Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Shiites: The Spearhead of al-Wali al-Faqih

Arab Shiites
Iraqi Shiite tribal leaders listens to a speaker while sitting in a mixed Shiite-Sunni Iraqi tribal leader audience with the attendance of Arab lawmaker and chief Iraqi Front for National Dialogue Saleh Al-Mutlaq 05 September 2006, prior to the start of the Iraqi parliament session in Baghdad. ALI AL-SAADI / AFP

Hussein Al Zoubi


In the Mashriq, there are four contentious files involving the Arab Shiites, in which Political Shiite Islam plays the spearhead role. Three of them are directly administered by Iran. Iran less directly manages the remaining issue due to conflict of regional and international interests.

In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, a Shiite armed militia founded in 1982, did not attempt to conceal his absolute loyalty to Wilayat al-Faqih “the Guardianship of the Jurist”, as he explicitly said: “Our plan, to which we, as faithful believers, have no alternative, is to establish an Islamic state and the rule of Islam.

Lebanon should not be an Islamic republic on its own, but rather a part of the Greater Islamic Republic governed by the Master of the Era (Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi) and his rightful deputy, Al-Wali al-Faqih “the Guardian Jurist”, Imam Khomeini.”

Theory of Wilayat al-Faqih

The Shiite grassroots believe that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) directly appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib to the Imamate. This Imamate continues to his two sons, Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein, and is to be inherited vertically by the offspring of Al-Hussain.

Every imam appoints those after him until it reaches the 12th imam, whom the Shiites called “The Awaited Mahdi“. However, after the death of the 11th Imam, Imam Al-Hasan al-Askari in Samarra in Iraq in 260 AH without announcing his successor, it caused doubt and confusion about the fate of the Imamate, so the Shiites split into fourteen sects, as the Shiite cleric Al-Hasan Ibn Musa al-Nawbakhti says in his book Firaq al-Shi’a.

Only one of those factions said that there is a successor to Imam al-Askari and that his name is Muhammad. His father concealed him for fear of authority, while the other sects believed God concealed his existence.

The Shiites remained without an imam until the terms “Al-Wali al-Faqih” or “The Supreme Guide” were put forward, two synonymous terms related to the political-religious theory brought by Imam Khomeini. The “Wilayat al-Faqih” theory, originated by Sheikh Ahmed al-Naraqi, author of the book Awa’id al-Ayyam in the principles of Fiqh, who passed away in 1829.

Khomeini applied it for the first time in 1979, and he became al-Wali al-Faqih and the deputy of the Hidden Imam, who will return one day – according to the Shiites – and will fill the earth with justice after it was filled with injustice.

The arrival of Khomeini to power after the 1979 revolution and slaying his comrades in revolution, such as Abolhassan Banisadr and Ali Shariati and others, was the threshold of the Twelver Shiites into authority by presenting Khomeini as the supreme religious Marja for Shiites in the whole world.

This Marja does not believe in ​​national borders. Thus, Khomeini’s Iran exported the “Shiite Islamic Revolution” to the Arab world based on two main discourses. The first is a sectarian discourse that presents Tehran as the protector of the “weakened” Shiites worldwide and offers the consequent media, financial and military support and forms militias. The second is an emotional discourse that flirts with the Arab society, in which it particularly exploited the Palestinian cause.

Starting from Beirut

Arab Shiites
Iranian, then opposition leader in exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini comes out of his villa to go for the Friday prayer in January 1979 at Neauphle Le Chateau in France. JOEL ROBINE / AFP

Khomeini tried to start exporting the revolution to the most fertile arena of Iraq, the Shiites’ country of origin in the world. Khomeini knew it well as he resided in Najaf from September 1965 until the end of 1978 when he left for Paris. But he clashed with Saddam Hussein’s regime, so a window was open to putting his hands in Lebanon, living amid Civil War and the Israeli invasion in 1982.

In this context, Hassan Nasrallah, during an interview with the Iranian journal “Masseer“, presents his account of how the party was established: “the Lebanese loyal to Imam Khomeini’s leadership and hostile to Israel, gathered and decided to establish a movement that unites them, and a group of 9 people was assigned, including Abbas al-Musawi, the former Secretary-General of the party”. But he did not name the others.

