Shirazis and the journey of distinction in knowledge

Hassan Al Mustafa

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Around half a century ago, Sheikh Saeed Abu Al-Makarem —one of the most famous Shiite preachers in Saudi Arabia, who owns one of the most well-endowed personal libraries rich with manuscripts in the eastern region — visited Karbala in Iraq where the Imam Hussain Bin Ali’s shrine is.

As is customary, he visited religious references and teachers of religious ‘hawzat’ (seminaries) including Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi.

It’s also a custom that when someone visits religious scholars from outside the city, the latter repay the visit. This is what happened. Sayyid Shirazi and some dignitaries visited Sheikh Makarem where he was staying and gifted him books.

We can notice that a number of important intellectual magazines which enriched the Islamic arena were supervised by Shiite Saudis who tried to “present an open and new cultural discourse that’s isolated on the sectarian level and that communicates with others, strengthens the values of pluralism and respects differences between different sectarian and intellectual components”

Hassan Al Mustafa

Passion for books

When someone carrying a book visited Sayyid Shirazi, he used to see it. If he hadn’t read the book and it interested him, he’d ask to borrow it and return it the next day.

According to Sheikh Ahmad al-Kateb, Sayyid Shirazi became interested in books at an early stage, and he passed this passion on to his followers and organizations that were under his authority. Kateb said that the Risali Movement’s interest in writing and publication has increased since the 1960’s.

However, he said the flaw was that they were “shallow” and “lacked depth.” He thinks this was due to “lack of accuracy in research and settling with public culture.” These writings were distinguished and preceded publications of many Islamic movements during that phase; however these flaws made researchers interested in the Islamic experience lose interest in these works because they failed to develop their thinking mechanism and did not keep up with what’s new in science and philosophy and other modern fields.

Intellectual distinction

Al-Zahraa Hussainieh in Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood in Damascus countryside, which was affiliated with the Reform Movement led by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar before he returned to Saudi Arabia, had a library on its second floor that contained plenty of important books about different topics. It not only contained Islamic publications but also books by nationalist, secular and leftist authors and intellectuals; thus becoming an attraction to people although small.

One of those who supervised the library was Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa. I used to see him there and discuss different topics or read books. We’d also sit with some friends and religious sciences’ students to engage in untraditional debates without any restraints or intimidation.

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Sheikh al-Jumayaa used to visit Beirut where he assumed cultural responsibilities since 1993 – responsibilities pertaining to printing books of some Reform Movement symbols and supervising its cultural magazines.

Al-Jumayaa visited publication houses like Dar al Saqi, Riad El-Rayyes books, Arab Cultural Center, Arab Diffusion Company, Almahajja Publication and others. This helped him form friendships with publishers, intellectuals and journalists with different intellectual and political views.

These were personal relations but they expressed a “cultural distinction” and “intellectual openness” of the Shirazi Movement of the Arabian Peninsula. It thus had its own vision as it became aware of the significance of culture and critique before other organizations that follow the reference of Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi. Its reflection on the wider supporters of the movement remained limited on the level of criticizing religious rhetoric but it was much clearer in terms of social and cultural openness.

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Thus, we can notice that a number of important intellectual magazines which enriched the Islamic arena were supervised by Shiite Saudis who tried to “present an open and new cultural discourse that’s isolated on the sectarian level and that communicates with others, strengthens the values of pluralism and respects differences between different sectarian and intellectual components,” as they put it.

Most important publications

Intellectual and jurisprudential magazines represent a sign of the development of knowledge of religious scholars and intellectuals that belong to the Shirazi Movement or who defected from it. Although some of these publications remained within the circle of “Islamic intellect” and did not lead to adopting a civil liberal rhetoric, they contributed to pushing the approach of raising questions one step forward.

There are several magazines. Some are still published while others are not. Here are some of the most prominent ones.

1.Al-Kalima Magazine: A quarterly publication which first issue was in the fall of 1993. It’s supervised by prominent Saudi intellectuals Zaki al-Milad as its editor-in-chief and Mohammed Mahfouz as its managing editor. The magazine tackles intellectual affairs and the development of the Islamic rhetoric.

