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date: 18 April 2024

Shi‘i Communities and Networks in North Americalocked

Shi‘i Communities and Networks in North Americalocked

  • Liyakat TakimLiyakat TakimDepartment of Religious Studies, McMaster University

Summary

The need for a centralized leadership (called marja‘iyya) that could furnish the religious, social, and financial demands of the Shi‘i community first emerged in the late 19th century. With time, the marja‘iyya has evolved into an institution that has engendered a sense of affinity and loyalty between a marja‘ (religious guide) and his followers. In recent times, the maraji‘ have sensed the need to provide for the social and religious needs of the community in the North American diaspora. Consequently, the maraji‘ have reached out to their followers in the West through social media, the Internet, and other modes of communication that propagate their distinctive teachings.

The presence of followers in North America has also required the maraji‘ to deduce new rulings and, at times, to reinterpret the Islamic sources in order to respond to religious issues raised by the Shi‘is residing in a non-Muslim milieu. The maraji‘ exert influence in far-flung areas through agents who act as their intermediaries with the laity. It is through the networks established, whether in the religious, political, or social fields, that they are able to connect with their followers.

The transnational nature of Shi‘ism means that the community encompasses different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The ethnicity of a group is contingent on the beliefs and practices that distinguish it from the dominant culture. Other distinguishing factors include language, distinctive clothing and other products, acceptable demeanor, and attachment to the ethnic community. Ethnic markers of a community become visible as more people migrate from their home countries and the processes of self-identification, self-differentiation, and separation from others begin to express themselves. Boundaries of separation are constructed and expressed in many ways, especially in the form of institutions based on ethnic considerations. In the diaspora, Shi‘i communities often fragment based on their homeland culture.

Since the events of September 2001, some community members in North America have established privately run national organizations. The Universal Muslim Association of America (UMAA), which was founded in 2003, holds annual conferences and seeks to foster unity within the Shi‘i community. Among UMAA’s stated aims are to encourage dialogue among North American Shi‘i Muslims. UMAA also seeks to advance the community’s political, social, economic, and religious goals and participate in civic responsibilities.

Another important North American Shi‘i institution is the Muslim Congress. It was established in 2005, and, according to its website, it aims to promote and propagate “the true teachings of Islam as guided by the Holy Prophet and his purified progeny.”

Existence in North America has compelled the Shi‘i community to seek a proper response to the new pluralistic environment. Globalization and improved modes of communications have led the maraji‘ to play active roles in North America. Due to the social media and advanced technology, the religious leadership is able to permeate the lives of American Shi‘is more closely.

Subjects

  • Islamic Studies
  • Religion in America

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