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The Religious Face of Iraq

Shiite Leader Ali Sistani's Edicts Illuminate the Gap With the West

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C01

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq, seems through the prism of the Western media to be an elusive character. He has not met with coalition leaders directly, and he doesn't speak to reporters. His views on current affairs are known through statements made by those who surround him, which makes the ayatollah appear a remote, oracular, figure. Although he has avoided jumping directly into the political process, election results announced this week make his Shiite supporters the dominant force in the new government, and Sistani has proved in the past that he can muster tens of thousands of protesters to influence the course of the new Iraq. His impact on U.S. efforts to remake Iraq has been enormous. And yet he remains in many ways an enigma, an unseen hand and a powerful force guiding the country who knows where.

His views on religion, however, are perfectly clear and surprisingly available even to people who don't speak or read Arabic or the Iranian-born ayatollah's native Persian. Some of his works, including "Islamic Laws: According to the fatwa of Ayatullah al Uzama Syed Ali al-Husaini seestani," an English translation of his religious edicts, are available from a publisher based in Tehran. And while his works aren't easy to find in U.S. bookstores, Sistani's writings can be found, and searched electronically, online, at www.sistani.org.

A day after Iraq's national election, residents of Baghdad's Sadr City celebrate an expected victory by waving posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite leader. (Hadi Mizban -- AP)

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They reveal a mind that works with Aristotelian precision, an intellect that thinks through categories, definitions and the fine art of splitting differences. But they also reveal a religious world that would be, even to the most devout Americans, invasive into the details of daily life.

For example, fatwa 2648 reads: "It is unworthy to drink too much water; to drink water after eating fatty food; and to drink water while standing during the night. It is also unworthy to drink water with one's left hand; to drink from the side of a container which is cracked or chipped off, or from the side of its handle."

Sistani's edicts are squarely within the Shiite tradition, and he's considered by many observers a moderate in most things. Rulings on his Web site, for instance, say that it is considered permissible to have a face-lift and to listen to music (so long as the music isn't frivolous or "fit for diversion and play"). Speaking to one's fiance on the telephone is also permissible, if the conversation is "free of provocative words and if there is no fear of falling in sin." And while he works within the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, his references can be surprisingly wide. Citations from Alfred Hitchcock and Will Durant are marshaled in a set of rulings about the general attractiveness of modest women.

As a marja -- a scholar of such immense authority that not only can he can give new interpretations of Islamic law, but serves as a source of emulation to the faithful -- Sistani responds regularly to questions from fellow Shiites, who are free to follow his advice, or the advice of any other qualified religious scholars. It's clear from Sistani's introductions to his various collections of rulings that he senses the weight of his responsibility, of taking onto his own shoulders the responsibility for deciding the regulation of religious life. Throughout his writings, there are basic principles: He expects scrupulous honesty and integrity from the faithful; there is to be no gaming the system and no use of the letter of the law to avoid the spirit of it; and he's not a fundamentalist, but rather he looks to the larger intent rather than the literal meaning of the scriptural passages he cites.

In his advice to Muslims living in non-Muslim lands, he emphasizes respect for other religious and cultural traditions, along with a strong emphasis on maintaining Muslim values. In the fatwas he's issued during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, he has been a moderating influence, discouraging violence and retribution, and encouraging participation in the democratic process.

Sistani was born in 1929 near Masshad, and began studying the Koran at age 5. In 1952, after studies in the Iranian religious center of Qom, he moved to Najaf, in Iraq, where he studied with the Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khu'i. In 1992, after the death of Khu'i, he was selected to succeed his teacher as the head of Najaf's network of religious schools. Sistani has been in ill health recently and traveled to London last August for treatment.

In January 2004, he insisted that elections for a transitional government to write a new constitution should be direct and democratic. This led him into conflict with American leaders, who preferred a system of regional caucuses. His supporters protested the American plan en masse, and the United States backed down.

"In every generation you have some mujtahids who are more strict, and some less strict," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, using another term for scholars who are qualified to give new opinions on the basis of existing religious law. Among his peers, says Nasr, Sistani "is very moderate."

Moderate is a relative term, especially within a tradition that is extremely thorough in the way it parses the right and wrong of daily life. Sistani, for instance, often decides it is permissible to do things that, within other religious contexts, would never have been questionable in the first place.

Fatwa 2638, for example, reassures the reader that "there is no objection in swallowing the food which comes out from between the teeth at the time of tooth picking."

Nasr, and other scholars of Islam, point out that this approach to religious law is similar to that of Orthodox Judaism. The hundreds of rulings that deal with prayer, bodily functions, marriage contracts and alms are part of an ancient tradition shared by several faiths.

"Those are practical matters, not his preoccupation," says Nasr. "It is a question of ritual purity, in religions like Islam, Judaism and Hinduism."

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