Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Reclusive Grand Ayatollah Sistani Remains Highly Influential in Iraq

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Photo Rex

For over half a century, the school of the late Grand Ayatollah Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (1899-1992) has been an limitless source of Shia Islamic thought and knowledge. This school has graduated dozens of jurists, clergymen, and dignitaries who have taken it upon themselves to pursue and spread his ideological system, the wilayat al-faqih in the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran and establish accurate textual interpretations, especially of the Quran. Best known among them in Iraq today is Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid Ali al-Husseini Sistani, one of five Grand Ayatollahs currently in Najaf, Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani, or Ayatollah al-Ozma, was born on 4 August 1930 (9 Rabi al-Awwal 1349 A.H.) in the Iranian city of Mashhad, the country’s fourth largest city, which is best known for the Imam Reza Shrine (the shrine of Ali Ibn al-Rida, in Arabic).

In 2015, at 84 years of age, Sistani, despite appearing frail, remains active and, according to all accounts, mentally sharp and engaged in all matters of religious thought in Najaf in matters of religion and of state. At the unusually young age of thirty one, Sistani reached the highest level of clerical accomplishment, the “Degree of Ijtihad,” for which he began studying in earnest at the age of twelve and which entitled him to pass his own judgements on religious questions.

Since the American invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sistani’s portrait is seen everywhere in Iraq, on walls, storefronts, street signs, homes, schools, and hospitals, all across the country. Even in some Sunni neighbourhoods where people either wanted to express solidarity with their Shia co-nationalists, or as a shrewd insurance policy in the event that overzealous Shia militiamen, especially the Mehdi army loyal to Shia firebrand Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, should visit the neighbourhood.

Sunni religious leaders such as Abdoraoufe al-Samarrai, and Harith al-Dhari told visiting delegations that they held Sistani in high esteem, as they believed him to be a uniting figure. Secular figures, such as Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani (2005-2014) and pan-Arab leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, among many others, said the same thing.

United Nations special representatives came to consider him a unifying national figure and sought his council and his help in planning national reconciliation efforts. He was viewed then—and, by all accounts, now—as Iraq’s most influential figure.

When terrorists bombed the famed al-Askari Shrine, one of the holiest Shia shrines, in the predominantly Sunni ancient city of Samarra in early 2006, Sistani’s call to unify and not to react violently helped defuse the situation and possibly prevented the country from becoming embroiled in all-out sectarian war. Sistani did the same again, when the same shrine was bombed in June 2007 (this time without deaths or injuries).

After the militants of the Islamic State (IS) took over the city of Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Sistani emerged from a self-imposed seclusion in a last-ditch effort to restrain the jihadists, persuade Iraq’s Shia political elite to replace Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and preserve a unified state under a Shia-led government. Three days after Mosul fell, on 13 June, Sistani issued a call to arms, urging all able-bodied Iraqi men to join the security forces or one of a growing number of Shia militias.

While he obviously commands Arabic, the language of the Quran, and can converse in it in fluently, if with a heavy Persian accent, Ayatollah Sistani preferred to speak Persian in conversing with United Nations and other international delegations. His son Mohammad Reza, who was also trained in the school of Imam al-Khoei, and in al-Hawza al-Ilmeyah, the famed Clerical Shia Seminary in Najaf, attends all his meetings. He is considered a scholar in Shia Islam in his own right, as well as in the Arabic language. He acts as his father’s chief adviser and often his interpreter.

Although there are four other Grand Ayatollahs in Holy Najaf—al-Najafi, al-Hakeem, al-Fayyadh, and Bahr al-Uloom—they are not well known beyond Najaf, and he is never challenged by them. He is, however, being challenged by Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr, the brash 40-year-old cleric who was the most outspoken Iraqi Shia opponent of the US occupation.

While Sistani was pleased with the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, news accounts of that period repeatedly suggested that Sistani wanted the American occupation to end and the country to be spared all violence.

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