He continued the story of Hezbollah’s founding, saying: “They went to Iran at that time, met the officials and went to Imam Khomeini, and elucidated to him our situations, circumstances and intentions, and told him: We believe in your Imamate, your guardianship, and your leadership, but you are very busy and very old, and we cannot always bother you personally with our issues, so we hope that you will appoint a representative and we will refer to him in our various issues in which we need your guidance.

At that time, Khomeini appointed Khamenei when he was president and said, “He represents me”. Since then, the relationship between Hezbollah and Khamenei began, that is, from the first hours of the establishment and emergence of the Hezbollah movement”, Nasrallah said.

Hezbollah has consolidated its presence in the Lebanese Shiite arena, along with the Amal movement led by Shiite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, so that about 90 per cent of the Shiite population in Lebanon are either affiliated with Hezbollah or Amal, while the remainder is distributed among liberal and communist forces and others.

Hezbollah’s consolidation of its strong presence in the Shiite arena enabled it to turn into a striking force in Lebanon based on the military arsenal that Iran and Hafez al-Assad’s regime in Syria provided for decades until it turned into a state within the state.

When its interests conflicted with those of the state, it did not hesitate to use its power inside the capital, Beirut, as happened on May 7, 2008, when groups affiliated with Hezbollah occupied the streets of Beirut and committed acts of violence that rendered about 71 dead, and extensive property damage. Also, Hezbollah followers lowered the Lebanese flags from many headquarters and raised the party’s flags instead.

From May 7 to the Arab Spring

Arab Shiites
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah addresses the crowd during a “victory” rally in the border town of Bint Jbeil on 26 May 2000 where he was greeted by tens of thousands of jubilant supporters to mark Israel’s ouster from southern Lebanon. THOMAS COEX / AFP

That date constituted a shift in the Lebanese and Arabs perception of the party, which turned its weapons inward this time after it had justified possessing an arsenal of weapons by facing Israel, which withdrew from southern Lebanon in May of 2000.

At that stage, questions were raised publicly about whether Hezbollah was affiliated with the Lebanese or the Shiite, and consequently Iranian. The loudest Shiite voice criticising Hezbollah was its first general secretary, who was dismissed from the party, Subhi al-Tufayli.

However, Tufayli’s voice was too weak to be heard when Hezbollah was able to tighten its grip on Lebanon’s Shiites economically, ideologically and in the media via deluding them into believing that he is their protector and that they are thus performing “jihad duty”.

The party’s ideological discourse intensified with the advent of the Arab Spring, and the mass mobilisation of Hezbollah seemed more affiliated with the sect than with Lebanon or the Arab nations.

The party neither adhered to Lebanon’s policy of “disassociating itself” from what is happening in Syria nor was it close to those they share blood ties with among the Syrians.

Instead, it decided to participate in the Syrian war alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as Iran did, and under sectarian pretexts that the historical process confirms its frailty.

Hence, the discourse directed to his masses claimed that he wanted to protect religious shrines, which the Sunnis revere, preserving them for centuries.

However, Shiite circles were receptive to this discourse, especially after the emergence of the Islamic State, which represented the far right of Sunni extremism, knowing that the Sunnis are the most damaged by ISIS, who did not clash with Iran at all, considering that it is sectarian at the head of its foes.

The Shiite mobilisation reached its peak, this time in Iraq, with the fatwa of the Shiite Marja, Ali al-Sistani, in which he called for confronting ISIS. Accordingly, the so-called Popular Mobilisation was formed and joined the armed militias loyal to Iran.

A Sectarian Discourse and an Economic Vacuum

After 2003, the Arab Shiites in Iraq came to power with American auspices, and the forces of Shiite political Islam took the lead. But Iraq, floating on a sea of ​​oil, slowly approached failed states and began to lose its national identity.

This element by extension was attributed by the Iraqi Shiite political thinker Hassan al-Alawi to the fact that Shiite politicians do not even believe in the logic of the state, and that the state that the Shiites of Iraq dream of is the “state of the Awaited Mahdi,” and they do not believe in any state even if the ruler is a Shiite.

