SHAFAQNA – Introduction:
Iraq’s most prominent and senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s work – the breadth of his knowledge, and the depth of his wisdom when addressing those issues which have plagued Society remain a mystery to those who look upon his character through the lens of politics.
While Ayatollah Sistani remains mostly a recluse – a solitary man who seeks comfort and peace in the word of God, his shadow has stretch broad over Iraq, and his advice have echoed throughout. If many continue to measure their affluence and influence through their media visibility, Ayatollah Sistani needed no more than piety, and intelligence of the heart to reach millions.
For a scholar whose life has been spent away from the limelight, and quest for power, Ayatollah Ali Sistani stands Iraq’s most influential character, teacher, scholar, and devoted Muslim – an example to follow, and a beacon for those who aspire to follow in the footsteps of Shia Islam’s traditions.
Following is an excerpt of his life:
In the Summer 2003, some 13 years ago – on the wake of former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, I (Abolfazl Fateh) visited “Atabat al-Aliyat” (The Holy shrines). There I had the great privilege of meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. I actually met Ayatollah Sistani on several occasions: 2012 and 2014.
As you very well know, Iraq is currently in the throes of great many challenges and crises, none the least disunity and intolerance. So far Iraq’s political leaders have failed to adequately address and redress Iraq’s many ailments, leaving the people to yearn for another form of leadership – one which would restore Iraq to its people, and allow for a common future to be carved.
Away from the clamour of politics, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has offered such guidance, and such leadership. It is towards actually that Iraqis have in their drove turn to for direction.
Sitting above the fray of politics, Ayatollah Sistani’s counsel is rooted not in ambition, but devotion to the Word. It is important to note that of not for Ayatollah Sistani’s timely intervention in Iraq’s socio-political affairs, Iraq would have probably been lost to the ravages of radicalism.
To that effect, and to that end Ayatollah Sistani’s leadership have been absolutely essential.
But how can a scholar and cleric such as Ayatollah Sistani – whose public appearances are few and far in between have played such a role in society? How can a man with a propensity for solitude have acted such a catalyst for positive change?
Understanding such a phenomenon will actually allow for a better understanding of the Shia religious establishment – especially the Marjaeia.
Shia clerics’ viewpoints and their approach of politics within a governmental framework indicate that most of great Shia clerics have managed to move beyond their recognized fields, to find just leadership.
Diversity of Conduct toward Politics in Shia Marjaeia:
Throughout history, Shia intellectuals – the elite, and the authorities have mapped their decisions, and ruling according to Society’s particular circumstances, adapting their injunctions and advices to people’s needs, and predicaments.
While Shia scholars have always strived to promote cohesion and peace, their calls have not always been heeded, and more often than not truths were lost to the clamours of war. Still Shia scholars have remained the keepers of Islam’s traditions, a fortress against time, and worldly ambitions. It is actually scholars’ disinterest in politics which allowed for Shia Islam school of thought to weather the assault of time and man-made ambitions.
For over a millennium, the holy city of Najaf, has kept true to the legacy of AhlulBayt (AS), a beacon for those in search of religious knowledge, but never a contender to political power.
That is not to say that Najaf did not suffer its fair share of hardship.
During the era of ex-Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, the seminary of the holy city of Najaf faced its most difficult times. Saddam Hussein did everything he could to lay waste this brilliant scientific and cultural center of Shia Islam. Still his efforts were no match to Shia clerics’ quiet perseverance. Erected in the tradition of the Imams, Shia clerics drew strength, wisdom and intelligence from the teachings set before them – looking not to assert their power, but instead preserve that which sits at the heart of Shia Islam: resistance before tyranny. Under the guidance of such clerics as Grand Ayatollah Mohsen Al-Hakim and Ayatollah Seyed Abolghasem Khoei, Najaf was preserved – it shines today brighter still.
The seminary of the Iranian holy city of Qom was also revitalized by Ayatollah Hayeri Yazdi and Ayatollah Boroujerd in 1979 following the impetus of Iran Islamic Revolution – the center then became Shia Muslims’ last hope across the world.
Today the seminaries of the holy cities of Najaf and Qom have grown to symbolize the two wings and eyes of Shia Islam – both pivotal to the tradition of AhlulBayt (AS).
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic was himself a teacher and a student of both the holy cities of Qom and Najaf– the expression of Shia lslam’s tenets and traditions, both a scholar and a servant of AhlulBayt. It is under his guidance, and through his vision and leadership that Iran was able to transition away from despotism to then re-enter into a new covenant – one in line with its religious traditions and its people’s yearning for true leadership.
Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine allowed for the creation of a new political system in Iran – a national covenant aimed at governing people.
Holy City of Najaf after the Fall of Saddam Hussein:
The fall of Saddam Hussein opened new avenues to Iraqis. No longer at the mercy of a tyrant, Shia Muslims in Iraq reclaimed control over their political destiny, keen to restore what had been destroyed, and build anew for future generations.
