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 For enquiries about the conference, contact Prof Oliver Scharbrodt ( 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

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.

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.

Sofia, Bulgaria