SHAFAQNA – Shafaqna-Lebanon conducted an exclusive interview with the Swiss academic: Elvire Corboz. Corboz this October. She specializes in Modern Middle Eastern studies. Her doctoral dissertation, looked into the transnational dimension of two Shi‘i religious families, Al-Hakim and Al-Khu’i, to analyze the effects of cross-border relations on the access to and exercise of clerical authority. This interview was conducted by Zainab Al-Hakim
- What is the reason behind your interest in Shia Religious authorities’ affairs?
My interest in studying the Shi’i clerical establishment and the institution of the marja’iyya started when I was a bachelor student at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. I was studying Arab and Islamic studies, part of which included the learning of Arabic. I once had a seminar taught by one of my professors on the shrine cities in Iraq in the 19th and twentieth century. During this seminar, I found out about this system of religious authority in Shi’ism known as the marja’iyya, and as a student I found this highly interesting, so I began to study and research about the shrines in Iraq, the Hawza, and several of the most important religious authorities based there. Then I decided to pursue this interest in my PhD. I took the approach of the transnational dimension of the marja’iyya because when I started my PhD back in 2005 it was difficult for me to go directly to Iraq, so my dissertation was an analysis of the transnational nature of the marja’iyya of Sayyed Mushin Al- Hakim then the marja’iyya of Abu Al-Qasem Al-Khu’i.
- Since you were interested in writing about al-Hakim and al-Khu’i, Do you have the intention now to start writing about Sayyed Ali- Sistani?
Actually, the perspective of my PhD was quite historical. However, since I have written about the marja’iyya of Sayyed Al-Khu’i, and Ayatollah Sistani being one of his students who rose to the position of marja’iyya, I am also surely interested in his marja’iyya as well. For instance, I can use my knowledge of Ayatollah al-Khu’i and what I call his “moments of participation” in matters related to politics (such as his fatwa during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait) in order to understand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s responses to people’s needs in Iraq and his capacity to adapt to fast-changing circumstances. My interest is however more on the sociological than the political working of the marja’iyya. I am now conducting a research on the representatives of different religious authorities and their roles in societies.
- Do you believe that the picture of Shiites religious authorities is clear in the west, especially for the intellectual elite at the universities there?
Shi’ism is still a small field of study in western academia. Universities do not offer a lot of specific courses on this subject. However, it has been growing and now there are an increasing number of scholars who work on different aspects of Shi’ism, and when I have the opportunity to teach a seminar on Shi’ism, I do it because it is my own specialty. Also, Shiites’ institutions in the west, Al-Khu’i foundation for example, are doing a great work in raising awareness about Shia Islam so that it is portrayed properly and accurately in the media.
- What do you suggest for a further understanding between the academics in the west and the religious authorities in the Middle East?
More opportunities for Western academics and hawza researchers to engage with their respective work on religious authorities would be beneficial. As far as I know, Kufa University in Najaf, Iraq is planning to hold a conference with west based academics working on Shi’ism. These kinds of initiatives might be very interesting and useful. Perhaps translating the books of western academics on Shi’ism and translating the marja’iyya books as well into other languages would further help building a bridge between the east and the west.
Tell us about your visits to Iraq and Iran. What touched you the most during your visits there?
I conducted a research in Iran during my PhD, so I have been there in 2004, 2006, 2008, and I went for the last time last spring in 2016 when I also went for the first time to Najaf and Karbala. There, I visited the offices of some Maraji’ Taqlid and I am very grateful for their time and assistance. I also visited the holy shrines; and in spite of me not being from the Shia faith, I could feel the powerful spirituality among the pilgrims in Najaf and Qom.