A new vibrant chapter then opened up for Iraq Shia Ulema.
At that time, the Ulama (High-Ranking Shia Clergies) of the holy city of Najaf did not welcome direct participation in politics, and strictly banned clerics from playing a role in executive arenas for two specific reasons:
Firstly, the political and social requirements and the diverse ethnic and religious groups in Iraq are totally different from Iran.
Secondly, the role played by the Iraqi Ulema and seminary of the holy city of Najaf is entirely different from that of Iran.
Rather than directly partake in Iraq political life, the Najaf Ulemas monitored from afar, very much like a social activist would.
One of Iraq’s most influential civil institution in place the Iraqi Ulemas managed to exert pressure onto the state and officials by wielding and playing their social networks, connections, and fields of influence to foster positive change – thus asserting themselves above the political.
If we look carefully, we would understand that the demands and measures taken by the religious authorities stand in fact a true reflection of Iraqis’ wishes.
The Marjaia institution has been de facto transformed into a powerful force for change, together a guardian against tyranny and a keeper of popular will. It also forced politicians and state officials to stand accountable of their actions before the people while reinforcing such principles as national sovereignty, social cohesion and unity.
Traditionally, Shia clerics in the holy city of Najaf do not enter the political fray except in very rare situations.
Authority and Dignity of thet Marjaiat Institution in the Holy City of Najaf:
Authority and legitimacy are vital to the Marjaia Institution.
Throughout history, Shia clerics have managed to gain their authority and legitimacy from religious requirements, as well as their scientific and social situation.
Marjaiat is the result of decades of personal and social improvement, education, research and writing, based on vast social networks.
This measure has changed the Marjaiat to an independent and social institution which towers over all political institutions.
A glance, at the history and role played by senior clerics in the holy cities of Najaf and Qom are clear evidence of this.
The Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani on the Seminary of Najaf and his Personal Characteristics:
Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the senior clerics of the holy city of Najaf, appointed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as head of the seminary of Najaf. The main clerics of the city: including Grand Ayatullah al-Fayadh, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Basheer Hussain Najafi did not oppose the decision.
In response to the approach adopted by the most important scholars of the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Sistani decided to consult with Najaf’s most senior scholars.
In another word, the decision and viewpoints of Grand Ayatollah Sistani did not originate from his personal rights but rather from religious principles and public demands.
This authority and legitimacy would cause the Marjaiat institution to adopt approaches and political literature without the authoritarian and parental practices, and thus avoid unwarranted provocation.
In view of the tensions currently existing within the Islamic world in regards to Shia Islam, the
Marjaiat has made a point at remaining politically neutral – avoiding any hard speeches as to promote unity and cohesion over controversy.
For example, Grand Ayatollah Sistani recently issued three statements in which he addressed terror. The statements came following a bomb attack against a Shia mosque in Qatif (Saudi Arabia), the tragedy of the Mina stampeded during the Hajj pilgrimage (2015), and the execution of prominent and vocal Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. In each statement, Ayatollah Sistani denounced the events and those responsible, but did not mention any Saudi officials by name.
All the while, the Marjaiat has worked to forge powerful and fruitful friendships, networks, and relations throughout — holding meeting and sessions with politicians, policy-makers and other influential people across the world.
Marjaiat as a Civil Institution:
The legitimacy of the Marjaiat institution and its position in society has caused Shia senior clerics to become aware of the people’s problems and demands.
They now intervene as a bona fide civil institution – not a state or political official. Its aim is to influence government to meet the people’s demands.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani also does not intervene in the state political affair per se – he does not insist for example for his supporters to hold office, his work stands outside and above politics.
Marjaiat – the Median of Government-Nation:
The authority of Grand Ayatollah Sistani originates from divine providence and the people’s attention. As for the Marjaiat institution is stand totally independent from government authority – somewhere in between the state and society. It is such independence from the state which has allowed the Marjaiat to act a guidance, and a trusted source of counsel for both the state and the people.
Where the state draws its legitimacy from the people – or at times from brutal force alone, the Marjaiat institution has anchored itself in those principles which are central to Shia Islam – guidance through injunction, and education never imposition or violence. While such principles can be difficult to grasp in the West where the State and the Religious are viewed as antithetical to one another, the Marjaiat institution is together separate and embedded, but most importantly above.
Answering to the Divine, the religious institution rules over worldly affairs – only from a station which is apolitical.
The Marjaiat institution is situated between government and society, to safeguard both the government and the nation.
The authority of the Marjaiat institution which is widely defined within the framework of a religion community is best exemplifies in Iraq in its handling of terrorism, as expressed by Daesh (ISIS).
