Who will replace Sistani? Who are the most prominent individuals and Ayatollahs that wish to bring Najaf under there control? Among the Iraqi religious authorities who are committed to the principle of 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist'?

3 years agoANALYSIS

By Yasin Taha

The Shi'a authority has existed since the 400 AH, and its line of succession has not encountered significant problems until the era of Sistani.  However, it is likely that after the death of Sistani there will be enormous problems around the line of succession and who will replace him. The reason for this is not because Sistani is a unique or irreplaceable individual as Sistani is the son of an organisation that has throughout history formed such individuals. Instead, the problem of replacing Sistani is that there is a lack of charismatic individuals and the timing is tricky as throughout its history this religious authority has never had a moment such as the current one where a charismatic individual like Sistani can have a real impact on political issues. Since the invasion, Sistani has had significant involvement in all major political decisions taken in post-Saddam Iraq. Observers argue that one of the causes of the splintering of the Shi'a vote in the 2018 elections was that before the election Sistani allowed a free choice in voting for his followers. In previous polls, Sistani had called for compulsory voting in that it was a responsibility of all Shi'a individuals to cast their ballots. With these statements, Sistani was able to increase the Shi'a voter turnout significantly.
Two weeks before the elections Sistani gave a Friday Sermon via his assistant allowing his followers a free choice in taking part in the 2018 elections. He explained that when choosing to vote or when choosing not to vote the individual must understand his or her reasons for taking that action.  With this position, Sistani detached Shia religious authority from the voting process and as a consequence election turnout tumbled. In Baghdad a city where there is immense political competition between competing sides the electoral attendance was only 33%.
Therefore, replacing Sistani requires an extended period as it took him six years to become the leader of the Shia sect. Given the divided state of Shi'a politics today it is difficult to once again wait for another extended period for a new leader to emerge and reach the status of Sistani. There are three main criteria required to take over the position of Ayatolla, and they are; to have expert knowledge, the number of attorneys available to him, and how much trust and influence the individual commands.
It is for this reason that the person that becomes Ayatollah is immediately in a strong position and also receives a tremendous amount of support and congratulations.  In reverse of the Iranian order in which there are 80 Ayotallahs, and one is chosen to replace the grand Ayatolla in Najaf there is no preset rules and no written protocol for returning the Grand Ayatollah. In Najaf, it is the job of the individual who wished to succeed the sitting Ayatolla to dedicate his life to developing a cult of personality, following and tribal support base that will see him through to the position when the time is right.
The most famous work on the process of succession in Najaf was the scenario written by Haidar Khoi, the grandson of Ayatollah Khoi, which was a research paper titled  'The Steps after Sistani'. In this paper, Haidar Khoi has described the possible scenario that may transpire following the death of Sistani. When Sistani's death occurs, all the Shi'a tribal leaders will follow their tribal elders to Najaf to attend the funeral and pay their respects to the new Ayatollah. This collective action will confirm who is the successor to Sistani will be and will form the process of preparation for the individual to take on the role. At present, the Ayatollah has a network of representatives outside of Iraq in Lebonan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bahrain and other places. These representatives will play an essential role in the succession process as they must also put their faith in the next Ayatollah. Moreover, Sistani has enormous wealth at his disposal which will be used to prepare his successor.

Another critical factor in deciding the successor is political backing. For example in the era of the Shah when an Ayotallah died the Shah sent his letter of condolences. In the period of Saddam Hussain, the then Iraqi leader played an essential role in the placement of Sistani. The political support guarantees the fact that the new Ayatollah will be able to teach students from across his international authority in Iraq. Without the backing students from foreign states will not have the freedom to travel to Iraq to take lessons from the Ayatollah. 
A possible replacement for Ayatollah Sistani would have been Mohammad Baqir Sadr had he not died in 2003. He was the son of Muhsin Hakim who died in 1970. During his life, Muhsin Hikim was able to become a leading figure of Shi'a Islam not only in Iraq but internationally.  As a result before his murder, Mohammad Baqir Sadr was an Ayatollah and on the verge of becoming a Grand Ayatollah. In his absence, there are now only four individuals of Ayatollah rank. These individuals are;
1) Sistani himself, who was born in 1930 and is today 88 years old. His strengths are that he came to Iraq in 1951 and had only spent six months in Iran and has only been to London on one occasion to seek medical treatment. Other than these trips he has not left Iraq and has inserted himself into the fabric of the country. Moreover,  his son Mohammed Raza also became an Ayatollah; however, it is unlikely that he will succeed his father as he is not a charismatic individual.
2) Mohammed Said Hakim, who is Iraqi and of the Hakim tribe. He is older than others, yet he has one of the best chances of taking over from Sistani. There are many positives about this individual such as being the head of the Waqfi Shia Court. This role is vital as it administers all Iraqi Shia organisations.
3) Basheer Najafi, who is of Pakistani descent but grew up in Najaf and has trouble with the Arabic language. However, he remains one of the most prominent Ayatollahs.
4) Mohammed  Ishaq al-Feach, who is of Afghan origin and has trouble with the Arabic language.
These four Sheikhdoms are the pillars of Najaf's religious authority. Other than these four individuals there also some other individuals who hold holy power such as Mohammed Yaqubi. While he is the spiritual authority within the Fazila party, he (like others) has no religious charisma. These individuals became ayatollahs through study with Sadr rather than passing through the required stages.  Hence, there is doubt about their qualification and experience to be Ayatollahs.
Another issue regarding the death of Sistani is who will lead the prayer at his funeral? Who will manage his funeral? And to whom will people pay their respects?  The answer to these has to be the person that is to succeed from Sistani.
While the four individuals outline above are the most experienced and educated to take over from Sistani they are not without problems.  First, they are all over the age of 80. Second,  two of them are Iraqi but have difficulty with the Arabic language. And, third, none of them is part of the 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist'.
 There are only two Iraqi religious authorities that are part of the 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist', however, neither currently lives in Iraq. They are;
1) Ayatollah Hairi
2) Ayatollah Shahrudi
While these two individuals are Iraqi, they currently live and practice in Iran. While Iran does support the possibility that they take over from Sistani via financial, social and religious support these two individuals face two significant obstacles. Hence, the Iraqis are not worried that the Iranian branch of the 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist' will take over the Najaf.
Nevertheless, the attempts by the supporters of the 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist' to control Najaf has worked to weaken the influence of Sistani. For example, the i'ab militias do not listen to the religious orders of Sistani. While they do on the face show respect to him, they do not follow his laws or teachings. In the same manner, other militias like Kit'ab Seed Shihdae and Kitab Nijae are continuing to grow which poses a threat to Najaf.  For example, Sistani was against using the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces outside of Iraq, but recently they were used to send supplied and assistance to the Husi rebels in Yemen. Hence, the Iranian branch of Shi'a Islam seems to be working to reduce the authority of Najaf over the sect, but that desire has yet to manifest into a takeover of Najaf. Shi'a of Iraq feels optimistic in that Iran's interests seem to lie with political and economic influence in the south rather than populism. Their distance from populism roots from an understanding that the Shi'a of Iraq has a destain for Iran as even within the Shi'a sect there are elements of nationalistic and linguistic pride.

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