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Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani: Is He a Spiritual Guide or a Political Leader?

Updated: May 2008

Washington’s occupation of Iraq in April 2003 handed control of governmental power in Baghdad to the country’s 60% Shiite majority. At the top of the new power pyramid sits Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. His personal philosophy will dictate whether Iraq becomes a theocratic dictatorship or a secular democracy. Is the Ayatollah of the Quietist School (separates religion from politics), or is he of the Khomeini activist Wilayat Al-Faqih School (combines religion with politics)? This question has attracted a good deal of attention in recent years. The answer could reveal the colors of Iraq’s post-occupation governance and the consequences it might have on the Middle East and beyond.

This article explores the basis of the Ayatollah’s immense spiritual hold over the millions of his followers in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. It also recalls political decisions made by the Ayatollah since 2003 that help shed light on his preferences.  
The source of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s immense spiritual power

Most Shiites in Iraq and millions in other countries obey the 75-year-old Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah blindly. To appreciate the tremendous influence that the Ayatollah wields over his followers certain aspects of the Shiite Creed need to be explained.
Shiite Muslims believe in the authority of the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams. To most Shiis today, there are twelve Imams. They all are descendants of Ali Bin Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet, son-in-law who married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, the father of the Prophet’s two grandchildren with Fatima (Hasan and Hussein), and the fourth Caliph. The twelfth Imam, Muhammad Al-Muntazar (the awaited one), is believed to have disappeared as a child around 874 A.D. and that he is hidden in a state of occultation, until his return to the earth someday to restore justice and bring prosperity. The majority of Shiites today are believers in this story; thus, their name, Twelvers.
Twelver Shiites believe that as long as the twelfth Imam is hidden the Shiite ulama (religious scholars or clerics) act as his representatives, or deputies. In this capacity they uncover for the masses what the Hidden Imam would have ruled on all matters. To perform their duties, the Shiite ulama interpret the Quran and the Shiite version of the Hadith (sayings and acts of the Prophet as well as those of the Imams) according to their personal reasoning, though in the name of the infallible Hidden Imam. As such, the Shiite ulama have been perceived by the Shiite masses as infallible lawgivers: Exemplars to emulate. And, since the Hidden Imam is thought to be among the body of the Shiites incognito, there is always the possibility that one of the ulama might be the Hidden Imam. Such belief adds a unique aura of respectability and reverence around the Shiite ulama. This aura is further enhanced by the stories that have existed in popular culture of the Hidden Imam manifesting himself to prominent clerics.  
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is the leader among the four Grand Ayatollahs who belong today to the most excellent Shii center for scholarly learning, the age-old Najaf Hawza, established in 1056 in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq. He acceded to the leadership in 1992 following his teacher and mentor, Iranian born, the highly revered Grand Ayatollah Abu Gharib Al-Qassim Al-Khoei (1970-1992).
Politically, until 1979, the senior Shiite clerics refrained from claiming the political authority and temporal rule implicit in their vice-regency of the Hidden Imam. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini changed that legacy in Iran in 1979. He asserted that, as representative of the Hidden Imam the senior-most Shiite cleric possesses the right to the same authority and functions that the Hidden Imam has; including, authority over the political sphere. This power became known as Wilayat Al-Faqih, or the rulership of the Faqih. Faqih means specialist in religious jurisprudence. Wilayat Al-Faqih yields absolute theocratic dictatorship. It grants the Faqih supreme powers over an elected parliament, the judiciary, and the executive branch of the government.
Is Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani politically quietist? Or, is he politically active? The answer might be gleaned through the Ayatollah’s actions since 2003.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s influence over Iraq's political affairs
In dealing with the U.S., Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani prevailed whenever his judgment clashed with Washington’s politics. Here are a few instances:

When the Ayatollah issued in June 2003 a religious ruling requiring the framers of Iraq’s constitution to be elected, not appointed by U.S. officials and the Iraqi Governing Council, he prevailed. When he stated in November 2003 that elections would be the correct way to select a transitional government, not regional caucuses as Washington had envisioned and demanded UN involvement to oversee the election, the U.S. yielded. When the Ayatollah called for a transitional assembly to ratify an Interim Constitution, he won.