For example, when Daesh (ISIS) threatened the religious integrity of Iraq, the Marjaiat institution issued an Islamic decree (fatwa) of Jihad against them. Because Iraq’s very religious integrity, the sanctity of its shrines and the safety of its people stood in mortal danger, the Marjaiatintervened – very much in keeping with the tradition set forth by Imam Ali (AS) and Imam Husayn (AS), who both firmly stood, resisted and prevailed before tyranny.
While Shia Islam denounces violence absolutely, resistance against injustice remains a religious duty.
If certain times require peace to better serve Islam, there are instances which require men, and women to fight so that Truth could be restored. Here too, wisdom can be drawn from the example set before us by Imam Hasan (AS) and Imam Husayn (AS).
Sensitivity to Corruption:
Grand Ayatollah Sistani stands most strict on issues related to financial corruption.
The scholars of holy city of Najaf enjoy very simple lives and do not receive money from government. Their earnings are based on religious Vojohat or Khums – donations made by the people to the religious authorities.
Aware of the dangers posed by corruption Ayatollah Sistani has watched over the Marjaiat institution, and ensured that such cancer would find no anchor. To preserve such institution, the Marjaiat does not receive any governmental budget in holy city of Najaf. Much can be said of an institution which covets not worldly possessions, and instead focuses on serving God, and the broader community.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani has always held a firm stance on political and economic corruption due to his simple life and independence from the state budget. Leading by example, the simplicity of his lifestyle has served a powerful moral anchor for those around him.
Sensitivity to Flattery and Formation of Biased Flow:
Senior scholars of the holy city of Najaf consider flattery to be a disgraceful behaviour.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani has also prevented the formation of a movement by his fans and he had frowned upon anyone who has ever attempted to hinder the freedom of others for the sake of his teachings. In keeping with Shia Islam tradition the Grand Ayatollah does not recognize extremism in any affairs.
Avoiding Politicization: َ
Grand Ayatollah Sistani does not hold regular meetings with political leaders, ministers or parliamentarians.
He also does not safeguard any official. He is however well aware of politics, properly knows politicians, and entertain cordial relationship with them. But he is not politicized.
He issues Fatwa and expresses his viewpoints, but does not issue orders.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani usually receives a number of elites, and people from different walks of life, thus promoting tolerance.
ََAvoiding Exposure and Competition:
Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s power is not generated from traditional exposure, political and economic interference or any Mafia-like actions. He has done nothing to make himself a powerful person and is not competing with anyone.
The Grand Ayatollah has managed to win his status through research and years of austerity.
He also has asked Iraqi officials to collect his pictures from streets and offices as to safeguard the Marjaiat from possible damages. A humble scholar, Ayatollah Sistani has won the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world by the sheer strength of his religious devotion, and the nobility if his intentions.
Marjaiat, Human Rights and Freedom of Religion:
Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s never puts pressure on people who are disagreeing with his Fatwa (decree). He is well aware that the main reason behind the popularity of Islam after thousands of years stands in its respects of people freedom: most specifically freedom of expression.
He never intervenes in people’s public affairs and he does not care for what they wear, talk about or see.
He believes that the freedom of all Muslim people cannot stand in contradiction with religion.
The Grand Ayatollah is fully aware that religion is still the most powerful institution in Muslim countries.
The combination of freedom and religion in people’s lives has allowed for Islam to enter in Iran, Iraq, China, Malaysia, and all European and Western countries.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani also looks kindly upon other religions. It is important to note that while Islam has been painted under an intolerant light by those who have sought to sow discord, and enmity in between religious communities, nothing could be further from the truth.
Back in 2015, when Iraq stood before a sectarian precipice it was Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s rallying call to oppose Daesh (ISIS) which acted a unifying national cry. Under his instructions tens of thousands of volunteers across faiths and school of thoughts joined together against radicalism.
Ayatollah Sistani succeeded where the state failed.
Ayatollah Sistani pays due attention to ethics and entertaining healthy relationship with other people – regardless of their religion, race, nationality and gender.
Marjaiat and Personal Behaviour:
Yes, Marjaiat is very sympathetic to the Iraqi nation. That’s why, Grand Ayatollah Sistani gradually became the supreme Shia Marjaiat and the spiritual leader of the Iraqi people, without having any political authority.
Although he does not have any military or political power, and even though he does not have access to funds his opinions have carried and shaped policies across not just Iraq but beyond. From East to West, Ayatollah Sistani’s name commands respect.
For the past 37 years Ayatollah Sistani has lived in the same modest rented house. Although he is well renowned his has no fortune to his name.
A good listener and a curious mind still, Ayatollah Sistani epitomises good manners, and kindness of the heart.
While my first meeting with him dates back over a decade, I still recognize in him the devoted and honourable host who conversed with me – time, fame and power did not change him in the least.
By Abolfazl Fateh and Catherine Shakdam – A Shafaqna Exclusive