Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Ayatollah Sistani

Since the American invasion, he has had more influence over Iraqi politics than any other figure in Iraq. For a man who rarely left his own house, or said a single word to the mass media, this is quite phenomenal!

1. Sistani’s Seat - The Holy City of Najaf

River water is so important to life in central and southern Iraq that most cities are built immediately on one of two large rivers, or one of their branches. Najaf (like Kerbala) is not. The whole town was built around a tomb of Imam Ali.

For more than a thousand years, there have been two main activities in that city: religion and commerce. Commerce in the city derives mainly from its religious activities! Visitor hordes are there for the numerous pilgrims from other parts of Iraq and other countries, most notably Iran, doing ziaras (or holy visits)… or to bury their dead. So may people bury their loved ones in the holy soil of Najaf that the city ended with what is probably the largest cemetery in the world.

These activities naturally reflected on the nature of the city’s inhabitants. Najafis, as a result, have earned the reputation in Iraq of being good salesmen and formidable debaters.

The effect of religious institutions on the life of the city ran deep. Centuries of study, research and dialogue resulted in a rich literary tradition. Najaf took pride in producing numerous non-religious literary figures, poets and historians… as well as political activists and leaders. The city played a central role in the revolution against British occupation in 1920. The current leader of the communist part comes from Najaf.

The religious institutions and the literary tradition are so central in the life of that city that it is not unusual for a family to acquire its name from the title of a highly regarded book published by one of its members. Perhaps the best know example in the outside world is “Bahr il Uloom”. Mohammed was a member of the now defunct IGC. His son, Ibrahim, is currently the Oil Minister in the Ja’afari government. “Bahr il Uloom” literally means “Sea of the Sciences” and is in fact part of the title of a book authored by one of their ancestors!

The nature of the city was summarized so concisely by a famous Najafi poet, Ahmed al Safi who said:
My town’s imports are coffins…
… My town’s exports are turbans.

‘Turbans’ refer to the religious clergy. In that city, you see them everywhere. They are a sign of distinction. A scholar who is a Sayyed (A Sayyed is a descendant of Imam Ali) dons a black turban. One who isn’t has a white one. Usually, the higher up in the hierarchy the person is the larger his turban! Non-scholars do not wear turbans; however, a Sayyed who is not a scholar usually has something green (or, much less frequently, black) in his headgear.

The University called Hawza

They call it The Hawza. The word derives from the three-letter verb ‘haz’ - to acquire. The acquisition here refers to knowledge – religious knowledge in particular. It is basically a university, complete with students and competing professors.

At any given time, there are usually a handful of scholars at the top of that hierarchy, known as Mujtahideen – people who can ‘interpret’ and give an opinion on religious issues. Those opinions are known as “Fatwas”. Lesser scholars, known as Muqallideen, or ‘imitators’, follow the teachings of the first group. They choose whom to emulate, and consequently determine the master’s scholarly status.

At the moment there are 5 such senior figures. Ali Sistani, is the supreme head of that ‘university’. They (or sometimes only the most senior figure) are frequently referred to as The Marje’ia, “The Reference” or, ultimate authority in a chain of command. And in Shiite religious, and sometimes not-so-religious, matters… they were.

All students are financially supported by the Hawza throughout their learning career.
Money comes from donations made by devout Shiites. Many such people willingly give 20% of their yearly income (known as Khumss - “The One Fifth”). That usually means a lot of money! They choose which ‘scholar’ they pay the money to, and hence have an indirect effect on the ‘popularity’ of that particular professor. Senior figures can have control over enormous funds.

People, and sometimes heads of state, constantly make donations to the shrine. These can be sizeable: great works of art, precious rugs, gold artifacts, etc. The shrine also holds many valuable treasures accumulated over a thousand years. The government put its hand on those funds for the past several decades. That significant financial resource was an undeclared issue in much of the conflict over the control of the shrine in Najaf after the invasion. Many Najafis believed that Moqtada was really after that control during the conflict; hence all that fuss about the keys to the shrine and Sistani’s refusal to receive them until the shrine was evacuated of Moqtada’s supporters.

Those clergy are quite influential, not just in Najaf and not just in Iraq. In Iraq, all Shiite mosque and Husseineyya preachers and local religious leaders look up to them for guidance. Most devout Shiites follow their directives. Local leaders and tribal chiefs have to show sufficient respect.

For most of the past 1000 years, the Hawza was situated in Najaf. It had to move out several times, but usually came back again. That long tradition, in addition to the fact that the whole city was built around Imam Ali’s tomb, has given Najaf considerable edge over other contenders.

