Bridging the Culture Gap

Bridging the Culture Gap
An in-depth look at the culture, practices, and impact of the spiritual center, Najaf, Iraq, on Shi’ite communities around the globe.
Najaf, Iraq is a medium-sized city that is seldom named in Western media reports on the Iraq War, Arab Spring, Al-Qaeda, or other hot button Middle East religious-political topics. To Shi’ite Islam, however, Najaf is akin to the Vatican for Roman Catholicism: it is a major Shi’ite center for religious authority, education, religious economics, and a destination for pilgrims. This unique religious-socio-political-economic center and its global-religious impact captured the interest of UB assistant professor of World Religions and Global Development and Peace, Robert Riggs, Ph.D., while he was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been a focus of his research since.

Ninety percent of the world’s Muslims are adherents of the Sunni tradition and the remaining ten percent are Shi’ites who reside primarily in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. And while Mecca and Medina are important pilgrimage destinations for all Muslims, the medium-sized city of Najaf, Iraq is an important center for Shi’ite Islam. When Riggs realized that little research had been conducted and documented by Western scholars on the culture, practices, and impact of this spiritual center on Shi’ite communities around the globe, he set his sights on breaking new scholarly ground.

Imamzadeh-ye Sultan Mir Ahmad shrine, Kashan, Iran


Riggs is especially interested in the relationship between religious authority, particularly ayatollahs, and the compulsory annual financial contributions made to religious authorities, including how contributions empower various authorities, and how they are perceived to impact religious education and care of the poor. An ayatollah is the top level of the religious authority hierarchy in Shi’ite Islam, comparable to a cardinal in Roman Catholicism (with no papal equivalent for Shi’ites). Ayatollahs have representatives within Shi’ite communities around the globe, and the ayatollahs may receive the tithes of the faithful directly, or the tithes may be collected and spent in the local community in the name of an ayatollah.This fundraising influences who studies in Najaf’s hawzas (centers of religious education) since these students are funded through stipends. It also influences funding levels for local poverty relief, medical institutions, general education, and mission work. Most important, according to Riggs, is the connection between an ayatollah’s power and influence and the amount of contributions voluntarily placed in his care. It is a sort of competition for power and control, since Shi’ites are religiously required to give the obligatory 20 percent of their annual profits to the ayatollah of their choice. This creates a dynamic across the transnational network of Shi’ites as local and regional tithes fund would-be ayatollahs from Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, as well as France, England, and the U.S., who go to study in Najaf.


Riggs is intrigued by this tithing dynamic, especially in the age of globalized communication. The political, religious, and social changes evident in most Middle Eastern traditional societies are arguably a result of globalized communication. After all, the Internet and the ever-developing modes of electronic communication can serve at least two purposes: for the like-minded to communicate, and for the media to disseminate breaking events at lightning speed.

As Riggs explains, globalization is changing the composition of religious communities and Shi’a Muslim hawzas, the premier of which are located in Najaf and in Qum, Iran. The reason for the communal transformations may originate from the educational system reforms that occurred in Lebanon and Iraq beginning in the 1930s, which have contributed to the current politicization of Shi’as across the Middle East. Riggs has managed to grasp the transformation of Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a communities, and identify how these changes may impact continual globalization and grassroots religious community connections in the future.

After years of traveling to Lebanon and the broader Middle East, Riggs has gained a base of knowledge, expertise and friendship. He notes, “Although historians are not fortune-tellers, the study of history is integral for more accurate analysis of future possible outcomes.” For these reasons, he anticipates that his study of Shi’a religious authority and schools in Lebanon and Iraq will be an important policy tool and academic contribution to the understanding of other cultures in this rapidly changing world.

Minimal international attention has been given to the exploration of the reform movement of Shi’a communities across the Middle East, underscoring the importance of Riggs’ work.

Riggs focuses his research on the influence of contemporary Shi’a religious authority in Lebanon and Iraq. Specifically, he notes the wide influence of the mixed Islamic education and contemporary curriculum in the schools of Muhammad Rida al-Muzaffar (d. 1961), which he founded in the 1940s and 50s in Iraq. The school reforms of Muzaffar, who did not have any significant political aspirations during his career, are significant as they transcended modifications to other Middle Eastern educational systems. Current Shi’a activist attitudes are heavily influenced by a series of past events rooted in the educational systems founded by Muzaffar, whose students lived in both Iraq and Lebanon.

This, Riggs argues, changed the future of both the Lebanese Reform Movement and also the Iraqi Reform Movement, spreading to even a pocket exile community in London. In addition, Riggs acknowledges that the newer phenomenon of Internet “ayatollahs,” has also risen to challenge the structure of authority within Shi’a Islam by taking away the need for students to travel to Najaf, thus weakening the traditional center of power. Riggs has interviewed teachers at Muzaffar schools and notes that the religious figure is widely known, which reinforces the influence he has had on the transformational mixed secular and religious schools and the further alliance of Shi’a communities throughout the world.


Minimal international attention has been given to the exploration of the reform movement of Shi’a communities across the Middle East, underscoring the importance of Riggs’ work. The current Shi’a political and social momentum has been substantially influenced by the schools of Muzaffar, and Riggs has exposed connections between modernization and the changing boundaries of Muslim religious authority by delving into the Shi’a awakening and the unification of the disenfranchised minority. These developments have transformed their position and permitted the mobilization of this group of people across national boundaries to gain substantial political and social rights.

Riggs acknowledges that years of Arabic language studies have enabled his extensive Shi’a research since most of the facts are found in Arabic books. Likewise, most cultural sayings cannot be directly translated but rather come with years of language experience and personal exchange with native speakers. Having lived in the region for more than three years cumulatively, Riggs has reached near-native fluency in speaking, reading and writing Modern Standard Arabic and also has near-native fluency in speaking other dialects of Arabic. The level of Riggs’ Arabic fluency has been crucial to discovering the impact of Muzaffar’s religious schools.

Paying with Iraqi Dinars

Apart from its link to Middle Eastern understanding in both public policy and international diplomacy dimensions, Riggs hopes that his research on the global Shi’a community will help connect contemporary religious authorities and their role in society’s activism to outsiders. The work will not only contribute to scholarly literature, but it will also add to the understanding of other politically relevant nations in the Middle East, particularly Iran. The discovery of the mobilization patterns of Shi’as across the region, which has been influenced in part through the Muzaffar’s schools, is critical to the consideration of global networks and a new Shi’a global identity. It is the concept of collective affinity that Riggs hopes will contribute as a resource in diplomacy and policy-making, through the ever-shaping lens of globalization. Furthermore, he expects his study to help bridge understanding between the Western world and key figures, ideas and contextual language used in Arab communities in Lebanon, Iraq and the greater Middle East.

Riggs was awarded a UB Seed Money Grant in 2012 to continue his studies and plans to apply for additional funding. His research has been supported by the De Karman Foundation, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII), the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, The British Academy, and the British Society for Middle East Studies. His publications appear in the Journal of Arabic Literature, the Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, Religion Compass and the Review of Middle East Studies and he has contributed chapters to several collected volumes. His research has been presented at the annual meetings of the Middle East Studies Association, the American Academy of Religion and the American Oriental Society as well as a variety of international conferences such as the World Congress on Middle East Studies.