Workshop: Shiism in the Public Sphere: Transnational Perspectives from Europe and the Middle East

2-4 March 2023, Centre Civic Convent Sant Augusti and Centre Civic Pati Llimona, Barcelona. Organised by: Oliver Scharbrodt (Lund University) and Avi Astor (Autonomous University of Barcelona)

Barcelona Workshop Participants. Photo.

The spatial turn in the Humanities and Social Sciences has moved the understanding of space beyond a sense of static physicality to being dynamic, relational and contested. Space possesses both physical and social dimensions by being socially constructed and imbued with meaning. Space gathers and configurates people in specific social and power relations while equally exercising control and domination over them through its physical set-up and by the way in which space and its boundaries are socially construed and imagined. Insights from postmodern human geographers like Doreen Massey, Yi-Fu Tuan and Henry Lefebvre have shed light on the constructed, contested and dynamic dimensions of space. Lefebvre, for instance, distinguishes between representations of space, spaces of representation and spatial practices. For him, representations of space describe how space is conceived by architects, urban planners and engineers – a process shaped by power relations and ideological preferences. Spaces of representation denote for Lefebvre how space is lived and experienced by its inhabitants which includes cultural interventions by artists, writers or intellectuals and how they perceive space. Such interventions can also form sites of resistance to dominant ideological formations and their spatial manifestations. Spatial practices represent for Lefebvre everyday routines and practices within a given space which have to acknowledge the order of the conceived space but can also relate to competing alternative perceptions of space.

Such dynamic, relational and contested conceptions of space have informed research on the presence of diasporic religions in the public space of European cities: from questions of how urban neighbourhoods have been transformed by migrant communities, to how claims to visibility by minority religions have challenged the apparent secular order of public spaces in Europe and how urban spaces are re-imagined as part of the public performance of diasporic religious practices. Equally, urban spaces in the Middle East are contested in terms of different religious groups claiming visibility and presence with states seeking to discipline its practice for its own purposes and to neutralize religious activism and its public performance as potential sites of resistance.

This workshop investigates these issues by bringing together current research investigating the public presence of Twelver Shia Islam in urban spaces in Europe and the Middle East. Within the European context, Shii Muslims constitute a minority within a minority which means they need to undertake particular efforts to maintain an Islamic identity as a minority group and to be recognized within the public arena as an alternative articulation of Islam at the same time. In the Middle East, sectarian dynamics between Sunnis and Shiis have fluctuated but, with the exception of Iran, most Shiis in the Middle East share historical experiences of marginalization and disenfranchisement and have only recently seen an empowerment with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. The collected papers discuss how Shiis in various cities in Europe and Middle East enter the urban spaces through the public performance of ritual practices germane to Twelver Shia Islam, civic activism or political mobilization and navigate the nexus between secular urban orders, competing conceptions of national identities and sectarian cleavages. Different case studies from Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Turkey and Lebanon are included in the collection of articles.

Conference programme

Conference: Materiality, Rituals and the Senses: The Dynamic World of Lived Shii Islam

19-21 October 2022, Swedish Research Institute Istanbul. Organised by: AlterUmma project (Lund University) and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

Conference image. Collage.

This conference addresses the material, ritual and sensory forms of expression that constitute and shape the experiences of Shii Muslims in diverse geographies and different time periods. The conference seeks to investigate dynamics and processes of Shii cultural production and heritage-making, understanding them as a means of communicating, perpetuating, and developing religiously-informed attitudes toward and relationships with the world. The conference examines the reconstitution of Shii materiality and cultural production through processes of localization, globalization, digitalization, and encounters with the Other. How do material and sensory expressions of Shii devotion and ritual practice constitute different modes of Shii cultural production? What role do artforms and material cultures play in the facilitation and negotiation of Shi‘i ideas, norms and ways of life? And, how does the cultural production of Shiism foster communal identities and relations of solidarity which transcend boundaries of time and place while also articulating and promoting social and political values and worldviews?

Keynote speakers:

  • Prof Karen Ruffle (University of Toronto)
  • Prof Babak Rahimi (University of California San Diego)

Conference programme

Online Workshop: Rewiring the House of God: Religious Self-World Relations in the Digital Environment (iFaith)

15-17 September 2021, Online. Organised by: Gabriel Malli (University of Graz) and Fouad Gehad Marei (Lund University).

Workshop image. Collage.

This workshop addresses the amplified importance of faith-related digital practices and devices, recognising that people of faith have been entangled with the effects and conditions of the digital environment for decades. It interrogates the relationship between digital technologies and religious life-worlds and examines the mutually transformative relationship between digital technologies and contemporary modes of religiosity, with a particular interest in three broad themes: (a) religious subjectivities and digital technologies, (b) communities of faith in an era of digital culture, and (c) the occult and other-worldly in the digital environment. As part of the iFaith workshop, thirteen pre-circulated draft articles will be workshopped by experts in the fields of ‘digital religion’, mediatization of religion, and religion on the internet: Prof. Gary Bunt (University of Wales) Dr. Christph Günther (University of Mainz) Dr. Tim Hutchings (University of Nottingham) and Prof. Mia Lövheim (Uppsala University). iFaith is a collaboration between the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham and the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt.

Conference programme

Online Workshop: Sound and Voice in Contemporary Twelver Shii Islam

27-28 May 2021, Online. Organised by: Stefan Williamson Fa (Lund University).

