Lara Deeb

"Emulating and/or Embodying the Ideal: The Gendering of Temporal Frameworks and Islamic Role Models in Shi'i Lebanon"

On October 23, Lara Deeb, assistant professor of Anthropology at Scripps College, addressed assembled students, faculty and community members at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. Her presentation, entitled “Emulating and/or Embodying the Ideal: The Gendering of Temporal Frameworks and Islamic Role Models in Shi’i Lebanon,” intersects with the ISS’s interdisciplinary work as it deploys heavy doses of theory, ethnography and anthropology combined in a study of the way in which a particular situated community relates to and refashions scriptures in and for the present.

Deeb’s prior work focuses on the Ashura rituals in Lebanon as well as Shi’i ambivalence to and negotiations of Western modernity. She brings all of these to bear on her most recent investigations of temporality and the relationship of past to present in Shi’i Lebanon. Her current project builds upon this extensive fieldwork in a Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb of Beirut. Deeb’s work examines the relationship between the (imagined) past and (real) present in a specific Shi’i community in Lebanon.

Deeb began her presentation with a brief overview of the central narrative of her investigation: the distinction between Sunni and Shi’i Islam specifically tied to the events of the Battle of Karbala in 680. The Sunni/ Shi’i schism grew out of divergent claims of legitimate succession after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632; the struggle to determine who should succeed Mohammed and in what role and capacity he should function split the Islamic community between those who backed the regnant caliphate and those who supported the Prophet’s son in law (and later his descendants). Fissures along these lines festered during intermittent periods of hostility and relative peace that paralleled contemporary political and theological trends. Tensions between the groups came to a head at the Battle of Karbala, where those favoring the entitlement of Mohammed’s descendants confronted those supporting the ruling Sunni caliphs. The scripting of the battle varies greatly depending on allegiances, but the Shi’i retelling emphasizes the martyrdom of Hosayn and his army. Shi’i discontent under the caliph Yazid (generally portrayed as oppressive and morally bankrupt) incited rebellion against his injustice and tyranny. Hosayn is encouraged to lead an uprising, marches to Karbala with family and friends, and struggles valiantly against the enemy army of Yazid. At Karbala, Hosayn along with his retinue die, but Shi’i Islam memorializes and commemorates the events as central to their identity, both present and past.

The Battle of Karbala orients contemporary Shi’i identity, politics and piety by using the historical past as valuable in various and ever-changing ways. This narrative, as centering story of the Lebanese Shi’i community, frames Deeb’s analysis of the links and relationship to and use of the past in present day Shi’i Lebanon. Traditionally, communities have held up both Hosayn and his sister Zayneb as models for piety within present situations. Hosayn is revered as a fighter and rebel, while his sister, Zaynab is to be emulated for her extreme grief and mourning. Yet such roles, particularly that of Zayneb, have been shifting as women’s own societal roles shift. As in the past, such appropriations of the narrative and its refashionings reflect contemporary political and theological realities in the way in which subjects relate past to present. Thus the, escalating conflict with Israel, and changing stances of Hezbollah to these realities alters the way in which present participants relate to past actors. Deeb argues that appropriations of the narrative fall along both temporal and gendered lines.

Historical role models, Deeb argues, are located in time and space, and narrative is the means by which such actors articulate and understand their temporality. To facilitate her study, Deeb employs Valerio Valeri’s distinction between syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations to time. In syntagmatic structurings of the past, events signify in their orderly relation to one another. Thus Karbala is the point of origin in the story of a protracted history of resistance to oppression and moral depravity. Such resistance flares up in different contexts, i.e. the 1970 Lebanese resistance movement against Israeli occupation. Each event is important itself as an event, but gains meaning within the larger narrative structures and orients toward a hoped for better future.

By contrast, paradigmatic relations structure the past so as to group events and figures by the similarities they share. Paradigmatic relations structure the past as a discontinuous narrative not confined to time, where various figures and temporal cycles recur. Contemporary events function as manifestations of these eternal phenomena. Thus, Karbala, Hosayn and Zaynab are instances of Shi’i resistance that continue outside the limits of time; there is always an oppressor and oppressed, and a Hosayn and Zaynab in every era.

Deeb underscores that neither framework operates exclusively, rather that often both work in tandem. Her focus on individuals’ emulations of Zaynab and Hosayn in the present in both paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships simultaneously shows the way in which people construct useful pasts in the service of the present. Thus, some speak of participating in Karbala and the fight against Yazid’s oppression (paradigmatic thinking) while at the same time upholding these figures as heroic mastheads for emulation in the present for the future good of their community by participating in social justice and volunteer organizations (sytagmatic). While both men and women reflect these two relations to the past, Deeb highlights the way in which these appropriations of Islamic role models fall along gendered lines. Deeb 2.jpg

Whereas Hosayn’s character has by and large remained static across historic time—men are called call to go to Karbala and fight against Yazid—as paradigmatic instances of the cosmic battle between good and evil, women’s roles in the narrative have been subjected to intense scrutiny and revision. “Traditional” narratives presented Zaynab as grief stricken and mourning over the dead, a recent shift has sought to present her courage, strength and resilience by emphasizing her public outcry to the oppression of Yazid. Thrust in syntagmatic strictures, women participate now, as then, in the struggle for open ended progress with little focus on teleological ends. Metaphorically substituting themselves for Zaynab, the women in the various organizations speak of progressing and working for the public good. By importing present values and ideals to their readings of the narrative, women scripturalize their present location and agency. Women use their public roles—in the Ashura ritual and elsewhere—as places to negotiate and challenge the stereotype of the substandard status of women in Islamic communities. Women’s life and scripturalizing practice in Lebanon, therefore, provide a rich site for excavation of the intersection of lived experience and the historical past.

Deeb’s work highlights the use of scriptures as places where the negotiation of representation and lived experience intersects with issues of temporality, gender and contemporary politics and culture. Her account emphasizes the way in which scriptures function as opportunities for the redefinition of the social agenda while grounding that vision within a temporal framework. Deeb invites us to scrutinize the present applications of the past, rather than the past as historical datum and thereby shifts our gaze to the cultural politics of scriptures.

For further reflection and conversation:
1.      How has globalization shifted Shi’i orientation to the Karbala narrative and its temporality?
2.      How does the use of/claiming of scriptures leave Shi’i Muslims “vulnerable to others’ (historians, policy makers, politicians) use of history in defining their tomorrow”? (Kathryn Tomlinson, Living Yesterday in Today and Tomorrow)
3.      The tension between interpretations of the ideal role model by the institutional specialists and that of the women in Lebanon highlights the ductility of scriptures. What are the prospects of employing “scriptures” as an analytical wedge in the gendered dynamics of contemporary Shi’i Lebanon?

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