Nakash, Yitzhak 1958-

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Nakash, Yitzhak 1958-


Born February 10, 1958.


Office—Brandeis University, 415 South St., Mailstop 054, Waltham, MA 02454. E-mail—[email protected].


Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Carnegie council scholar.


Residential fellowship, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars; member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; grant, U.S. Institute of Peace.


The Shi'is of Iraq, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1994, 2nd edition published as The Shi'is of Iraq: With a New Introduction by the Author, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2003.

Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2006.


Brandeis University professor Yitzhak Nakash's book The Shi'is of Iraq is "one of the best books on modern Iraq to appear for some time," according to Charles M. Brown on Humanities and Social Sciences Online. "Describing the Shii community from different religious, socio-economic, political and cultural angles," wrote Ofra Bengio in Middle Eastern Studies, "Nakash grapples with fundamental questions which are also relevant to Iraq today: what were the political aspirations of the Shiis; how is it that in spite of their numerical majority they remained, by and large, a political minority with little influence on the politics of the central government; what was the connection between this phenomenon and their socio-economic status in Iraq; what were the relationships between the Shiis of Iraq and those of Iran and what accounted for the differences between them?" Even though the book ends with the Iraqi revolution of 1958, it sets the stage for understanding the conflict that threatens to tear post-Ba'athist Iraq apart. The ongoing struggle, Nakash told an interviewer for the Princeton University Press, "is a war about the nature of governance and leadership in Islam, about the relations between Islam and modernity, and about the meaning of democracy. The outcome of this war of ideas within Islam—which is not confined to Iraq and the Middle East—will have a profound impact on Muslims and on the relations between Muslim and Western societies in the twenty-first century."

Nakash tries to explain how Iraqi Shi'is differ from Shi'is in Iran, with an eye toward understanding how the Iraqis justified killing their coreligionists in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. He makes two assertions: that the Iraqi Shi'is are at root essentially different from Iranian Shi'is, and that most Iraqi Shi'is are relatively recent converts to Shi'ism. These theses are related to each other. Iranian Shi'is are ethnically Persian, and their religious practices reflect their ethnic traditions. Iraqi Shi'is, on the other hand, are ethni- cally Arab, descendents of nomadic tribes who left Arabia in the nineteenth century and adopted Shi'ism as part of the process of settling down. "In general, because of the tribal form of social organization present in southern Iraq," Brown explained, "Shi'ism became a veneer on top of this identity, and the new faith sat lightly upon it." "Their religious identity did not displace their strong identity as Arabs," explained William B. Quandt in Foreign Affairs, "and many of the rituals they adopted were modified to reflect their own values and customs." As a result, they identified more with the Iraqi state than they did with their religious customs; Iranian Shi'is were as foreign to them religiously as they were nationally and ethnically. "Throughout," the H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online contributor continued, "Nakash highlights how these Shi'i traditions differ from the practices in Iran: Shi'ism in Iraq is a much more down-to-earth affair in Iraq, without the mystical and Sufi influences present in Iranian Shi'ism for half a millennia or more." As a result, Iraqi Shi'is are much more open to working with groups from other religious traditions than are their coreligionists in Iran, and it took real political oppression to turn them against their neighboring Sunnis. Iraqi Shi'is, wrote a Middle East Journal reviewer, only turned on their Sunni neighbors after the ruling Ba'ath party "marginalized the Shi'a politically, socially, and economically."

Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World considers the position of Shi'ites throughout the mideast. Shi'is "constitute the minority sect within Islam," wrote Saliba Sarsar in Perspectives on Political Science, "and the sociopolitical transformation they experienced from the mid-eighteenth century to 2005. Of particular significance is the shift in Shi'i attitudes toward the West since the start of the 1990s, from the confrontation to accommodation in contrast to militant Sunni groups." "While these conflicts," whether between Sunnis and Shi'is or between either group and U.S. military personnel, "are often overlaid onto religious or cultural identities," declared Lara Deeb in the Middle East Journal, "at root they are about politics and power." "Nakash argues that there exist within Shi'ism two related trends: towards accommodation with the West and towards democracy in the Middle East," Deeb explained. "This argument and the project as a whole are clearly cast toward providing a solution to the crisis in Iraq." "What is at stake in post-Baath Iraq is the creation of a strong legislature and a representative government accountable to the voters—a contentious issue that stands at the heart of the political debate in Iran and the Arab world," Nakash stated in an interview published on the Princeton University Press Web site. "A dynamic political process in Iraq, even if influenced by Shi'i and Sunni Islamists, could reinvigorate the reform movement in Iran and inspire change in the Arab world. And it could counter those Sunni militants who have been fighting Muslims seeking to build bridges to the West and willing to cooperate with Americans to realize sociopolitical change."



American Historical Review, June 1, 1996, Robert Olson, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 882.

Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, September 1, 1995, Paul Rich, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 188.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, January 1, 1995, L.M. Lewis, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 854; November 1, 2006, N. Entessar, review of Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, p. 556.

Foreign Affairs, July 1, 1994, William B. Quandt, review of The Shi'is of Iraq.

History: The Journal of the Historical Association, June 1, 1995, Vanessa Martin, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 258.

International Affairs, July 1, 2006, Guido Steinberg, review of Reaching for Power, p. 818.

International Journal of Middle East Studies, February 1, 1997, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 140; August 1, 2007, Review of Reaching for Power, p. 471.

Journal of the American Oriental Society, October 1, 1996, review of The Shi'is of Iraq.

Middle Eastern Studies, April 1, 1995, Ofra Bengio, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 385.

Middle East Journal, fall, 1995, Robert Fernea, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 677; fall, 2003, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 700; summer, 2006, Lara Deeb, review of Reaching for Power, p. 612.

Perspectives on Political Science, spring, 2006, Saliba Sarsar, review of Reaching for Power, p. 111.

Political Science Quarterly, spring, 2007, Magnus T. Bernhardsson, review of Reaching for Power, p. 170.

Times Higher Education Supplement, January 27, 1995, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1994, M.E. Yapp, review of The Shi'is of Iraq, p. 9.


Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, (August 24, 2008), author profile.

Dissent Magazine Online, (August 24, 2008), author profile.

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, (August 24, 2008), Charles M. Brown, review of The Shi'is of Iraq.

Princeton University Press, (August 24, 2008), "A Q&A with Author Nakash."

This Fucking War Web log, (August 24, 2008), review of Reaching for Power.