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God's Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

March 14, 2024 at 8:57 am

God's Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
  • Book Author(s): Sajad Jiyad
  • Published Date: December 2023
  • Publisher: The Century Foundation
  • Paperback: 154 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0870785665

As the pre-eminent marja taqlid (source of emulation) in matters of Islamic jurisprudence in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani holds a position of immense influence within the Shia Muslim community worldwide. This is not limited to religious affairs, but extends into the realm of politics too. However, due to his reclusive and ascetic nature, much remains unknown about him, including his political ideology. This is what Baghdad-based political analyst Sajad Jiyad sets out to explain in his book God’s Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Sayyid Al-Sistani “has not made explicit his political ideology, it is left for others to assess it and find the most appropriate frameworks and concepts in which to place his practises,” writes Jiyad. Yet in spite of this, the author contends — compellingly — that Sistani is the most influential marja to ever emerge from the Najaf hawza (seminary) and “arguably the most influential Shia clerical authority since the early Safavid era [1501-1736].”

Although the book provides a brief biography of the Iranian-born cleric – perhaps the closest we have to one, at least in the English language – it also explores his marja’iyya, or the transnational network of his religious authority which reaches and impacts the lives of tens of millions of followers around the world. But the primary focus lies on Sistani’s pivotal role in politics as a marja. This is done through assessing the authority he wields in a Weberian sense, namely the charismatic, traditional and rational-legal, all of which, the author argues, applies to Sistani in addition to the “symbolic capital” he holds.

In the early 90s, writes Jiyad, “Sistani had inherited the marja’iyya in unenviable circumstances and during a difficult time.” This was in the aftermath of the passing of his predecessor and mentor Ayatollah Khoei in the repressive Saddam Hussein era. This period was marked by government crackdowns and the strain of sanctions, which affected the hawza adversely. As such, Sistani had to do his best to keep the 1,000-year old institution alive, by adopting a policy of non-antagonism with the state. This has given rise to the inaccurate assertion by many that Sistani was necessarily of the “quietist” clerical camp.

Referencing The Clergy and the Modern Middle East: Shi’i Political Activism in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon by Mohammad R. Kalantari, Jiyad emphasises that such a clear dichotomy between quietist and activist is to misunderstand the reality of the maraji, who are in fact mostly engaged politically in some way or another depending on the circumstances.

READ: Sistani: Ending Occupation only way to grant Palestinians their rights or resistance will continue

Jiyad goes further, by distinguishing between the Najafi school and the school of wilayat al-faqih al-mutlaqa (the absolute guardianship of the jurist) which tends to be synonymous with the hawza of Qom in Iran. While the former limits the role of the marja to an advisory position, the latter advocates clerical rule in the absence of the Twelfth Imam.

Realising the political and social reality of Iraq, Sistani doesn’t endorse clerical rule for the country, rather a pluralistic, communal leadership in what Jiyad refers to as iradat al-ummah, or will of the people. This isn’t to say that the rival political ideology espoused in Iran isn’t a “threat” to Sistani’s vision, as “Khamenei’s was and still is the biggest challenge to Sistani’s marja’iyya,” as evidenced by political and even armed factions with backing from Tehran operating in Iraq.

Despite Sistani’s preference to stay out of the limelight, in post-2003 Iraq, he has made several key interventions throughout his decades-long career that can be described as political, challenging the simplistic idea that he is quietist.

Notable interventions include his call for elections and a constitution to be drafted by and for Iraqis; preventing Iraq from deteriorating into a full-blown civil war, especially after the 2006 bombing of the Imam Al-Askari shrine; speaking against governmental corruption and for politicians to be held accountable; and, notably, his 2014 fatwa calling for volunteers to join the fight against Daesh.

Regarding Sistani’s relationship with successive governments in Baghdad post-Saddam, one perceives a pattern of persistent frustrations and disappointments on his part over the lack of political reform. Political elites seem eager to leverage Sistani’s status for legitimacy and political gain, yet they frequently fall short in heeding his scholarly advice, despite actively seeking it out in many cases. When this happened, and it appears that it did on several occasions, Sistani would refuse to receive politicians at his humble home in Najaf, nor would he comment explicitly on political issues.

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In more extreme scenarios, Sistani has also managed to bring about the resignation of more than one Iraqi prime minister with the best interests of the people in mind. Even though he semi-retired in 2020, he continues to keep abreast of state affairs and would meet with foreign dignitaries, most prominent among them being Pope Francis during his high-profile visit in 2021.

Jiyad is under no illusions as to the limitations of the 93-year-old’s influence over the political classes, which he says has peaked and will not be sustained in the way it was. Nevertheless, he is confident in the prolonged life of the Najaf hawza, which unlike its counterpart in Iran is less aligned with the political fortunes of the state.

Inevitably, God’s Man in Iraq… discusses the prospects of a post-Sistani era, as difficult as it is to imagine, given the unprecedented legacy that the grand ayatollah will leave behind as the most widely followed marja in contemporary times. Jiyad speculates on potential successors, but asserts that whoever it is, “will have to follow in Sistani’s footsteps” as he “will be the standard against which they will be judged.”

Whether it be another grand ayatollah or the likelier outcome of “multiple local maraji,” the successor(s) will certainly have their work cut out for them, given the obstacles within the government and external pressures on the country. They will be tasked with safeguarding the interests of the laity while engaging with the powers that be.

Considering the scarcity of information on Sistani’s life, God’s Man in Iraq… does well to present the background story of the man and marja and the influences shaping his political thinking. It offers insights into his vision for Iraq and its people, many of whom rely on his religious opinions, alongside millions of others.

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