Najam Haider is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at both Columbia University and Barnard College, where he teaches courses on Islamic studies and history. His research interests include Islamic law, Shi’ism, and the impact of colonization on modern Islamic political and religious discourse. Prior to arriving at his current institutions, Haider taught at the college and universities of Franklin & Marshall, Georgetown, New York, and Princeton. Haider completed his PhD at Princeton University, M.Phil. at Oxford University, and BA at Dartmouth College, and has published articles focusing on Islamic historiography and the emergence of sectarian identity.
His book entitled, The Origins of the Shī‘a: Identity, Ritual, and Sacred Space in 8th century Kūfa, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011 and focused on the role of ritual and sacred space in the formation of Shi’a identity today. His second book, Shi’a Islam (2014) offered a comprehensive overview of three branches of Shi’a Islam—Zaydi, Twelver, and Ismaili—through a framework of theology and memory. His current project focuses on the link between early Islamic historical writing and Late Antique and Classical Rhetoric.
“And, these two groups, broadly speaking, are associated with the term Akhbari versus Usuli. The Usulis are rationalists who are much more willing to appropriate the authority of the imam and to use reason to come up with law and to exercise independent authority to issue legal rulings, whereas the Akhbaris are much more bound to tradition and traditional interpretations and much more averse towards holding political power. And, this division between Akhbari and Usuli culminates in a figure in the late 19th century, Morteza Ansari who finalizes sort of the Usuli victory over the Akhbaris.”
“Now, in the 1950s, a bunch of Iranian intellectuals found themselves in Paris studying and they encountered Fanon’s work. And, one in particular, Ali Shariati even translated some of Fanon’s works and he took this call towards the building of a revolutionary culture to heart.”
“Even in Syria, the Sunni and Shii issues only really came to the fore when the whole government fell apart. So, this assumption that the default position is one of violence between these two communities doesn’t really hold up historically. The general pattern is one of, you know, communal unity and harmony except in exceptionally terrible situations, and we live in an exceptionally terrible situation, so that’s the problem.”
“Here, we have two blocks of countries. You have Iran on one hand and you have Gulf monarchies on the other hand, and they are obviously in opposition to each other. And, in that situation, sectarianism, especially when it begins to align with borders becomes much more dramatic and important.”