Sunday, May 19, 2024

New book on Shi’i Traditionalists in Italy

A new book has just been published on Shi’i Traditionalists in Italy. It is Crises and Conversions: The Unlikely Avenues of “Italian Shiism”, by Minoo Mirshahvalad, available here.

The book has three sections, though they are not explicitly identified as such. The first section introduces Evolian Traditionalism, paying especial attention to Evola’s views on Islam. The second tells the almost unknown story of the rise and flourishing of Shi’i Traditionalism, and the third looks at various issues and contradictions arising from this.

The book is based on careful readings of relevant texts and on high-quality ethnographic fieldwork, and is beautifully written, with an excellent eye for revealing detail.

The rise of Shi’i Traditionalism in Italy starts with Pio Filippani-Ronconi (1920-2010), an Italian Orientalist who integrated Julius Evola and the very pro-Iranian views of the great French Orientalist Henry Corbin. Having first read Evola in 1934, Filippani-Ronconi remained true to his principals throughout his life, including a period serving in the Waffen-SS, where he reached the rank of Obersturmführer (second lieutenant). But it as a pro-Shi’i Orientalist, not as an SS officer, that he matters. Mirshahvalad also discusses the early roles of Adriano Romualdi (1940-1973), the son of Pino Romualdi (1913-1988), the leader of the MSI, Italy’s largest and most important Neo-Fascist movement, and of Claudio Mutti (born 1946), who is already known to students of Italian Traditionalism.

For the flourishing of Shi’i Traditionalism, Mirshahvalad introduces us to three Italian organizations, the Ahl al-Bayt Association in Naples, the Dimore della Sapienza (houses of wisdom, DDS) in Rome, and the lower-profile Tarsis in Trieste. The Ahl al-Bayt Association was founded by Luigi Ammar de Martino (1964-2019), who as a young man belonged to the Evolian activist (and terrorist) group Ordine Nuovo, converted to Sunni Islam in 1982, and then to Shi’i Islam in 1983, one of many in Italy to follow this pattern, which can be seen as representing a shift from the more standard Guénonian position to a less standard position based on a specifically Italian reading of Evola.

Beyond these three organizations there is also a more general sympathy with Iranian Shi’ism on the Italian Right represented, for example, by the production by members of CasaPound, perhaps Italy’s highest profile Far Right group, of posters commemorating the death of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, assassinated by an American drone in 2020.

The third part of the book, as has been said, looks at various issues and contradictions arising from the sometimes uncomfortable alliance of Evola, Shi’ism, and the Iranian state. Mirshahvalad starts with culture, which she describes as “the Achilles’ heel” of the Shi’i Traditionalists, and Traditionalists in general. This issue has been dealt with by other scholars before, but never quite as directly and as clearly as by Mirshahvalad. Esra Özyürek, for example, wrote in 2014 of the ambivalent relations between German converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims in Germany. The point that Mirshahvalad makes is that for both Guénon and Evola, what mattered was the tradition, and culture was a human creation, not part of the tradition. But of course whatever Guénon and Evola thought, scholars of religion know that religion and culture are interwoven. the Shi’i Traditionalists generally try to keep religion and culture separate: “Converts’ Shiism is not a family heritage but an attempt for crafting a shield against modernity. This shield is fabricated independently from Shi’ism in its original contexts.” But it is not always so easy. “My wife is Iranian … but we are not Iranians, we are Italians,” one informant told Mirshahvalad. One wonders.

A number of other issues are considered, including the way that Shi’i Traditionalists often ignore central features of Iranian Shi’ism, from gender segregation to the all-important institutions of the marjiʿ  and the hawza, the foundations of Iranian Islamic authority and among the most important things that make Shi’i Islam different from Sunni Islam in the first place. An equally important question that is discussed is the way in which the view that Shi’i Traditionalists have of Iran differs in many ways from the view that most Iranians now have, a view which binds them tightly to the ever more discredited conservative leadership. There is also a brief but convincing discussion of what the Iranian state and leadership gain from their relationship with Italy’s Shi’i Traditionalists

All in all, a fascinating book, strongly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I personally do not agree with Professor Minoo Mirshahvalad's theses: in the ideological field if A = B and B=C not always A=C. In other words, associating with specific individuals is not equivalent to identifying with them.

Ezio Albrile

Anonymous said...

Un lavoro sociologico e storico che descrive i percorsi personali dei “convertiti” italiani allo sciismo. Una tesi un po’ stretta li accomuna tutti e li chiude nel 'recinto' dell'estrema destra italiana, per metterli in rapporto poi con le realtà istituzionali della Repubblica Islamica dell'Iran. Nel corso dell'opera però lo sguardo sensibile dell’autrice iraniana compensa questa forzatura includendo opportune considerazioni di ordine filosofico e dottrinale che rendono il libro, a una lettura attenta, più equilibrato, senza però evitare che esso sia facile preda di chi mira a "far d'ogni erba un fascio", depauperando il lato spirituale della scelta degli sciiti italiani, che d'altra parte non può essere limitata solo alla 'cultura tradizionalista' che li tiene legati.
Igor Damiani - Trieste
A sociological and historical work that describes the personal paths of Italian 'converts' to Shiism. A rather narrow thesis unites them all and confines them within the 'enclosure' of the extreme right in Italy, only to relate them to the institutional realities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, during the course of the work, the sensitive gaze of the Iranian author compensates for this forced constriction by including appropriate philosophical and doctrinal considerations that render the book more balanced when read attentively, without avoiding the risk that it may become an easy prey for those who seek to 'bundle everything together', thereby draining the spiritual aspect of the Italian Shiites' choice, which cannot be limited solely to the 'traditionalist culture' that binds them.
Igor Damiani - Trieste

Anonymous said...