“They have stood against it throughout history, and their desired state will not be realised until after the appearance of the ‘Awaited Mahdi'”, said Alawi.

Alawi previously advised the Shiites by saying: “You are in the midst of a predominantly Sunni Arab environment, it is in your interest to improve coexistence with your Arab and Islamic environment, for they are a better ally for you than Iran, and if you rely on it to support your victory, Iran will certainly betray you, because it cannot make you a majority as you imagine, and the Sunnis of Iraq, with their Arabs and Kurds, will remain a majority.”

The other Iraqi Shiite politician, Izzat al-Shabandar, was blunter in pointing out that the Shiite Arab politicians failed to manage Iraq by saying: “The Shiites in power transformed the state, if there is any, into smaller states and gave the Shiites alone the freedom of Chest-beating (one of the Shiite religious rituals).

The Iraqi Shiite failure in managing the state and strengthening the concept of the nation-state was matched by an Iranian success in transforming the historical arch-neighbour, into a mere follower managed by, according to the confessions of Iraqi Shiite and Sunni politicians, the late commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qasem Soleimani.

He directly took over management of the militias that joined the Popular Mobilisation and turned it into an official Iraqi institution, publicly professing its allegiance to Iran until Iraqis called it the “Wilayah factions” (loyal to Al-Wali al-Faqih).

In this context, the Iraqi Shiite researcher Ghaith al-Tamimi also says: “When the United States invaded Iraq, it did not change its national identity, but Iran had Iraqis in Iraq, who took up the weapons of Wilayat al-Faqih and began to demolish the Iraqi state for the sake of Iran’s interests”.

Al-Tamimi concludes by saying that “the real crisis in Iraq is Iran, dominating Iraq and erasing its national identity”.

Arab Shiites
An Iraqi security guard stands in front of a huge billboard bearing portraits of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (R) in central Baghdad on March 4, 2021, on the eve of the pontiff’s first visit to Iraq. Pope Francis begins his historic trip to war-scarred Iraq on March 5, defying security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. He met the Shiite top cleric the next morning in the holy city of Najaf. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Arab Shiite voices searching for a national identity in Iraq away from sectarianism and Iranian hegemony were too weak to bring about change, like the Maraji in Najaf represented by the Marja Ali al-Sistani, who received international support represented by the visit of the Vatican’s Pope to Najaf.

This visit was considered a Christian recognition of the Iraqi Maraji of Najaf, not the Iranian Maraji of Qom, which does not generally agree with the Wilayat al-Faqih theory.

However, this was not the case when the Iraqi Shiite youth first mobilised, in demanding demonstrations related to unemployment and poverty, before turning into demonstrations calling “we want a homeland”, in which weapons are in the hands of the state, a homeland without sectarian quotas and no affiliation to either Iran or the United States.

The youth in the southern Shiite provinces started to mobilise, burnings of pictures of Khamenei, Khomeini and Qassem Soleimani spread across the streets of Iraq and attacking Iran’s consulates in Karbala and Basra and the headquarters of the militias loyal to Iran, who – in turn – took the initiative to shoot, killing more than 500 demonstrators and assassinating dozens of activists.

Here, we can point out a similarity between what happened in Iraq and the Lebanese movement, led by Lebanese youth of all sects, Shiites included, whom Hezbollah and the Amal Movement subjected to repression.

The Iraqi political forces tried to demonise these demonstrations in the media by warning of “their danger to the Shiites”, Still, that rhetoric failed, as they are fundamentally looking for a homeland without religious sects, and because the accusation of being affiliated with ISIS will not work, as the demonstrators are Shiites. The most common accusation was the demonstrators’ association with the embassies of hostile foreign countries.

Still, it did not diminish the movement’s momentum that began on Oct. 17, 2019. It led to the fall of the Haider al-Abadi government and the holding of early parliamentary elections.

But all this does not seem to be more than just a step out of a thousand steps that those looking for a homeland must take, for eradicating Iranian hands from Iraq is more complex than eradicating Al-Qaeda and its arms.

As Tamimi says: “The Shiites began to reject Iranian influence in Iraq. Previously, they were deceived by Al-Qaeda just like the Sunnis were, but the Sunnis have returned to their homeland and rejected extremist approaches and the Shiites’ as well.

