A Shiite Schism On Clerical Rule

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 17, 2009

NAJAF, Iraq -- As Iran simmers over its disputed presidential election, Shiite clerics in Iraq are looking across the border with a sense of satisfaction that they have figured out a more durable answer to a question that has beset Shiite Islam for centuries: What role should religion play in politics?

No one in this city, which stands as the world's most venerable seat of Shiite scholarship, is boasting. Nor is there any swagger among the most senior clerics and their retinue of turbaned students and advisers. Befitting the ways of the tradition-bound Shiite seminary, points are made in whispers and hints, through allegories and metaphor.

But three decades after the Iranian revolution brought to power one notion of clerical rule -- and six years after the fall of Saddam Hussein helped enshrine another version of religious authority here -- the relationship between religion and the state in Iraq, clerics here say, seems more enduring than the alternative in neighboring Iran.

"It's true," said Ghaith Shubar, a cleric who runs a foundation in Najaf aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric. "The spiritual guidance of the people in Iraq has become stronger than the guidance offered under the system in Iran. The marjaiya" -- the term used to describe the authority of the most senior ayatollahs -- "has more influence in Iraq, spiritual and otherwise, than it does in Iran."

More than a debate over semantics or the sometimes arcane details of a cleric's role, the precise relationship between the clergy and the state goes to the heart of politics in Iraq and Iran, both with Shiite majorities but with different ethnicities and languages. Though unelected, clerics in each country enjoy a standing unparalleled elsewhere in the Middle East. Sistani played perhaps the most decisive role in politics of any Iraqi leader in the years after the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Hussein in 2003. In theory at least, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, wields power that is sanctioned by God, though discontent over the official results of last month's election has challenged his authority.

In reality, however, the two systems are radically different, manifesting in many ways a division that has shaped Shiite Islam for centuries. The division has been especially pronounced since 1970, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the eventual leader of the Iranian revolution, first elaborated the idea of clerical rule in a series of lectures during his tenure in Najaf.

Known as wilayat al-faqih, the theory holds that God's authority, passed down through a line of imams that started with Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad, and ended with the 12th imam, who disappeared in the 9th century, is held by a cleric chosen as the supreme leader. Enshrined in the Iranian constitution, this authority has served as the basis of governance for the country since the revolution.

The authority of clerics in Iraq, on the other hand, lacks any legal basis. It is derived instead from prestige, the notion that millions look to Sistani as their spiritual authority. The most devout of his followers consider his edicts to carry the force of law. The tall, ascetic, Iranian-born Sistani is thought to adhere to what is sometimes called the quietist school of Shiite Islam, in which the clergy disavow an overt role in politics. Often, politicians are left guessing what Sistani's position -- if he has one -- might be.

His authority is distinct from political parties in Iraq that are avowedly Islamist and often count junior clerics among their senior leadership. The more senior ayatollahs deem those clerics politicians first and foremost, not clergy.

As one cleric put it, the difference between the two visions in Iraq and Iran is akin to different roles at a construction site. Under the wilayat al-faqih in Iran, the cleric might serve as the foreman, responsible for each aspect of the design and execution. In the quietist model in Iraq, Sistani would be considered the owner, but perhaps an absentee one.

A Lively Debate

Both visions represent an ideal that rarely translates into reality. In Iran, the discontent among senior clerics over the presidential election and the government's response has challenged Khamenei's ostensibly absolute authority. In Iraq, Sistani has often exerted decisive influence in the country's politics -- from undoing U.S. plans in 2003 for the country's political transition to self-rule to guaranteeing the turnout in landmark elections in 2005.

"Don't ever forget Sistani's influence," a senior Iraqi official said.

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