two opposing schools, the traditionalist (Akhabri School) and the rationalist (Usuli School), which eventually prevailed.

Halm discusses the 19th century and arrives to the Iranian struggle against the West, which eventually enabled the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He points out the reasons and alliances during the Constitutional revolution of 1906 and explains using Qom as an example, the factors which rendered possible the enormous power and independence of the Ulama, and subsequently, the revolution of 1979. Beyond it, Halm analyses Shi’ism’s revolutionary characteristics and introduces different modern Muslim thinkers. Certainly this context could not ignore the figure of Khomeini, whose intellectual development and position Halm examines carefully. He describes briefly the events which led to the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath, with Khomeini as the leader and the new Constitution which was reviewed at the time of Khomeini’s death in 1989. The work closes with a description of approaches to Iran, from different angles of the Middle East.


[1] Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, (Princeton: Princeton Series on the Middle East, 1994), 16.

[2] Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, 16.

[3] Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, 78.

[4] Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, 96.

[5] Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution, 102, 120.


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Book Review Shi’a Islam From Religion Revolution Heinz Halm



Title: Book Review of "Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution" by Heinz Halm