Our Team

Oliver Scharbrodt

Prof Oliver Scharbrodt

Oliver Scharbrodt is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research expertise covers the intellectual history of modern Islam, Muslim minorities in Europe and the historical, discursive and social formations of transnational networks within modern and contemporary Islam, with a particular focus on Twelver Shia Islam. He is the principal investigator of the AlterUmma project.

Christopher Pooya Razavian

Dr Christopher Pooya Razavian

Christopher Pooya Razavian's research is focused on the relationship between tradition and modernity in Islam. He has spent many years in Iran, at both the Islamic Seminary and the University of Tehran. He received his PhD from the University of Exeter under the supervision of Prof Sajjad Rizvi. For the AlterUmma project, his research is focused on Morteza Motahhari's concept of social justice.

Oula Kadhum

Dr Oula Kadhum

Oula Kadhum's research explores Middle Eastern politics and society from a transnational perspective, with a focus on diasporic communities. Her doctoral thesis at the University of Warwick compared the UK and Swedish diaspora's involvement in state building during intervention, occupation and following the country's first democratic elections. Currently, she is exploring Iraqi Shia transnational mobilisation in the UK as part of the AlterUmma project. @OulaKadhum

Yousif Al-Hilli

Yousif Al-Hilli

Yousif Al-Hilli graduated with an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS and a BSc in Politics and Sociology from Brunel University. His research interests include informality within political and religious institutions, and the role of religion within states in the Middle East. He is currently working as part of the AlterUmma project to investigate the ways in which the clerical establishment in Iraq have positioned themselves post-2003.

Fouad Gehad Marei

Dr Fouad Gehad Marei

Fouad Gehad Marei is a Research Associate at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. His research focuses on Muslim religiosities, piety, Shii politics, Islamic eschatology, sectarianism and jihadism as well as on state-society relations, and governance. He has research experience in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and is particularly interested in conflict and post-conflict dynamics.

Nada Al-Hudaid

Dr Nada Al-Hudaid

Nada Al-Hudaid researches Shia religious art in the Middle East and how art is employed in the service (khidmah) of Ahl Al-Bayt. Her PhD thesis at the University of Manchester explored the materiality of Shia art among pious women in Kuwait and what role art plays in the lives of these women. For the Ulterumma project, she will focus on the materiality of dreams and miracles in contemporary Shii art. @Nadabdulla

Stefan Williamson Fa

Dr Stefan Williamson Fa

Stefan Williamson Fa is an anthropologist specialising in sensory and material approaches to the study of religion. He has conducted extensive research in Turkey, the Caucasus and Iran as well as in his home region of Gibraltar and Andalusia. Stefan received a PhD in Social Anthropology from University College London in 2019 and is currently working on a manuscript and ethnographic film based on this research tentatively titled "Resounding Love for the Household of the Prophet".


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Sound and Voice in Contemporary Twelver Shi’i Islam


Organized by: The Alterumma project at the University of Birmingham

Thursday 27th - Friday 28th May 2021 - 14:00 - 17:00 (GMT+1)
To register and attend please email: s.j.williamsonfa@bham.ac.uk

This international workshop held online brings together new scholarship within anthropology, ethnomusicology and religious studies on sound and voice in Twelver Shi'i Islam.

Despite the growing body of work on sound and Islam, little attention so far has been paid to sound in Shi'i Islam. Within Shi'i communities, the central and shared sounds of the recitation of the Quran and the adhan exist amongst additional forms of vocalised sonic expression. A vast range of supplications, laments and chants of praise and celebratory poetry are central to Shi'i devotion to Ahl al-Bayt, the Family of the Prophet. Within Twelver Shi'ism there is a surprising consistency in content and form of these genres worldwide. Yet, a huge diversity in style correlates with the wide geographic distributions of these communities.

Bringing together ethnographically-grounded contributions from the Middle East and South Asia, this workshop aims to consolidate current research on sound and voice in contemporary Twelver Shi'i Islam. In thinking about the politics and aesthetics of sound in these diverse settings we ask the question, how does Shi'ism sound? What parallels and divergences exist between the way sound is mobilised and engaged with in Shi'ism and in other Islamic pathways? How does sound mediate across social, political and conceptual boundaries- between communal groups in the public sphere, the secular and sacred, 'this-world' and the 'other-worldly'? What are the distinct aesthetic qualities of Shi'i devotion and how do they relate to poetics, theology, politics and society? Approaching the study of Shi'ism from a sonic perspective presents new ways of thinking about key issues such as transnationalism, cultural production and socio-political activism whilst further contributing to wider efforts to understand religion materially and sensorially.


Epsita Halder, Jadavpur University
Nabeel Jafri, University of Toronto
Timothy Cooper, University of Cambridge
Joseph Alagha, Haigazian University
Hamidreza Salehyar, University of Toronto
Maryam Aras, University of Bonn
Stefan Williamson-Fa, University of Birmingham

Location: Online

Call for Papers: Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Authority in Twelver Shia Islam: Clerics and the State, Past and Present


Organized by: The Alterumma project at the University of Birmingham

A University of Birmingham Conference at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) Berlin 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

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@contacts.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.

