In This Review

The Shi'is of Iraq
The Shi'is of Iraq
By Yitzhak Nakash
Princeton University Press, 1994, 312 pp.

This is a superb study of Iraq's Shia majority. Based on remarkable scholarship, the book brings to life a whole political community that has often been seen as a mere appendage of the larger Shia population in Iran. How far from the truth this misperception is can be seen in each of the well-researched chapters.

Only in the nineteenth century did the Arab tribes of southern Iraq become Shia. Their religious identity did not displace their strong identity as Arabs, and many of the rituals they adopted were modified to reflect their own values and customs. With the rise of the modern state in the twentieth century, Iraqi Shias sought independence as Iraqis, and barriers grew up between them and their coreligionists in Iran. Unable to translate their numerical advantage into political power, the Iraqi Shias nevertheless identified with the state. During the long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, most of the Iraqi army consisted of Shias. When the Shia did rise up against Saddam Hussein in early 1991, with encouragement from President George Bush, they did so to oust a detested regime, not to form a separate Iraqi Shia state.

If only these conclusions had been understood by the Bush administration as well as the gulf Arabs in early 1991 there might have been less reluctance to support the popular revolt that could have rid Iraq of the worst government in its modern history. At the same time, this study is a potent reminder of the power of the modern state to shape and control even such basic social phenomena as religious identity and its expression. The debut of this Middle East historian is a great success and shows much promise for the future.