Like many grand ayatollahs before him, Ali Sistani is among the small group of senior clerics who lead the Shia theological school in Najaf, the bastion of spiritual Shiism, which stretches its moral power across Iraq and much of the world’s Shia Muslim community.
But since the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein, Sistani has dominated the leadership of the Shia marjiya, the spiritual reference for Shias, and turned the city into the centre of the faith’s political power in Iraq.
Few if any figures have matched the political influence in Iraq of Sistani, whose power transcends Iraq’s other most revered Shia clerics, even many of his possible successors.
Sistani underwent surgery on a fractured thigh on 16 January following an accident in his home in Najaf. He reportedly fractured a thigh bone when he slipped while washing before evening prayers.
Sistani, who turns 90 later this year, was discharged from hospital a day later and returned to his home in Najaf where he will stay under medical observation.
But news of the surgery has left millions of his followers and many other Iraqis concerned about his health and raised fears about the prospects for political change or continuity following Sistani’s death.
Concerns over the health of the ageing cleric had been growing even before the latest accident, but they have mounted as Iraq is caught up in the US-Iran escalation following the killing of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, earlier this month.
The Iranian-born Sistani has been a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s troubled politics since the US-led invasion in 2003 and Saddam’s downfall. He has served as a great stabiliser of conflict-ridden Iraq through his attempts to forge a common cause for all Iraqis.
His views have been critical in calming tensions as the country has faced crisis after crisis, beginning with civil strife following the US-led invasion through the war on the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and the recent mass protests against the Shia political establishment in Iraq.
Sistani is believed to have been born in Mashhad, Iran, on 4 August 1930 of a father who was also a religious scholar. He moved to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq to study theology with prominent Shia clerics in the seminary.
Shortly after the death of grand ayatollah Khoie in 1992, Sistani inherited the position of senior cleric in Najaf and began exercising the spiritual leadership position of the Iraqi Shias in dealing with their religious matters.
Soon afterwards, Sistani cultivated millions of Shia followers worldwide who adopted his views because of what they saw as his great knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, intellect, and somewhat moderate religious opinions.
Like his predecessors in the Najaf Hawza, or seminary, Sistani remained opposed to the controversial theory of wilayat al-faqih, the absolute guardianship of the Shia jurist, advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini and exercised in Iran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Instead, Sistani supported the idea that clerics should not play an executive or administrative role in state affairs but should limit their non-religious role to giving advice on issues of public interest without being directly involved in government matters.
Sistani has not only rejected the dogma of absolute leadership, but has even explicitly called for a “civic state” in Iraq rather than a religious one, distancing himself from the theocracy preached and practised by the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Under Saddam’s ruthless dictatorship, Sistani steered clear of politics in an attempt to escape the regime’s wrath, but this brought criticism from those who believed in the need for the religious establishment to speak out on public policies.
Soon after Saddam’s ouster, Sistani began to play a key role in reshaping the political order in Iraq to help empower the Shia majority. Yet, he tried to walk a fine line in order not to alienate the country’s minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims and ensure equality in power-sharing.
While he is seldom seen or speaks in public, Sistani emerged as one of the most powerful men in post-Saddam Iraq. His edicts or communications through statements read by representatives have either drawn up roadmaps for Iraqi politicians or blocked them from imposing their own.
In the days of tension over the future of the US Occupation Authority in Iraq, Sistani forced the US administration in the country to hold elections in 2005 for an assembly to write a new constitution for Iraq and pave the way for an elected parliament and government.
Over the years, Sistani’s interventions with political and communal leaders have played a unifying role and paved the way for rival factions to form governments and end political crises that have threatened deadlock and power struggles.
In June 2014, Sistani issued a call to all Iraqis to take up arms and push back IS terrorists after they occupied large swathes of territory in Iraq and declared a caliphate, effectively mobilising an army of recruits which helped the security forces to drive IS back.
Following the eruption of the anti-government protests against corruption, mismanagement and the lack of basic services in 2015, Sistani issued calls to Iraqi political leaders to push ahead with much-needed reforms.
Since last October, Sistani has emerged as a key supporter of the anti-establishment uprising and protesters, most of them young, who have been demanding an overhaul of a political system that they see as profoundly corrupt and loyal to neighbouring Iran.
Despite his support for the protesters’ demands, Sistani’s calls for reform have not been heeded by the entrenched and corrupt Iran-backed Shia elite that has successfully outmanoeuvred the ayatollah to maintain its grip on power.
But as the protesters’ demands were met with a violent crackdown that killed more than 600 and injured tens of thousands of others, Sistani banded more closely together with the protesters and their movement.
As Iraq’s oligarchy persistently resisted calls for change, Sistani withdrew his support for Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government, forcing him to resign in December. He then called for electoral reforms and the right of the people to choose their own government.
But as the uprising escalated and the ruling elite continued to resist giving in to the protesters’ demands, Sistani began to show signs of increasing frustration and indignation at the continued stalemate that he has clearly blamed on the country’s political class.
Given his age and his health condition, it is a momentous question now to ask whether the era of post-Sistani politics has already begun. In recent years, there has been speculation about scenarios for Sistani’s succession, but anxiety only really started to rise after his hospitalisation last week.
In the custom of Shia seminaries, a new marja taqlid, or source of emulation for every Shia, emerges on the basis of his seniority in ijtihad, or reasoning, and taqlid, or following, and acceptance by believers on the merits of his scholarship.
Currently there are three prominent clerics in Najaf who carry the title of grand ayatollah and could compete for the position: Mohamed Said Al-Hakim (Iraqi), Mohamed Ishac Al-Fayad (Afghani), and Bashir Al-Najafi (Pakistani).
In theory, one of these could take the lead in Najaf after Sistani’s death, though not necessarily his unique position in post-Saddam Iraq which has been reflected in the unprecedented ways through which the marja has consolidated his rank among his peers.
Yet, Sistani’s succession could be complicated if not more ambiguous than merely choosing between octogenarian successors who are yet untested against Iraq’s woes that prove more mortal every day.
The succession to Sistani will come at a crucial movement for Iraqi Shias and for Iraq at large, as the country remains gridlocked in its most serious and probably also existential political crisis since Saddam’s downfall.
While Iraqi Shias will need a spiritual leader of Sistani’s stature, their next marja should not diverge from the inherited Najaf line on wilayat al-faqih since he represents this and is part of it.
Nevertheless, there is rising concern at the level of intrigue and infighting that may permeate the weeks and months leading up to any selection of a new marja in Najaf after Sistani’s death.
This is a tricky and chaotic time in Iraq’s modern history, and public disturbances associated with the protests and political impasse may give stakeholders the chance to exclude opponents from the Najaf Hawza and push their versions of theology and politics.
One major concern is that Iran will use its influence to undermine the screening and selection process, or, worse, impose a cleric who holds a version of its absolute guardianship model.
It is widely believed that Iran is preparing for the post-Sistani era by trying to push a pro-Iranian cleric to the powerful seat or by infiltrating the Hawza with its influence and indoctrination.
There have been difficult years for Iraq since the US-led invasion and the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003. The ongoing anti-establishment uprising has put Iraq on a trajectory of political uncertainty.
To a large extent the future of the uprising will depend on the course that Iran and its proxies in Iraq will take in tackling the protest movement that has been challenging Tehran’s influence in the neighbouring country.
Sistani’s demise and the struggle for his succession will certainly reshape Iraq’s politics, and there are reasons to believe that Najaf and its prominent seminary will be another playground in which Iran will seek to consolidate its powerbase and promote its Islamic model in Iraq and beyond.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.