LEBANON-In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi'ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon

Article excerpt

LEBANON In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi'ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon, by Max Weiss. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2010. $39.95.

Reviewed by Mark D. Welton

The religious, political, legal, and cultural landscape of modern Lebanon is especially diverse and complex, as any student of the Middle East is well aware. To nonspecialists, the origins and dynamics of the sectarian conflicts that seem to constantly simmer and often erupt into violence in that country appear attributable to the basic incompatibility of the various groups and factions within it, especially between Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Christians. Yet the importance of Lebanon to and the impact of its recent crises on the Middle East as a whole warrant a deeper understanding of the history and nature of these conflicts. This study, which focuses on the acquisition of identity and power by the Lebanese Shi'ite communities of southern Lebanon (the Jabal 'Amil) in the mid-20th century, offers an historical analysis that contributes substantially to such an understanding.

Throughout the book, the author integrates case studies and historical documents that focus on Shi'ite law and courts into an analytical framework consisting of sectarianism in general and the specific evolution of Lebanon from French colonial mandate into a modern independent country. There are two themes at play here: how Shi'ite law (the Ja'fari school of Islamic law) became officially recognized and institutionalized, at least in the realm of personal status, by the French and Lebanese authorities, and how this process both reflected and contributed to an increasingly distinct and influential Shi'ite sectarian identity within the country. The author is particularly adept at weaving specific examples of this process - petitions by prominent Shi'ite leaders to gain recognition for Ja'fari law, cases heard by the Ja'fari court after its establishment in 1926, resistance to and revolts against French colonial and Lebanese government officialdom - into a narrative that illuminates without oversimplifying the complex growth of sectarianism that characterizes Lebanon today. …