Kadhimeyyah, in Baghdad, has always had a Shiite scholarly tradition, but never came near achieving the status of Najaf. Qom in Iran had supreme status (in Iran, and has acquired considerable influence in Iraq) following Khomeini’s reign and the Iran-Iraq war, as I have mentioned in an earlier essay. But, in Iraq, the Hawza in Najaf remains the Reference for most devout Iraqi Shiites.

A unique feature of the Hawza is that for more than a thousand years, it never enjoyed earthly power (like the Catholic Church for example). Most of the time, it was in a weak position of opposition. Yet it wielded enormous power on millions of people… purely through their faith… voluntarily. Much of that comes out of respect and social pressure. At the same time, the Hawza managed to keep its hierarchy relatively free from the interference of those holding earthly power, assisted no doubt by its financial independence.

Even now, after the invasion, power over people, particularly in the south, is held by bodies like SCIRI, Da’wa and Moqtada’s Mehdi army who follow their own individual political agenda… yet they all show subservience to the Marje’iya.

Since the invasion, some people tried to tamper with the structure of the Hawza. For example, M. Baqir Hakeem, the former head of SCIRI who was later assassinated, at one time suggested something he called “Scientific” Hawza, where seniors would ‘specialize’… probably to create a seat for himself at the top. Moqtada has indirectly voiced his dissatisfaction with the present Marje’iya, followed someone called Ha’iri, stationed in Iran, talked about the “Speaking” Hawza… but these efforts have largely failed and rolled over by the institution’s massive heritage and inertia.

Sistani still reigns supreme.

2. A Glimpse of Sistani

No other person in my memory was held in so much regard by so many ordinary Iraqis or had so much non-coercive influence on them since the late President Nassir of Egypt. What is amazing is that, while Nassir had a way with words that inflamed the nationalistic feelings of people, this soft-spoken old man has said so little in public….

Who is Sistani?

His full name is Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani.

Grand Ayatollah is his religious title, the highest in the Shiite clergy hierarchy; Ayatollah roughly means: “A Sign of God”. Ali is his personal birth name. Husseini indicates that he is a Sayyed whose lineage goes back to Hussein, one of Imam Ali’s two sons [The other branch of Sayyeds are called Hassanis, in reference to the other son, Hassan. Husseinis feel slightly superior to Hassanis.]. Sistani derives from the town in Iran, Sistan, where his family comes from. But he has lived in Najaf for more than 50 years.

I did not pay much attention to Ayatollah Ali Sistani during the Saddam years but I knew was that he had good standing among devout Shiite laymen and clerics. He certainly kept a low profile and rarely left his home/office. I'm told he never left his house for more than 8 years!

When Saddam started targeting the senior Shiite clergy, most notably the defiant and outspoken Sadr (Moqtada’s father) he spared Sistani. The rumor in vogue at the time was that the government was eliminating troublesome competition to the moderate Sistani, whom they probably felt that they could do business with. However, Sistani himself was reported to have been ‘detained’ for a while later.

During the early hazy months following the invasion, almost suddenly, everybody started talking about Sistani. In those early days, he made a very good impression of being a moderate. I must say that many of his declared positions after the invasion of Iraq were admirable: an unequivocal stand against looting and chaos, a clear stand against Sunni-Shiite sectarianism strife and a firm stand for democracy. What surprised me was that he managed to say very little, but what he said made sense.

Unlike the late Khomeini of Iran, Sistani almost never communicates with people in public and does most of his business through small meetings, through ‘representatives’ making announcements on his behalf or through ‘Fatwas’. [A fatwa is a ‘considered’, usually written, religious opinion.]

Some people sometimes wonder why Sistani did not make any of his announcements himself. The reason is obvious. The reaction to his heavy Iranian accent would be negative in both ‘Sunni’ and most ‘Shiite’ quarters alike.

Report of a visit to Ayatollah Ali Sistani

This is the most authentic first hand account of an audience with the Ayatollah that I know of. It gives a good glimpse of Sistani [From a private communication, in 2004]:


It was a small delegation representing [… a few ‘Sunni’ Arab and Kurdish tribes]. A few other “Shiite” friends came along for the honour of seeing His Holiness.

We were an hour and a half late for the appointment (the traffic jams were something I have never seen the like of). Nevertheless, his staff, his son (and later, he himself) went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

We sat on the floor of a sparsely furnished room (very much like the reception room of a not-very-poor peasant), were served tea, had a pleasant chat with his son, a very bright (and obviously very ambitious), courteous young man of around 30.

He came in a few minutes later, didn’t shake hands and squatted in that way only clergymen know how. We were introduced one by one, his eyes were alive and alert and very much like an earthly man, examining each closely!