But the difference is that Al-Qaeda’s regimes are out of power, and it was manageable to pull them out. As for the Shiite problem, the weapons of Al-Wali al-Faqih have permeated the Iraqi government’s institutions … The Shiites want to be part of their homeland and Arab surroundings.”

Yemen: from Zaidiyyah to Wilayat al-Faqih

The third contentious file, which is directly related to sectarianism and Iran, is the Yemen file, through the Ansar Allah group, or what is known in the media as the Houthis. This group initially belonged to the Zaidi sect, named after Zaid bin Ali bin al-Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib, and is classified as the closest Shiite sect to the Sunnis.

One of the reasons for this is their position on the companions Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Omar bin al-Khattab, as they pray for them and do not refuse to pray behind a Sunni imam.

The Zaidis allow the Imamate for all the children of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, whether they are descendants of Al-Hassan or Al-Hussein. At the same time, they consider that the Imamate is not hereditary but must be done by allegiance to the more entitled to it.

That is a fundamental disagreement with the theory of Wilayat al-Faqih, as the Zaidis have abandoned the condition of Hashemite lineage for the Imamate, so it is not necessary for the imam to have a related lineage to Ali bin Abi Talib and Fatima.

They also do not believe in the infallibility of imams and others except for the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad, unlike most other Shiite sects.

Zaidiyyah was not far from power in Yemen, as they ruled for 1000 years, all the way to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was assassinated in December 2017 by the Houthis.

The Zaidis also identified with the Sunnis, except for a group of them called Jarudiyah, who reject this approach and consider themselves closer to the Twelver Shiite sect, including the founder of the Houthi movement, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the father of Hussein al-Houthi, who took over the leadership of the group after his father.

More than 18 Zaidi scholars signed a statement asserting that it is against the Zaidi sect and the Ahl al-Bayt and that it misleads Zaidi scholars and judged him as an astray.

Hussein al-Houthi led Saada and northern Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia, with his expansion of the network of the “Believing Youth” organisation and his posing of ideological and political issues that affected even personalities of the Zaidi sect.

It was said that he benefited at the time from the official state of “turning a blind eye” to find a balance with powerful Sunni movements, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement.

Under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi, the group had its first armed confrontation with the army in 2004 and during the battles that year, Hussein al-Houthi was killed.

The group did not stop but continued under the leadership of the younger brother, Abdul-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led his supporters to fight five wars with the Yemeni army from 2005 to 2010, the last one extended to Saudi Arabia.

With the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the revolution against Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi did not miss out on the opportunity to swoop on Sanaa and control its joints in a more severe model than the Lebanese model of May 7. Then, Yemen entered into the most severe throes in its history, but it had a regional dimension this time.

Saudi Arabia sensed that the Iranian threat had become on its southern borders, represented by the Houthis, and on its eastern borders represented by the Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran, as if the Iranian pincers were almost applied to them, so it rushed to form a military alliance and entered into a direct battle with the Houthis, which can be described as an indirect battle with Iran.

On Nov. 18, 2021, the Saudi-led coalition targeted a secret site in Sanaa used by experts from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Hezbollah militia.

The Houthi group took the initiative to mourn the dead. One of its members tweeted that he is offering his condolences to Iran for the killing of three of its leaders in Yemen, threatening to take revenge.

Iran seemed to have imposed its approach on the Houthis, despite the great distance that separates Yemen from Israel, but their main political slogan is “Death to America … Death to Israel”.

In this context, researcher Muhammad Mustafa al-Omrani, in an article about the ideas of Hussein al-Houthi, whose supporters follow his name by the expression “peace be upon him”, says that Houthi “was determined to his project, which is to build an Iranian party in Yemen on the model of Hezbollah and restore power to him, claiming that the Ahl al-Bayt are more entitled to the usurped power”.

In conclusion, it does not seem that the political scene, with its sectarian dimension, in the three countries and Syria, which is organically linked to Lebanon and Iraq, is on its way to stability in the foreseeable future.

Still, it will undoubtedly not remain as it is and does not seem to be able to go against the historical contexts of the region.