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The British, the Sunnis and the Shi'is: Social hierarchies of identity under the British mandate

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This article deals with the beginnings of sectarianism in Iraq. In the course of the eighteenth century, many Shi'i clerics migrated from Iran to the shrine cities of southern Iraq (Karbala', Najaf, Samarra'). By the early nineteenth century the school known as Usulism had become the prevailing orthodoxy of Twelver Shi'ism, and this advocated a significant socio-legal role for the 'ulama at a time when the Qajar monarchy was seeking legitimation for its rule. Accordingly, a partnership developed between the monarchy and the 'ulama, which lasted until the 1880s and 1890s, when the clergy became highly critical of the monarchy's submissive attitude to foreign economic intervention, and joined in a series of protests that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11. For much of this period Shi'is did not form the majority of the population of Iraq, but their numbers gradually grew, largely as a result of the 'conversion' of what had been nominally Sunni tribes, most probably in protest a against Ottoman policies of sedentarization. The Ottomans became alarmed at this growth in Shi'i numbers, and at the growth in the influence of the clergy, but could do little about either. To facilitate its administration of the provinces, the Ottoman state made alliances with groups of notables on whom it came to rely. In Iraq, these individuals transferred their loyalties almost seamlessly to the British after the collapse of the empire in 1918. The Shi'i (clerical) leadership, on the other hand, called for the complete independence of Iraq, and insisted that the decision over whether Britain should stay in Iraq ought to be handed over to a Constituent Assembly. The British found it almost impossible to work with the Shi'i leadership, and effectively ran Iraq with the help of their Sunni clients. This arrangement continued throughout the mandate and monarchy, although, with the spread of universal education, the Shi'is complained increasingly about the underrepresentation of their sect in the ranks of the bureaucracy and at ministerial level.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2010

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  • The International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies is a new peer-reviewed, tri- annual, academic publication devoted to the study of modern Iraq. In recognition of Iraq's increasingly important position on the world stage, the time is right for a new journal dedicated to scholarly engagement with the country.
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