Nazar K. spoke first saying that his eminence was talking for all Iraqis when he wanted elections. As sunnis we were fully with him on that. Then he responded.

He had a heavy (and I mean really heavy) Persian accent which he didn’t (and couldn’t) hide. He used classical Arabic, but the structure of his sentences was not perfect.

He talked a lot…a lot! His response for 30 seconds of courteous pleasantries was a 10 minute monologue! That was when I was shocked!

The man was a secular! I have never heard a clergyman saying the things that we lot take to represent our secularism!

In response to Nazar’s statement, he went on and on about sunni’s and shia saying that these were doctrines differing on how to interpret Islam and they were all decent and good-intentioned. They were definitely no reason for bloody strife. He talked about the ancient pillars of the sunni doctrine and praised them all in detail and said how he respected them as men of faith and as scholars. The difference between the shia and sunna, he believed, was far less significant than the danger facing the Iraqi nation at present.

Well, personally that put him on my right side!

Then Omar S. sounded his fear that through democracy the shia would dominate Iraq, and consequently the Kurds.

He said that he didn’t believe there was much danger of that happening. The shia were not a single political entity. Some are atheists, some are secular; even religious shia did not all follow the same leader.

He said that he firmly believed that the clergy should not interfere with the running of people’s lives, with government or with administration (Now how on earth could you be more secular!). He had forbidden his followers from putting their noses into the state’s affairs. He said that clearly and categorically (several times to stress the point!)

It was my turn and I said something like “As an Iraqi I am grateful for Your Eminence’s honourable stand on democracy and I think that the country is fortunate to have you in this position in this particular instant of history.” (Yes I did!! And I meant it!!!!!!!)

I then asked him why he had requested the UN to examine the possibility of conducting elections. (I was partly moved by some fear I still have that the panel of UN experts may “conclude” that it is too soon or too unstable to have elections at present. Then we really would have a major problem in our hands!)

He denied that flatly and said that he never did and that my information was probably based on media reports (which was true!). He said he did not feel obliged to accept the UN ruling on elections. He thought the Americans wanted the UN involved because they were having difficulties! He was set on calling for elections as the only possible way for Iraq to regain its sovereignty.

Some of the other things he said (This is a rather loose translation!):

“The most important thing at this time is unity. Division of the people is treason! Even silence, in these turbulent times, is evil!

“Give my regards to your tribes and to the sunna clergy and tell them that Sistani “kisses their hands” and begs them to unite with all Iraqis, Shia, Kurds, Christian, Turkmen. You just unite, and count on me to stand up to the Americans! The worst that could happen is that I die! That doesn’t worry me!”

He mentioned the late de Milo of the UN and said he was “a good man”

He mentioned “the one who was killed in Najaf” and said that he had “talked to him”, meaning “advised him”. I took that to refer to Al-Hakeem. This was the only disguised statement he made in more than an hour of talking.

He mentioned the “Arab Nation” so many times! He evidently viewed himself as an Arab. Being born Persian did not affect the fact that he was a Sayyed. He made that perfectly clear.

He does not believe in “Wilayat al Faqeeh” as the clergy in Iran do (as you know, this is the cornerstone of Khomeini’s doctrine). He repeatedly stressed that religion has to be separated from government!

He was extremely humble in his talk, his attire and his mannerisms.

He was much younger than I had thought; looked like early seventies but quite agile and healthy-looking.

He talked so softly, almost in whispers, that I had to really stress myself to hear what he was saying. (Being the insolent person that I am, at one time during the meeting I said I wasn’t hearing him well !!!!! There were only three people between us! There was some space on either side of him which people left out of respect…and he invited me to sit next to him which I did!)

He didn’t use any of the rhetoric clergymen usually wrap everything they say with. He was quite plain and direct. I found that really odd for a person in his position!

We were late for our appointment. We stayed there for about an hour and a half. Apparently someone else was waiting to see him. So, his son (who was apparently managing the old man’s schedule) was obviously beginning to sweat, but was too polite to say anything. We finally took the hint!

There you are! I felt that I should share this experience with you and I have tried to reflect as much as I could of it in its true spirit…wil Abbas (non-Iraqis, this is a shiite oath)!

I now believe that the American Administration could not have wished for a better person at the head of the shia clergy hierarchy. Let’s wait and see how they handle him!

Those words were written nearly two years ago. Since then, he has had so much influence on the political process in Iraq. Personally, I did have more than a change of mind concerning him… based on his major political positions. The gentleman bewilders me! I hope to discuss some of these issues in my other blog “Iraqi Letters”.