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In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya, Mahfouz noted that there was a concept that Gulf societies cannot produce an intellectual magazine. “However we proved through this experience that the Gulf elite are like other Arab elite and are capable of producing a special magazine,” he said.

“After the liberation of Kuwait, the Arab region entered a new phase that requires institutional cultural activity that’s capable of crystallizing intellectual alternatives that solidify the values of dialogue and tolerance in Arab countries. The magazine aims to develop the idea of accepting differences and pluralism. The magazine has managed to solidify this over the duration of 20 years.”

This is why the magazine’s consultative committee consists of figures who belong to different movements and sects. Its writers come from different countries and their ideas sometimes conflict with those of others. They include Radwan al-Sayed, Hassan Hanfy, Mohammed Sabila, Taha Abdelrahman, Abdelhadi al-Fadly and Mohammed Fathy Othman. “We thus have readers from the Gulf, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and other Arab countries,” he added.

2. Al-Waha Magazine: It’s a quarterly publication that was issued in 1995. Its editor-in-chief was Dr. Hamza al-Hassan but he did not resume his job following political disputes with Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar and after leaving Saudi Arabia to the UK. Mohammed al-Nimr became the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

The magazine which was concerned about the legacy and history of the eastern region in particular and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general stopped publishing issues in 2015 after publishing 66 issues.

3.Al-Sahel Magazine. It’s a quarterly magazine which was first published in the winter of 2007. Its editor-in-chief is Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa. The magazine has published 37 issues so far. It addresses topics related to history, legacy and literature and focuses on the eastern region and the Gulf.

In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya, Jumayaa said: “The new generation in the Arab Gulf lacks knowledge in their region’s history and legacy which makes youth lose a part of their memory, as if they’re born without a cultural and social context formed by their fathers and grandfathers. (This encouraged us to publish) a magazine that addresses an eliminated and marginalized history that’s not looked after.”

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He added that this magazine “complements the scene of cultural diversity in the new Saudi Arabia which we want to present to readers and intellectuals and (educate them) about its history and experiences and not (depict the country) as a country that only knows how to produce oil, as marketed by conceited people.”

Jumayaa added “Al-Sahel’s writers come from different Saudi cities. It presents history without any bias to a certain category as it is part of our job to enhance the concept of research away from the idea of cultural or sectarian quotas.”

4. Al-Faqaha Magazine. It’s a quarterly magazine. The first issue was published in the winter of 2006. Its editor-in-chief was Sheikh Jaafar al-Banawi who hails from Al-Awamiyah, east of Saudi Arabia.

It tackled jurisprudential topics and the development of sharia provisions to suit the modern era developments. The magazine’s last issue was in 2014 after having published 30 issues.

5. Al-Basa’ir Magazine. It’s a quarterly magazine which first issue was published in April 1984 by the Islamic Research and Studies’ Center in Hawza of Imam al-Qaim in Tehran.

The magazine tackled cultural and Islamic intellectual issues and represented a framework for the ideas of the movement of Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi. Its editors-in-chief included Sayyid Abbas al-Modarresi, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Milad, Sheikh Zakaria al-Daoud and Sayyid Jaafar al-Alawi. Three of its editors-in-chief were Shiite Saudis. Its last issue was in 2015 after having published 51 issues.

6.Al-Naba Magazine. It is a monthly magazine which first issue was in 1995. Its editors-in-chief include Murtada Maash and Ali Abdelrida al-Rumaithi.

The magazine’s print edition was suspended and a website was launched few years ago. Al-Naba publishes articles and analyses on various topics and news that express the intellectual and cultural framework of the reference of late Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi. It also tackles cultural and ethicaltopics.

These publications – despite the failure of some and success of others – have been on a journey that seeks to be intellectually different from competing religious movements and references. Most of these magazines are no longer issued especially that many of them had limited ideas or could not develop a modern rhetoric that presents a perception of life and religion that’s convincing to the new generations.

Traditional clerics’ populist culture remained more influential on the public than the ideas proposed by those in charge of these magazines. This is why a number of active figures in the Shirazi Movement headed towards using modern technology, specifically satellite television channels to convey their ideas. This is what I will discuss next time, the reason behind the increase of religious satellite television channels which the Shirazis supervise and the extent of their influence on Shiite.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.