The Iranian Who Has The Final Say On Iraq

4 months ago

Yasin Taha


He is almost 86 years old, and he lives a simple life in an old house located on a narrow street in one of Najaf's old neighbourhoods. However, his fatwas and written guidance have unquestionable law-like standing in Iraq. Whenever he so wishes he has enough authority even to hinder the Iraqi constitution. The man in question is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

From Iran to Iraq
Given the fact that Ayatollah Sistani does not come from a notable family of Najaf and he migrated to Iraq from the Iranian town of Mashhad it may be that Ayatollah Sistani does not have the same charisma or religious background as that of the late Marja' Mohsim al-Hakim. However, it was during al-Sistani’s leadership of Iraq's Shia Muslims that Iraq's Shi'ites transitioned from being one of the oppressed peoples of Iraq to those at the helm of government in Baghdad. In this historic transition in Iraq’s history, fate gave Grand Ayatollah Sistani the honour of guiding the birth of this new Shi'a government in Iraq. This responsibility came at a time when the religious authority that preceded him was the famous teacher and educator Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei. During the 1991 uprisings in southern Iraq al-Khoei was forcibly taken from Najaf to meet with Saddam Hussain where he issued a Fatwa (by force) against the rebellion labeling it the work of anarchists and demanding that it cease immediately. With this fatwa, al-Khoei distanced the young hot-blooded Shi'a revolutionaries from himself and damaged his sacred image as a religious leader of the Shi'a World. 
All of the stories told in Shi'a circles about al-Sistani's childhood, development and emergence are similar to those stories told about individuals who seize opportunities, are gifted and are full of genius. The hearsay around his life also refers to him as a smart individual who is in constant deep thought and uncaring about the pleasures this world has to offer. 
While Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani migrated to Iraq in 1951, he has yet to take up Iraqi citizenship. However, his lack of Iraqi identity and the fact that he is of Iranian origin has not been an obstacle in awarding him final says in Iraqi affairs. In 2003 it was suggested that al-Sistani take up Iraqi citizenship, but al-Sistani rejected the idea, killing it off with silence like he does with many other issues. He wanted religion and sect to remain transnational so that his followers outside of Iraq do not tie his fatwas and teachings to his nationality.  Moreover, the fact that al-Sistani has lived under the iron grip of the former Iraqi Ba'ath party for 35 years without any form of Iraqi identification raises the question of why a formal Iraqi identity would now be required?  Especially after he has demonstrated his power in Iraq by closing his doors, for last six years, towards the Iraqi President, Prime Minister, Parliament Speaker, and Ministers as a show of his dissatisfaction with their work. Instead of being insulted each of these post-holders now aspire to a meeting with al-Sistani so that they can utilise an image with the Ayatollah to mobilise Iraq's majority population behind themselves.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's Emergence as Grand Ayatollah
While al-Sistani's prominence dates back prior to the death of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in 1992 and his leading of the customary funeral prayer at the grave of al-Khoei at the Imam Ali Mosque, al Sistani did not become the Grand Ayatollah until both Shi'a religious scholars MortezaBoroujerdi and Mirza Ali Gharavi were assassinated in 1998. Moreover, al-Sistani was barely active between 1998 and 2003, in that he had closed his doors to visitors and refrained from issuing fatwas.  However, following the collapse of the former regime of Saddam Hussain in 2003 al-Sistani emerged as the most powerful man in Iraq and entered into talks and negotiations with the United Nations and the Provisional Coalition Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer on Iraq's future constitution, its elections and the choosing a suitable new Iraqi Prime Minister.  Also, during the first elections in the new Iraq, in 2004-2005, al-Sistani supervised the formation of a united Shi'a coalition that was also supported by the Kurdish parties of northern Iraq. The coalition was able to secure control of the post of Iraqi Prime Minister along with many other essential government posts.  
This moral position that al-Sistani holds and the power that he wields is the result of the attention paid to him by his educator Abu al-Qasim as well as the reality of Shi'a custom that places him as the number one figure in Najaf's religious body, a body that dates back to 5th century (AH). What is more, today, outside of Iraq, al-Sistani has Shi'a followers in Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, both Americas and Australia. His international followers number in the millions and view him as their religious leader, obeying his every fatwa and guidance.