3. Sistani Politics

Sistani’s Post-invasion Positions

Sistani’s positions on the most important issues facing this troubled country have been slightly more than ambiguous.

His first major political stand was a firm insistence on a democratic form of government. His resolute position and the impressive effect of those demonstrations that he incited, are now history.

His second major political stand was about the Bremer’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). At the time the UN Security Council was drafting Resolution 1546 in June 2004 to lay the legal framework for the indigenous Iraq transition government, he wrote a firm letter to the UN Secretary General demanding TAL’s exclusion from that resolution. The reaction of the leaders of the two major Kurdish parties was to threaten President Bush: “If the TAL is abrogated, the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and its institutions, not to take part in the national elections, and to bar representatives of the central Government from Kurdistan.” He was accommodated at the expense of infuriating the Kurds who were absolutely furious that the UN did not mention the TAL. It was hailed as a big victory for Sistani (by those always in a hurry to pass judgment).

But his greatest coup to my mind was his extremely successful mediation on the Sadr thing. Very quietly, he managed to quickly engineer what seemed to be a reasonable compromise. This was no small feat considering all the bad blood and the bombing of Najaf… everything was pointing to a bloody confrontation in which everybody stood to lose.

However, all these ‘strong’ points turned out later not to be so ‘puritan’ as they appeared to be at the time:

The Elections

Although TAL was not mentioned in that UN Resolution, in practice, Sistani was ignored. TAL remained effectively Iraq’s temporary constitution. The man not only did nothing, but actually endorsed the elections based entirely on TAL!

The Sectarian Slate

My personal disappointment with his Holiness was complete and when he endorsed the ‘Shiite’ slate during the elections of January 2005! That slate did not represent just the ‘Islamist’ religious parties and groups. It included a few ‘secular’ players, most notably the infamous Ahmed Chalabi, the neocon’s man in Iraq and a convicted felon.

There was no common program, no economic orientation, no clear vision of the country people were asked to vote for. There was even no common stance regarding the most volatile issues facing the country.

The slate was presented to the people as a ‘Shiite’ front, pure and simple! At a time when the country was facing so much sectarian stresses, that was wrong! It was part of the foul game of polarizing the elections, and therefore the country, along sectarian and ethnic lines. I believed then, and I still believe now, that that was a wicked scheme. Sistani endorsed it.

Not only that, but he allowed some of his senior associates to be included in that slate, contrary to his repeatedly declared position on this issue. Some of his ‘representatives’ became members of the National Assembly.

He has now changed his position again and decided not to allow them to take part in the coming elections, scheduled for the end of 2005. He has also declared, through a representative, not to give his blessing to any slate. However, this is too late. Those people have already entrenched and secured a powerful base.


For more than a year and a half after the invasion, Moqtada was more associated with the mostly ‘Sunni’ rejectionists of the invasion than with other religious Shiite groups. He made numerous contacts with ‘nationalist’ groups and forged alliances with some of them. He took a firm supportive stand with Fallujah during the April 2004 massacre.

His position culminated in his stand-off with the American army in Sadr City and Najaf. His newspaper was closed and a warrant for his arrest was issued. An armed conflict soon followed in the fall of 2004.

After Sistani’s intervention, the Najaf conflict was resolved. But what was surprising was that Moqtada literally turned ‘docile’ after that deal. He did not oppose the elections, as was expected of him. He grumbled about illegitimate elections being run under occupation… but he allowed his followers to participate in those elections. He was given a share of 21 seats (out of 275) in the National assembly.

Moqtada’s ambiguous stand regarding the referendum was also perplexing.

There was no more any mention of those criminal proceedings against him.

He has now formally joined the “religious Shiite” slate (now given the number 555). In effect, although undeclared yet, his new position is to be part of the political process.

What is more troubling for me is that, his Mehdi army
has changed position on the ground regarding the sectarian issue. While in the early days, they were a force to combat sectarianism, they have become a ‘sectarian militia’.
This is an important development in the Sectarian Assault on Iraq. In several recent incidents in mixed areas east and south of Baghdad, the Mehdi Army has been a part in sectarian confrontations, on the side of the Badr Brigade. This is rather bewildering considering that only a few months ago there were bloody confrontations between the two.

To me all these changes indicate one thing: Sistani’s intervention in the Sadr affair was to forge a unity of the ‘Shiite’ front. Come to think of it, that shouldn’t be surprising. The man is the leader of the Shiite faith.

The Referendum on the Constitution

Friday, October 14, 2005, a day before the referendum: it was now official. During the Friday sermon, Sistani’s representative in Kerbala clearly and categorically stated the leading cleric’s position: he encourages all Iraqis to take part in the referendum. He advises them to say “yes” to the draft.

