The New Lebanon and the Making of Modern Shi'i Citizens

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Scottsdale Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Linda Sayed, Columbia University

With the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, the Shi’as found themselves under the French mandatory authority and within the boundaries of a newly established Lebanese nation-state. Along with this came the first “colonial” institutions to recognize the Shi’as as a legitimate political and legal sect in the new nation-state.  The Ja’fari sect was official recognized for the first time by the newly formed nation-state in 1926.  Prior to this, the Shi’as were never recognized as a separate group or sect, and remained somewhat as a minority in the political landscape of the area. With the official state recognition and inclusion of the Shi’as into the government, the first Ja’fari shari’a courts to administer Shi’i personal status law were instituted. The establishment of personal status law, which was ultimately authorized and protected by the state, allowed the Shi’as to carve out a sectarian legal identity; yet how were these state-endorsed shari’a courts received? Were these colonial establishments accepted, or were they seen as an appendage of the French authority? Did the Shi’as regard this as an opportunity for political recognition or a form of colonial collaboration?

This paper will examine the Shi’i press and cultural production during the 1920s and 1930s to examine how the creation of this foundational institution was received.  Various debates among leading religious scholars and intellectuals transpired over the creation and legitimacy of the Ja’fari shari’a courts during this transitional period as the Lebanese Shi’as struggled to situate their place in society as Arabs and Lebanese while simultaneously fighting for their rights as a sectarian entity within this new nation-state.  By examining these debates as well as the first cases that came before the Ja’fari shari’a court this paper shows how these colonial institutions eventually contributed to the perpetuation of Lebanese Shi’i sectarian cohesiveness and collective identity.

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