Aiming to provide a broad platform for scholars working in the field of Shiʻi Studies, the Islamic College, in partnership with the Islamic Centre of England, organised its annual conference, between the 5-6 of May this year.
For the last four years, the calendar of The Islamic College has been marked by an academic event growing in popularity: The International Conference on Shiʻi Studies. Normally scheduled for the first week of May, the conference represents one of the academic efforts of The Islamic College, a well-established academic institution, based in North London, offering undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in a variety of Islamic Studies programmes both in-house and distance learning validated by Middlesex University.
Joining resources with the Islamic Centre of England, The Islamic College put together the fourth event of this kind, bringing together, for two days, an array of national and international academics specialising in Islamic Studies and more specifically Shi‘a Islam. Like many conferences of this kind, the International Conference on Shiʻi Studies requires months of preparation and coordination, a task that was entrusted to the College’s Research and Publications department headed by Sheikh Mohammed Ali Ismail.
Spanning over two days, this intensive showcase of research and studies related to Shiʻa Islam provided the opportunity for accomplished as well as upcoming academics and students in this field to interact with each other both formally and informally. A total of nine different panels (five on day one and four on day two) reflecting the variety and topics and disciplines, were organised to facilitate, in an organic way, the presentation of all papers submitted.
The programme began at 9.00 am with opening remarks by Sheikh Mohammad Ismail who gave some background to the activities of the Research and Publication department after welcoming both delegates and the general public. This was followed by a further introduction to the activities of the College by Dr Isa Jahangir, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the College. With an average of four speakers per panel followed by Q& A sessions, strict timekeeping was of the essence. Naturally, some topics generated more discussion than others. The list below provides a full view of the range of topics provided.
The first session of the first-day cover two panels entitled; Qur’an Studies and Texts: Past and Present. All seven research papers were based on some form of textual analysis varying from Qur’an to classical texts relating to Shiʻi theology and fiqh (jurisprudence).
The second session of the day was divided into two panels focused of the ritual aspects of Shiʻa Islam with papers exploring the meaning and impact of rituals and ceremonies related to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn(a), such as Ashura and Arbaʻeen.
A third panel dealt with art and literature related to the Shiʻa world with speakers from the UK, Italy and Egypt who looked at works of literature, art and architecture that appear to have Shiʻa influence.
The second day of the conference saw panellists discussing more contemporary issues related to Shiʻa Islam. Authority in Shiʻism, Political theory and contemporary thought, Shiʻism in South Asia and Shiʻism worldwide, were the names of the planned panels with speakers from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Indonesia, Pakistan, UAE, and the USA.
Authority in Shiʻism was bound to generate extra interest with discussions ranging from the authority of Imami Maraji’, the interaction between Shiʻi clergy and the community to the historical relation between Al-Azhar and Shiʻism.
The second session of the day was dedicated to the more theoretical aspects of contemporary thought with papers on Shiʻism and Democracy and on the role of Al Akhund Khurasani in the Constitutionalist Movement in Iraq and concluding with the more theory-laden paper of Dr Paya who critically looked at the theoretical system proposed by 15th century Shiʻi scholars on the concepts of ethics and justice.
The remaining panellists of the last day focused on themes related to the Shiʻa communities in specific geographical areas. The named panels were: Shiʻism in South Asia and Shiʻism worldwide.
The following are the titles of the papers presented in these two panels: The case of Gilgit-Baltistan Ismailis in Karachi, Pakistan, The Quṭb Shahi era and the contributions of Mir Momin Astrabadi in the spread of Shi‘a Islam in the Deccan, Navigating identity: An overview of the Shi‘a Hazara community in London and the Midlands, The study of Shiʻism in Denmark, The role of supplementary schools in shaping the Islamic identity of Muslim youth (a UK based research).
The programme of the Fourth International Conference on Shiʻi Studies came to an end with a keynote speech by Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, director of the Islamic Centre of England (co-sponsor of this event).
Sheikh Somali expressed his happiness at the success of the conference and hoped that it will grow in strength to become a major hub for anyone involved in Shi’i Studies. He also stated that it is the intention of the organisers to have this annual event in two parts, one conducted in London and the other in Qum in the near future. Dr Shomali then elaborated on the concept of “Religion and the People of the Book as seen in the Qur’an”, an ongoing research that he is currently conducting with other Christian and Muslim scholars. In his talk, Dr Shomali underlined the idea that divine scriptures are a reality of the same message and the followers of these scriptures have more in common than they think. He ended his talk with an exhortation to ‘walk the path of truth all together’.
The proceedings of the first three Annual International Conferences on Shiʻi Studies (2015, 2016, and 2017) are available for purchase, as individual books, from The Islamic College.