We had been hearing reports of his position for the past several days, but that somehow did not diminish my resentment: He knew that the country was deeply divided on that draft. He should not have taken that position. He could have encouraged people to vote, but should not have stated such a strong position in support of that draft, not if he wanted unity in the country.

I am afraid that, after this position, his break with large segments of the community… was final! That cannot be good for the country.

Sistani and the Political Arena

Most of Sistani’s power naturally comes from his seat, as I have outlined in other posts. Part of his ‘extra’ power stems from his declared position not to seek earthly power. He maintained categorically that the clergy should not have a say in how the government is run. He had also given his clergy followers strict orders not to meddle in government affairs. He completely rejects Khomeini's doctrine of “Wilayet al Faqeeh” – Rule of the Supreme Clergy.

This, to me at least, explains much! Many people (particularly local leaders in towns and in the countryside in the south and people who regard themselves as "secular Shiites") do not feel that their power (or prospect of power) is threatened by him. He has no militia to ‘help’ them run their lives, he does not infringe on their territory or power zone. Other religious Shiite movements such as SCIRI, Da’wa (who actually want a religious state) or Sadr's (who are seen to be simply after political and economic power) are regarded as a threat by many of these people.

I must say that those religious Shiite parties played that Sistani game rather well. They paid every possible respect to Sistani, they never crossed with him; they frequently consulted with him on some issues; and they got him to endorse every major political move they made. While safe from the American administration, having declared their total acceptance of the political process, they were able to keep their militias and they went on to control life on the ground. With money to spend, they could pay followers. In two years, those forces had almost total control of much of the south of Iraq. Seculars were left out dazed in the dust of their trail!

He remains a most important, even if slightly mysterious, player on the Iraqi political and religious arena. However, I can at the moment hear murmurs of discontent (and sometimes outright criticism) from ‘Shiite’ (including some religious) quarters; Moqtada’s people, the Mehdi army, being the most outspoken. His status in the eyes of many has been impaired. And this… is significant!

His latest positions may be seen as an effort to rectify that damage.

4. Mehdi Army Poem

The following poem is the most outspoken criticism of Sistani that I have come across so far. Some time ago I listened to a recording of the poem being read by the poet himself, someone called Na’il al Muthaffar. What I noticed most, was the enthusiastic applause this poet received from a large audience when reciting that poem!

The poem is in slang, in southern Iraqi dialect, but in the style of classical Arabic poetry (with every line in two parts having the same meter and rhythm, all lines ending with the same sound). The sweet rhythm in its words could only come from the South. They have a special and quite a distinctive sense of music… and a sarcasm to go with it!

All poetry is difficult to translate. I have not even tried to preserve the ‘poetry’ and the ‘music’ in it. I simply couldn’t even if I tried. Instead, I only tried to maintain the structure and the message intact… without the original flavor. An excerpt:


Naked were your God’s worshippers on news channels…
… The virgins got pregnant and gave birth in prisons

But your conscience didn’t sting; what is your religion?...
… The Jew who saw our misfortune was outraged!

Sunnis rushed to Najaf to help… and you didn’t feel a thing…
… Don’t say you are a Shiite; you have nothing to do with Ali. (1)

I have totally lost all faith in you, absolutely…
… I washed my hands of you with 12 tankers. (2)

We were in a graveyard, being sprayed by fire…
… While some were dying… and others maimed, (3)

You, without conscience, were spreading rumors: …
…“Half of Mehdi’s Army are druggists and alcoholics”; (4)

What did you expect from us, an army of saints?...
…People cannot be guaranteed, how can an army be?

Put yourself in my place; where can I bring people from?...
…Even Prophet Mohammad’s army had people who drank!

If others are not good enough, you be the good one…
…And step into their place… and let them stand aside…

How can the drug-user stand up for his religion…
…While, you the faithful, remain asleep and snoring?

We sold our own clothes to purchase our weapons…
…Some money is left; shall we buy you a mattress?

(1) Imam Ali, the pillar of the Shiite faith.
(2) … 12 tankers of water obviously. A reference to the water shortage, an exaggerated description of the degree of loss of faith… and a rather mischievous reference to the 12 Imams of the Shiite faith!
(3) A reference to their confrontation with the US army in the fall of 2004 where they used the huge cemetery as a base.
(4) In those days, many Iraqis started jocularly referring to Jaish al Mehdi (The Mehdi Army) as Jaish al Wardi (The Pink Army) in allusion to some drug capsules that were pink in color.

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