Can ‘obscure cleric’ save Iraq from brutal terrorism of ISIS?

June 18, 2014

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf, Iraq, recently issued a ruling (fatwa) calling for able-bodied Iraqis to join forces with the Iraqi army in resisting the ISIS ‘terrorists’. He said that anyone who dies fighting ISIS will die a martyr.


This last claim will be hugely significant to his Shia followers, for whom the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 CE (61 AH in the Islamic calendar) is the defining moment for their branch of Islam, solemnly recalled each year on the day of Ashura – a devotion whose significance is captured in the slogan: ‘Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala’.


Significantly, Sistani’s call has gone out to the Iraqi people, not just to the Shia – and he has also clarified that he does not wish British Muslims to fly to Iraq to join the battle.


The quietist?


Sistani himself is a quiet, unostentatious figure; a scholar whose small house is open for his followers but who is seldom if ever seen in the company of politicians or other figures of power. He has been tagged by some in the west with the slightly misleading epithet ‘quietist’ because of his reluctance to get involved in the details of political affairs.


Colin Freeman, blogging at the Telegraph, suggested that Iraq's Ayatollah al-Sistani should be given the Nobel Peace Prize this year because ‘he's been an outstanding voice of moderation, peace and tolerance, without whom the country would probably be a far bloodier place than it already is’. That was before ISIS went on its recent bloody rampage, but if anything the Ayatollah’s reputation should only have been enhanced since then.


Freeman referred to him as ‘an obscure Iraqi cleric’. In the UK and US he may be obscure, but in the words of the Jordanian listing of the ‘Muslim 500’, in which he ranks eighth, he is ‘the preeminent Shia cleric globally’. Only the Ayatollah Khameini gets a higher placement in the list of the world’s most influential Shia Muslims, and that’s because he’s a head of state.


Ayatollah Sistani earns his place as the highest-ranking scholar and Marja al-Taqlid of the world’s Shias – the marja being an ‘authority to be emulated’ by believers who have not themselves qualified to hold an independent judicial opinion by years of seminary study. There are several notable marja, but Sistani, originally from Iran but now long resident in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, is the one whose teachings are closely followed by the greatest number of Shias worldwide.


And this matters for two reasons that should interest the wider world for whom this man is indeed, as yet, an ‘obscure cleric’.


It matters first because Sistani – unlike the less scholarly but more obviously powerful and better-known Ayatollah Khamenei, former President of Iran and now its second Supreme Leader - subscribes to a markedly different view of the relation between religion and politics. Khamenei, following in the footsteps of the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Iranian Revolution, holds to the latter’s doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih or ‘rule of the jurisprudent’, which postulates that the supreme political authority should belong to a cleric rather than a politician – with Khomeini himself as the Supreme Jurisprudent in the first place, and Khamenei taking up that position on Khomeini’s death.


Sistani, in Iraq, rejects this doctrine, first proposed by Khomeini and implemented as part of the Iranian Revolution. He argues that both religion and politics benefit from a division of responsibility whereby the clerics inspire devotion and sound morality, while politicians should rule the state in a way that conforms to the principles the marja have set forth. He thus offers an older and more traditional Shia view of political power as an alternative to the Iranian doctrine, and his status as a scholar has ensured that Iraq does not come under the thrall of its neighbour Iran nearly as easily as the Iranians might wish.


In some ways, though, the second reason that Sistani and his leanings should be of great interest to the non-Islamic world is even more significant: he is a force for moderation within Iraq, consistently appealing to the entire population of Iraq rather than to the Shias only, both during the periods of sectarian ‘cleansing’ during the recent war in Iraq, and at present, when sectarian feelings are running high across the Middle East, and Iraq itself is beset by a Sunni resurgence, going under the name of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.


The question of who will listen to Sistani and act on his instructions is obviously an important one, and those who have taken him as their Marja al-Taqlid are in fact obliged to follow his rulings, just as any who have chosen the Iranian Khamenei are obliged to follow his. The general population, including otherwise undecided Sunni Iraqis, is likely to take note of Sistani’s call and give it some weight as they come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions.


Iran’s Khamenei has his own followers and supporters in Iraq, but his reputation for scholarship is far weaker than Sistani’s, and he represents the heavy-weight country next door, known for its overweening interest in leading the Shia world. It therefore seems probable that political (including military) considerations rather than religious ones will influence popular response to whatever assistance Iran offers to PM Maliki and the Iraqi national forces.


Within this context it's interesting that Sistani and the other authorities of the Najaf hawza in Iraq welcomed the victory of the moderate Presidential candidate, Rouhani, in the Iranian elections last year, and that while they had refused a visit from ex-President Ahmadinejad, all four Grand Ayatollahs of Najaf welcomed the incoming Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on his first visit to Iraq. The tensions between Iraq and Iran, both theological and political, are real, but also somewhat fluid.


Sectarian cleansing


It should be noted that ISIS features a coalition of battle-hardened jihadists who have broken off from al-Qaeda to pursue a path of brutality even Ayman al-Zawahiri cannot stomach, along with ex-Baathist military men and even members of the Sunni ‘Awakening’ that supported US forces in the recent war. What we call ISIS is in fact a sectarian Sunni response to Maliki’s Shia-favouring government, its successes are more those of a Sunni revulsion at Maliki’s treatment of his opponents than of sweeping Iraqi desire for the puritanical jihadism of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ruthless ISIS goons.


ISIS, in short, would love to see a sectarian cleansing, and routinely executes Shia for being Shia – heretics worthy of death according to ISIS’s own version of Wahhabi Sunni theology. It is to the remarkable Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s credit that in calling for resistance to ISIS advance, he speaks to all Iraqis and not just to his own Shia followers, asking ‘all able-bodied Iraqis’ to join the national forces and not to take matters into their own hands as mobs and militias.


As Matt Schiavenza puts it in an article in the International Business Times, ‘Despite his identification as a sectarian leader, the 84-year-old Sistani has been so far a moderating influence in Iraqi politics. In 2004, the cleric publicly endorsed democracy in the country, ensuring the success of January 2005 elections despite the constant, deadly violence. And after Sunni militants attacked the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006, one of Shia’s holiest sites, in an act that precipitated the country's civil war, Sistani blamed the sectarian violence on foreign forces and urged reconciliation between Iraq’s disparate groups.’


Iraq, the Middle East and the world should be grateful for his restraint.




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