Timeline: Deadline for abstract submission: 15 March 2020 Notification of acceptance: 3 April 2020 Dates of the conference: 10-11 September 2020

Location: Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) Berlin

Diversifying Research on the Arab World


Organized by: Arab Week in Mexico 2019

Panels at Ninth Arab Week in Mexico City, 19-26 November 2019. Members of the AlterUmma project participated at the Ninth Arab Week in Mexico City running two panels that aimed at diversifying research on the Arab world by discussing dynamics and developments in contemporary Arab Twelver Shiism. One panel investigated the aesthetics of Shia religious culture and included papers on different examples of Shia materiality such as religious paintings and the role of objects associated with important political and clerical figures in contemporary Twelver Shiism. Other papers discussed contestations around Shia ritual practices and theorised Shia aesthetic productions on a more general level. The second panel focussed on Twelver Shiism in Iraq including both local and transnational perspectives. Papers investigated the rise of Shia Islamist thought in Iraq, the role of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraqi politics and his engagement with the international community since 2003 and the role of transnational diasporic networks in shaping Iraqi political, religious and civic activism.

Location: Mexico City


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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society logo

Divine Sovereignty and Clerical Authority in Early Shi‘i Islamism: Bāqir al-Ṣadr (1935–80) and Taqī al-Mudarrisī (b. 1945) on the Islamic State

Author/s: Oliver Scharbrodt

Description: Divine sovereignty (ḥākimiyya)—as conceived by Abū al-A‘lā Mawdūdī (1903–79) and popularised by Sayyid Quṭb (1906–66) - has been a central component of Islamist thought. This article investigates the reception of the concept within Shi‘i Islam. As case studies, the article choses two prominent actors in the formative period of Shi‘i Islamism in Iraq: Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr (1935–80) and Muḥammad Taqī al-Mudarrisī (b. 1945). By discussing their reflections on the nature of an Islamic state, the article pursues three objectives: first, it overcomes a trend in academic scholarship that disregards Sunni influences on the development of Shi‘i Islamism. Second, the article highlights the role that the Iraqi Shi‘i intellectual milieu played in incorporating key Islamist concepts into Shi‘i political thought. Finally, the article demonstrates the different receptions of ḥākimiyya. Bāqir al-Ṣadr uses the ideological repertoire of Islamism to explore in pragmatic terms the parameters that define the state as Islamically legitimate. In contrast, Taqī al-Mudarrisī uses ḥākimiyya to redefine the sovereignty of the state in Islamic terms. He operationalises the concept in a Shi‘i context by arguing that the state must be led by a just jurisconsult (al-faqīh al-‘ādil) who becomes the sole agent of divine sovereignty in the state.

ISBN: 1474-0591

Published: May 24, 2021

Organized by: https://www.doi.org/10.1017/S1356186321000304

Atlantic Council

Iraqi diaspora mobilization and the future development of Iraq

Author/s: Oula Kadhum

Description: Iraqi diaspora mobilization and the future development of Iraq – authored by Dr. Oula Kadhum, explores Iraqi diaspora mobilization before and after the 2003 invasion and fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. It looks at the ways members of the diaspora sought to help in the rebuilding of their country of origin, at both the elite and grassroots levels, as well as investigating changes over time. Importantly, it analyses the obstacles that have hindered diaspora mobilization since 2003 and argues that the Iraqi diaspora is a valuable, yet largely untapped resource for Iraq.

British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

Collective hawza leadership in a time of crisis: the period of marajeʿ thalath (1937–1953)

Author/s: Dr. Mohammad Mesbahi

Description: The intention behind this article is twofold. Firstly, it aims at reviewing the political settings that lead to the second phase (1937–1953) in the formation of the hawza leadership, often ignored by scholars. This period follows the death of the founder of the hawza ʿilmiyya of Qum, Ayatollah ʿAbd al-Karim Haʾeri in 1937, and precedes the 1953 CIA sponsored coup d’état, and includes the appointment of Ayatollah Husayn Borujerdi as the leader of the modern hawza. Secondly, the article assesses the leadership style of the triumvirate of Shiʿa jurists known as marajeʿ thalath, who managed to firmly consolidate the modern hawza of Qum despite the secularizing policies of the Pahlavis which aimed at eliminating the religious sector from the Iranian political scene. In order to understand the course of subsequent developments of the religious establishments and Shiʿi scholars in their attainment of power and influence in Iran in the course of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it is crucial to investigate the developments during this period. This paper is the first study that draws on a range of primary sources not consulted before to research the political and social contributions of the triumvirate during the period of 1937–1953.

ISBN: 1469-3542

Published: Feb. 23, 2021

Organized by: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13530194.2021.1886657