Workshop Poster.

This international workshop held online brings together new scholarship within anthropology, ethnomusicology and religious studies on sound and voice in Twelver Shi'i Islam.

Despite the growing body of work on sound and Islam, little attention so far has been paid to sound in Shi'i Islam. Within Shi'i communities, the central and shared sounds of the recitation of the Quran and the adhan exist amongst additional forms of vocalised sonic expression. A vast range of supplications, laments and chants of praise and celebratory poetry are central to Shi'i devotion to Ahl al-Bayt, the Family of the Prophet. Within Twelver Shi'ism there is a surprising consistency in content and form of these genres worldwide. Yet, a huge diversity in style correlates with the wide geographic distributions of these communities.

Bringing together ethnographically-grounded contributions from the Middle East and South Asia, this workshop aims to consolidate current research on sound and voice in contemporary Twelver Shi'i Islam. In thinking about the politics and aesthetics of sound in these diverse settings we ask the question, how does Shi'ism sound? What parallels and divergences exist between the way sound is mobilised and engaged with in Shi'ism and in other Islamic pathways? How does sound mediate across social, political and conceptual boundaries- between communal groups in the public sphere, the secular and sacred, 'this-world' and the 'other-worldly'? What are the distinct aesthetic qualities of Shi'i devotion and how do they relate to poetics, theology, politics and society? Approaching the study of Shi'ism from a sonic perspective presents new ways of thinking about key issues such as transnationalism, cultural production and socio-political activism whilst further contributing to wider efforts to understand religion materially and sensorially.


  • Epsita Halder, Jadavpur University
  • Nabeel Jafri, University of Toronto
  • Timothy Cooper, University of Cambridge
  • Joseph Alagha, Haigazian University
  • Hamidreza Salehyar, University of Toronto
  • Maryam Aras, University of Bonn
  • Stefan Williamson-Fa, Lund University

Conference programme

Online Conference: Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Authority in Twelver Shia Islam: Clerics and the State, Past and Present

20-21 May 2021, Online. Organised by: AlterUmma project (University of Birmingham).

Conference Poster.

The question of what constitutes legitimate authority – both religious and secular – has been a core theological concern of Twelver Shia Islam. Emerging with the question of the succession of the Prophet Muhammad, Twelver Shia theological discourse invested sole sovereignty and legitimate authority with the Imams, the male members of the ahl al-bayt, designated to lead the Muslim community. The occultation (ghayba) of the Twelfth Imam led to the emergence of the notion of the collective deputyship (al-niyaba al-‘amma) of the learned class within Twelver Shia Islam, the ‘ulama’, who assume some of the prerogatives of the Imam. From the period, Twelver Shia clerical authorities had to address the question to what extent secular political authority is legitimate and how to relate to it.

With the establishment of the first Twelver Shia state in Iran in the 16th century, clerics had to define their relationship to the Safavid dynasty and the extent of their support for it. During the Qajar period in 19th century Iran, Twelver Shia clerics assumed a more pro-active political role, considering themselves as mediators between the ruler and the people. The rise of the modern nation-state in the Middle East in the early 20th century led to debates around the role of the clergy in the state and the nature of an Islamic state. While Khomeini’s understanding of the “guardianship of the jurisconsult” (wilayat al-faqih) has been the most prominent and influential intervention, other models of clergy-state relations, that have emerged, do not advocate direct clerical involvement in the affairs of the government. Clerical figures nevertheless play a central role in Shia Islamist parties, networks and movements across the Middle East and South Asia, remaining thereby important political actors in the context of weak or failed nation-states, ripped by sectarian divisions, civil conflict and corruption.

This conference included papers on the topic of clergy-state relations in Twelver Shia Islam, from the post-ghayba period (ca. 941 CE) to the present. Placing clergy-state relations in the context of Twelver Shia discourses on sovereignty, legitimacy and authority, the conference seeks to investigate clerical positions towards secular authority and power in different historical periods. While the focus of the conference will be the Middle East, it intends to adopt a wider geographical perspective with contributions welcome on similar debates in South Asia and other parts of world where Shia clerics were or have become influential political actors.

Keynote speakers:

  • Prof Andrew J. Newman (University of Edinburgh)
  • Prof Rula Abisaab (McGill University)

Conference programme

Workshop: Divine Sovereignty, Morality and the State: Maududi and His Influence

5 September 2019, Kings College London. Organized by: Oliver Scharbrodt (Lund University) and Humeira Iqtidar (Kings College London).


Workshop participants. Photo.

Joint Workshop of the University of Birmingham and King’s College London, 5 September 2019.

This workshop brought together new scholarship on the generative influence of Maududi’s notion of hakkimiyat and its reception by both Sunni and Shia Islamist thinkers and activists. Engaging critically with the circulation, variations and contestations of the notion of divine sovereignty, this workshop was the first major attempt at thinking through the implications of this important concept in contemporary politics. The workshop began with a discussion of Maududi’s theory of divine sovereignty before investigating the reception of his ideas by Sunni and Shia Islamist thinkers from Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Other papers examined how 20th century Shia thinkers envisioned the nature of the state and how the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 was perceived by the major Pakistani Islamist party, the Jamaat-i Islami. Prof Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton University) acted as discussant during the workshop.


On YouTube

AlterUmma logotype. Image.

Watch AlterUmma on YouTube

Page Manager: oliver.scharbrodtctr.luse | 2024-01-11