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 School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. His research focuses on Muslim religiosities and pieties, sectarianism, pan-Shi'i politics, and insurgency and rebel governance. Fouad's work has focused on Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, with a particular interest in conflict and post-conflict dynamics and translocal entanglements.

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 Shia 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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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

Where Politics and Temporality meet; Shi'a political transnationalism over time and its relationship to the Iraqi state Paper entitled, ‘Where Politics and Temporality meet; Shi’a political transnationalism over time and its relationship to the Iraqi state’ presented at the European International Studies Association, Sofia, Bulgaria 11-14 September 2019


Organized by: European International Studies Assocation

Paper submitted by Dr. Oula Kadhum at the European International Studies Association. How do we explain change in political transnationalism over time? In what way does this change affect diasporic identities? And how does this change alter the relationship and power of diasporic actors towards their homeland states? This paper addresses these questions in relation to Iraqi Shi’a political transnationalism between London and Iraq pre and post-2003. I argue that the confluence of political opportunity structures and temporality have shaped Shi’a transnational practices. As political events in Iraq unfolded over time, Shi’a diaspora mobilisation patterns have changed in line with political opportunities/threats in the homeland structural context. Simultaneously, stressing the agency of actors, the temporal contexts of each period emphasised different Shi’a identities due to the interpretation of time by diasporic actors. Consequently as opportunities and temporalities shifted, political transnationalism towards Iraq also changed empowering different actors and causes. This relationship previously marked by a long-distance nationalism (Anderson, 1992), has evolved to a transnationalism rooted in different ontologies. Observing Shi’a political transnationalism over time reveals the changing actors, shifting power dynamics, transnational identity politics and the relationship between Shi’a diasporic actors and the Iraqi state.

Location: Sofia, Bulgaria


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Die Welt des Islams

Khomeini and Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī: Revisiting the Origins of the “Guardianship of the Jurisconsult” (wilāyat al-faqīh)

Author/s: Oliver Scharbrodt

Description: This article revisits the origins of Khomeini’s concept of the guardianship of the jurisconsult (wilāyat al-faqīh) and argues that his own formulation of this concept needs to be embedded in debates around the clerical mandate in the state among clerical activists in Iraq he encountered during his exile. Focus will be on the so-called Shīrāzī network around the brothers Muḥammad (1928-2001), Ḥasan (1927-80) and Ṣādiq al-Shīrāzī (b. 1942) and their nephew Muḥammad Taqī al-Mudarrisī (b. 1945) The article discusses the close relationship between Khomeini and Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī and the important role the religio-political networks associated with the Shīrāzī brothers played in early post-revolutionary Iran. A detailed discussion of the writings of the Shīrāzī brothers and Taqī al-Mudarrisī, written between 1960 and 1970, is undertaken to illustrate that debates around wilāyat al-faqīh among Iraqi clerical activists preceded Khomeini’s own lectures on the concept in Najaf in 1970.

World Arts Journal Volume 10

Karamah (‘marvel’): an exploration of the literal and ethnographic meaning of miracles among Shi`a female artists in Kuwait

Author/s: Nada Al-Hudaid

Description: This position paper examines new forms of painted artworks made by pious Shi`a female artists in Kuwait, which treat imagery and experience known as Karamah (sing.) and Karamat (pl.), commonly understood as ‘miracle'. I examine current anthropological considerations of ‘miracle' and I find that the most suitable translation of the Arabic word Karamah may be ‘marvel', rather than ‘miracle', although how Shi`a use and understand ‘Karamah' may differ regionally. Fieldwork interviews and ethnography reveal that the paintings objectify the relationship between people and the family members of the Prophet Mohammed known as Ahl Al-Bayt. I argue that the new forms and, increasingly, exhibitions comprise important forms of ‘service’ dedicated to Ahl Al-Bayt.

Unpacking the role of religion in political transnationalism: the case of the Shi'a Iraqi diaspora since 2003

Author/s: Oula Kadhum

Description: This article explores the role of religion in political transnationalism using the case of the Shi'a Iraqi diaspora since 2003. The article focuses on three areas that capture important trends in Shi'a transnationalism and their implications for transnational Shi'a identity politics. These include Shi'a diasporic politics, transnational Shi'a civic activism, and the cultural production of Iraqi Shi'a identity through pilgrimages, rituals and new practices. It is argued that understanding Shi'a Islam and identity formation requires adopting a transnational lens. The evolution of Shi'a Islam is not only a result of the dictates of the Shi'a clerical centres, and how they influence Shi'a populations abroad, but also the transnational interrelationships and links to holy shrine cities, Shi'i national and international politics, humanitarianism and commemorations and rituals. The article demonstrates that Shi'a political transnationalism is unexceptional in that it echoes much of the literature on diasporic politics and development where diaspora involve themselves from afar in the politics and societies of their countries of origin. At the same time, it shows the exceptionalism of Shi'a diasporic movements, in that their motivations and mobilizations are contributing to the reification of sectarian geographical and social borders, creating a transnationalism that is defined by largely Shi'a networks, spaces, actors and causes. The case of Shi'a political transnationalism towards Iraq shows that this is increasing the distance between Shi'is and Iraq's other communities, simultaneously fragmenting Iraq's national unity while deepening Shi'a identity and politics both nationally and supra-nationally.

ISBN: 1117777

Published: March 2, 2020

Organized by: https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/96/2/305/5775737