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It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah

By Juan Cole
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page B04

The battle for Najaf has catapulted the names of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and lower-ranking cleric Moqtada Sadr onto the front pages of American newspapers once again.

Though their names may have become more familiar to American ears, they are a part of a long tradition of Shiite clerical leadership over which a veil was drawn in the time of Saddam Hussein. Now those clerics -- along with three other grand ayatollahs in Najaf -- have reemerged as major leaders. Examining their influence, and how they attained it, offers a deeper understanding of Shiism and the forces at work in Iraq.


Authority figure: Posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani attest to his popularity. Saddam Hussein decimated the religious structure in Najaf. It is unclear who among three other grand ayatollahs might eventually succeed Sistani. (Brennan Linsley -- AP)

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Sistani, who is 74 and an adroit religious politician committed to a form of parliamentary democracy, has intervened in key ways to shape Iraq since the fall of Saddam. More than a week ago, he abruptly quit Najaf for London, a departure that signaled the beginning of an all-out campaign against the fiery Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

The beefy Sadr, who is 30, peppers his interviews with rough, gutter Arabic, though as a seminarian he is perfectly capable of eloquence. As a young man, he saw the bullet-riddled bodies of his father and two elder brothers brought home after Saddam's secret police sprayed their car with machine-gun fire. An angry hothead, with a ruthless streak born of his struggle against the Baath Party, Sadr leads a radical Shiite minority throughout the south that is loyal to his father's ideals.

His movement is sectarian and based on charisma, appealing predominantly to the young and poor. His followers demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and advocate an Iranian-style, clerically ruled state. They view the caretaker government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as a mere puppet.

Though Sadr is too young to be taken seriously by Sistani and the other Shiite ayatollahs, he has inherited the followers of his father, who inspired fanatical devotion in many poor slum dwellers in the south, and they have transferred their loyalty to his son.

Since the invasion, Najaf has emerged as ever more treacherous ground for the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. As home to Iraq's highest religious authorities, Najaf rests on a landscape where history and grievance inform every struggle; the battle there to control the future of Iraq crosses lines of religion, identity and generation.

Shiite Muslims revere Najaf as keeper of the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, considered by Shiites to be his vicar. Sunni Muslims honor Ali as well, and control of such a sacred shrine brings prestige and wealth through contributions of pilgrims.

Najaf also has Shiite seminaries, where clerics study for years, graduating with a degree in religious jurisprudence. Those graduates who write and teach move up a ladder of positions bestowed by the consensus of other clerics. The first step up from a simple jurisprudent is Hujjat al-Islam, or proof of Islam. Sadr's followers often use that title for him, but most observers doubt he has even finished his formal studies.

The high rank of ayatollah is achieved by those clerics who write many respected works, including a comprehensive manual for lay persons about the correct practice of Shiism, and who attract some popular following. Iraq -- which is about 65 percent Shiite -- once had hundreds of ayatollahs, but their ranks were much depleted by Saddam's assassinations. Although the current number is hard to know, the most senior of them rise to be grand ayatollahs in Najaf, and there are currently four.

The most revered of the grand ayatollahs is the marja, or source of religiousauthority. His fatwas, or rulings, on matters of religious law have enormous moral authority for the laity, and are often persuasive with other clerics. All Shiite lay persons must choose a learned and upright cleric, whose rulings on the details of religious practice they must follow.

Sistani is the current source of religious authority for most Iraqi Shiites, a position that depends both on the esteem of other clerics and on popular acclaim. He also has large followings in Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere. Because Shiite Iran itself has 10 or so claimants to grand ayatollah status, Sistani has only a small following there.

The other three grand ayatollahs in Najaf are include Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani; Ishaq Fayed, an Afghan; and Mohammed Saeed Hakim, an Iraqi. Hakim is a distant relative of Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the important political party allied with the United States, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. All three strongly support Sistani.

If Sistani, who is under treatment for heart problems in London, were to die, a period of uncertainty in the Shiite leadership would ensue. He would almost surely be succeeded by one of the other grand ayatollahs in Najaf. There is a dispute in the Arabic press about which is the leading candidate. Some suggest that Najafi, who has expressed vehemently anti-American sentiments, is next in line. Another contender is Fayed, 75, who is said to reject the idea of clerical involvement in politics altogether, being more politically quietist than Sistani.


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