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
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
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.