At the signing ceremony for the Interim Constitution by the Iraqi Governing Council on March 5, 2004, five members loyal to the Ayatollah refused to show up in protest against certain variations in the document from what they had supposedly agreed upon a few days earlier. The ceremony, planned to have been carried live on news networks, complete with a children’s choir and a six-piece formally attired orchestra was canceled more than an hour after it was supposed to have started, embarrassing Washington.

In November 2004, when calls to postpone the January 30, 2005 election were voiced because of the deteriorating security situation, the Ayatollah insisted that the election must be held on time. It was held on time.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was instrumental in reaching a ceasefire agreement in June 2004 to stop the fighting in the holy city of Najaf between Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and U.S. forces. He also brought the second round of fighting between those two sides in August 2004 to an end.
The Ayatollah’s followers entered the January 30, 2005 election under a unified list of candidates, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). The list became known as the Al-Sistani List. The UIA won 140 seats out of the 275-seat assembly. In the December 15, 2005 election for the full-term four-year parliament, the UIA won 128 seats.
Under the Ayatollah’s guidance, the Draft Permanent Constitution, approved in the December 15, 2005 referendum, specified in Article 2 (a) that: “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” Who defines the undisputed rules of Islam? It would be the parliamentary majority, which the Ayatollah controls.
In March 2006, the Ayatollah “persuaded” Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, the transitional prime minister, to step aside in order to break the political deadlock to form Iraq’s first full-term cabinet, paving the way for Nouri Al-Maliki to become prime minister instead. Before taking office, prime minister-designate Al-Maliki won the Ayatollah’s endorsement to work on disbanding the country’s militias.
The U.S. Secretary of State together with the British Foreign Secretary were both full of praise during their joint visit to Iraq on April 2, 2006 for the Grand Ayatollah’s guidance and restraint.
In his first speech as prime minister at the Iraqi Parliament on May 20, 2006, Nouri Al-Maliki reserved his utmost homage to Al-Sistani’s wisdom and authority.
Iraq’s Shiite parliamentary leaders sought on December 21, 2006 the Ayatollah’s approval for a new governing coalition that would sideline Muqtada Al-Sadr. The Ayatollah declined the request. The plan was abandoned.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is no friend of the American occupation. In the January 30, 2005 election manifesto, the “Al-Sistani list” called for the withdrawal of the multinational forces. While consolidating Shiite control, however, the Ayatollah has refrained from fighting the occupation. Eradicating the Arab Sunni insurgency is another reason behind tolerating the American military occupation. A close associate of Al-Sistani, Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem, stated after meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House on December 4, 2006 that: “The only way to stave off civil war in Iraq is for US forces to strike harder against Sunni-led insurgents.” As Shiite control over Baghdad becomes secure, Al-Sistani is expected to turn against the occupation. Middle East Online reported on May 23, 2008 that Al-Sistani has been quietly issuing fatwas declaring that armed resistance against US-led foreign troops is permissible.
From the above, it may be concluded that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani had been involved in Iraq’s political affairs in a major way. The Ayatollah’s actions suggest that he belongs to the Wilayat Al-Faqih School. His reputed disinterest in the political sphere relates possibly more to his opposition to becoming subordinated to the Tehran Faqih than to his disinterest in ruling Iraq. At the heart of the Wilayat Al-Faqih controversy is a dispute over authority. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has followings not only in Iraq, but also in Iran and other countries. At issue is whether his followers in Iran, and indeed, Iraq, should shift their allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also,whether Al-Sistani should turn over the “Khums” (fifth) religious tax to Iran’s supreme leader?
Going forward it may be predicted that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani will be active politically. Given his reputedly discreet nature he will shape from behind the scenes the direction of his handpicked men in the Iraqi government. The two large minorities of Sunnis and Kurds plus the other religious and ethnic minorities will moderate the extent to which Iraq’s Shiite majority might wish to impose its religious laws and political agenda.
The Shiite masses want the Grand Ayatollah to lead them not only spiritually but also politically. When a guest on an Aljazeera Television interview on December 15, 2005 advocated that Al-Sistani should stay out of politics, thousands of Iraqi Shiites demonstrated the following day in several cities to denounce the “insulting remark” and the television station. On May 7, 2007, Iran banned Aljazeera Television from its parliament until the network makes a formal apology for “insulting Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani” because Aljazeera’s host of the “Without Borders” program had questioned the legitimacy of Al-Sistani’s political leadership of Iraq.