Competition between Influence and Income
Today, the world recognises al-Sistani as 'The Higher Marjah of the Imam Sect'.  However, he is not the only Marjah, along with al-Sistani the Shia community have numerous other prominent Marjahs in Iraq, Iran and Lebonan. Within Shi'ism, it is also the responsibility of Marjah to administer religious obligations such as collecting charity and gifts, managing religious affairs, and controlling of public funds. Additionally, every individual who subscribes to the Shia faith is obliged to donate 5% of their income to their respected Marjah. The funds collected by Marjah reach millions and even billions of US dollars and is a prime motivator for the hidden competition between the Shi'a Marjah as they all seek the ability to have control over these finances to push forward their respective projects and have a bigger footprint in Shi'a Islam.  Often it is the wealthiest Marjah that is most influential, for example, at present Ali Khomeini is working to weaken al-Sistani's position by paying salaries to his own followers in al-Sistani's religious jurisdiction in Najaf. 
In Iraq, there is no other Marjah that can compete with al-Sistani financially or income wise given his position as Grand Ayatollah and his massive following. However, they can offer al-Sistani criticism, dissatisfaction and question how he was able to survive the Ba'athist government of Iraq when his colleagues were either assassinated or executed. Al-Sistani's official biography as issued by his official office puts the survival of Shi'ism in Iraq down to al-Sistani's personal Jihad and patience. It explains that in his 35 years under Ba'athist rule in Iraq al-Sistani was only arrested once (in a hotel room) during the 1991 Shi'a uprisings and his release was granted as service to prophet’s lineage on account of the significance of al-Sistani's office. Furthermore, the biography explains that there is evidence to support the fact that there have been many plans to assassinate al-Sistani throughout his life but that is survival was down to the fact that  'gods tricks are far superior to those of terrorists'. It may be that many members of the Shi'a faith find these accounts put forward by al-Sistani's office to be doubtful because on occasions followers and organs of this Marjah have had no choice but to discuss that out of the twelve Shi'a Imams only Hussain and Mahdi rose up against their respected regimes. The question is why should al-Sistani promote rebellion against Saddam when "Imam Hussain himself came to Iraq for reform an not to work for the collapse of the progressive regime of the Levant?" To al-Sistani and Imam Hussain, it was the preservation of Shi'ism that was imperative and not politics, revolution or standing against the regime of the day.

A Passive Marjah and an Assertive Marjah
According to those who study Shi'ism al-Sistani's Marjah represents a branch of Marjah that in Shi'a literature is referred to as a 'passive Marjah'. This branch of Shi'ism is known for remaining close to the peripheries of everyday issues. Al-Sistani as a representative of this branch is known for addressing most of the problems that confront him with silence in an attempt to preserve his sect. In contrast, there is also a branch of Shi'ism that is referred to as an ‘assertiveMarjah’. Members of this branch believe that along with the everyday religious responsibilities they are also obliged to work towards the establishment of an Islamic State. Today this state is currently being designed by Mohammed Baqir Sadr (The founder of Iraq's Da'wa party), and before him, the idea was brought to fore by his relative Mohammed SadiqSadir (The father of Muqtada and teacher of the spiritual leader of the Fazila party, Mohammed Yakubi). The result of this assertive Marjah branch of Shi'ism has to date been the execution of the first Sadr in 1980 and the assassination of the second Sadr with his son's Mustafa and Mu'amal in 1998.  
While the subject of the Marjah's style was a topic of discussion for a long time in Shi'ism, following al-Sistani utilization of the Imam Hussain Shrine as a platform for his weekly address to his followers about Iraq's issues this debate fell silent. The description of al-Sistani as a ‘passive Marah’ has dissolved more visibly in recent times following his current chain of critical interventions in Iraqi politics. The most notable of these interventions was his request that Nuri al-Maliki steps down as Iraqi Prime Minister, issuing a fatwa against the Islamic State, requesting the formation of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, and his insistence on the need for reform in all sectors of Iraq. Some observers believe that if it weren't for al-Sistani's interventions, whom the Sadrist, Dawa party and the Fazila party refer to as 'out-dated', then the Islamic State would by now have taken over much southern Iraq given theSadrist, Dawa party and the Fazila party (who see themselves as revolutionaries) failed to defend Iraqi land. This action by al-Sistani has changed the balance of power in Iraqi Shi’a Islam back in his favour.           


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