Since a death sentence was called down on the writer Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the term "fatwa" has been linked in the West with a medieval notion of retribution. But the vast majority of fatwas have to do with details of bathing, menstruation, sex and business. And though they reflect the dictates of ancient religious ideas, they are part of a dynamic tradition in which religion is constantly adapting to new challenges and threats. One of the liveliest sources of new religious thought is on the Internet, where fatwas are available online for Muslims grappling with a changing world.
Sistani's thought builds on and elaborates the rulings of his revered predecessor, Khu'i. Taken individually, out of context, rulings such as those offered by Sistani can seem disturbingly preoccupied with moral minutiae, often raising more questions than they seem to answer.
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)
If, for example, a "person commits sodomy with a boy, the mother, sister and daughter of the boy become haraam for him," begins one ruling. The particulars of the fatwa deal only with the status of women related to a sodomized boy, who would seem to be the more pressing object of religious concern. But numerous other rulings deal with the impermissibility of same-sex relations. The seeming narrow focus of religious rulings is an inevitable byproduct of their being essentially refinements of first principles. For the poetry of those first principles, for the soaring statements of right and wrong and decency that Christians find in the Sermon on the Mount, one has to look to the books -- the Koran and the Hadith -- upon which Sistani's thought are based.
U.S. political leaders, including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have been eager to reassure Americans that, despite Sistani's immense influence, the ayatollah has shown no interest in stepping directly into Iraq's political fray. They have contrasted Sistani's religious focus with the overt call to political arms in the writings of Khomeini.
They are right about the political differences between Sistani and Khomeini. Reading the works of Khomeini after the works of Sistani is a bit like dipping into Plato's "Republic" after spending time with Aquinas: Khomeini had a sweeping, revolutionary view of the state as a source of virtue, markedly different from Sistani's limited view of the state as an institution run by the best men one can find.
Some of Khomeini's writing even engages directly with the mainstream, legalist tradition represented by Sistani, in a way that suggests that Khomeini was self-conscious about the challenge of forging modern political entities out of the ancient traditions of Islamic law.
"But the foreigners have whispered to the hearts of people, especially the educated among them: Islam possesses nothing," Khomeini wrote in "Islamic Government," encouraging readers not to succumb to Western parodies of Islamic religious strictures. It is self-defeating to think of Islam as "nothing but a bunch of rules on menstruation and childbirth."
But while Sistani's thought is far from the radical Shiite leaders who led the Iranian revolution, it isn't accurate to say it's apolitical. While he himself leaves politics to politicians, Sistani's understanding of religious law leaves very little of the world beyond the scrutiny of religious leaders. In fact, it is difficult to carve out realms of the "private" and "political" that have much meaning. In the interest of maintaining things such as modesty and ritual cleanliness, there is a paradox: Women's bodies are subject to particularly close observation, so much so that that many of Sistani's rulings can't be quoted in a family newspaper.
While American leaders emphasize that Sistani isn't like the clerics of Iran, others point out that the Shiite tradition leaves Sistani little wiggle room on fundamental topics, including women's rights.
"It is important to keep in mind that there are certain issues in the Shiite community about which no ayatollah, however progressive, can afford to deviate in his deliberations and final ruling," Abdulaziz A. Sachedina writes in an e-mail from Iran. A professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia, Sachedina met with Sistani several times in the 1990s, and on one occasion Sistani criticized his writings and issued a ruling against Sachedina's public comments on matters of faith. Sachedina was undaunted and says he carries "no grudge" against Sistani. Nonetheless, Sachedina's inside view of Sistani and Sistani's organization lead him to consider the ayatollah more conservative than do other observers.
Sistani's views on women "are restrictive and in his personal communication to me in 1998 he made it very clear that he abides by the age-old opinions regarding women's inequality with men, and that he regards their testimony, as extrapolated from the Qu'ran, half of a man's testimony in value," the scholar writes.
Sachedina also believes that the aging Sistani is strongly influenced by his son and sons-in-law, who run his large and wealthy international organization.
"My overall assessment of [Sistani] is that he is conservative and certainly [a] political opportunist who would readily change his opinion to get the support of a specific group for political ends," Sachedina writes.
It is unlikely, given Sistani's background, his writings, and his embodiment of a conservative religious tradition, that he will emerge as an ideal cultural leader by U.S. standards. In a society ruled by religious law, in which every detail of life can be subjected to a ruling by a religious scholar, the citizen has a much more direct and dependent relationship on authority than in secular democracies. Elections may decide who runs the government, but culturally, a tradition of dependence on religious authority may make it difficult to establish the kinds of rights and freedoms taken for granted by citizens of democracies that draw a stronger line between church and state. None of this precludes political democracy, but a reading of Sistani's writings suggests there may be a lot less room for personal freedom than American leaders, who have downplayed the consequences of an Iraq ruled by sharia law, acknowledge.