His unstoppable tweets may have brought an answer to a mystery that has absorbed the world for years as Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has mounted coup after coup in Iraq’s politics: what does Al-Sadr want?
A daring remark by the powerful Iraqi cleric last week answered that question and then posed another far graver mystery. What is his endgame? How far will he go?
“Iraq is the first capital [centre] of Shiism,” Al-Sadr tweeted. “This means others should follow Iraq’s suit in Shiism and not vice versa.”
The tweet came in the midst of Iraq’s worst and longest-lasting political crisis in years and in one that has divided the country’s Shia political factions.
The fracture between Al-Sadr and the country’s Iran-backed Shia groups deepened after last October’s general elections, in which a bloc affiliated to Al-Sadr won the largest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament and sought to form a government under his control.
To support his argument that the Shias could live with an ethnic or political divide, Al-Sadr quoted Islam’s holy book, the Quran, which for Muslims is the ultimate source of authority and guidance.
“Had Allah willed, He could have easily made you one community of believers. But He leaves to stray whoever He wills and guides whoever He wills,” Al-Sadr quoted.
His statement seems to signal sharp political and ideological disagreements between his mass movement with its powerful tribal base and those close to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
While the political rift is well known and centres on Iran’s support for Al-Sadr’s foes, the theoretical differences have been discrete and have hidden conflicting ideologies.
The Iranian system of governance is based on the velayat-e faqih, or the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” in place since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
At its core, the theory, developed by the late Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while building up to the revolution, justifies the rule of the clergy over the state.
The theory is rooted in the “Twelvers” branch of Shia Islam and has historically been applied to justify limited clerical guardianship over the congregation.
But Khomeini argued that governments should be run in accordance with Islamic Sharia Law and therefore a leading Islamic jurist, a faqih, must provide political guidance.
While the theory was enshrined in Iran’s post-revolution constitution, for many of Khomeini’s followers the controversial concept could also be applied to Shia Muslims worldwide.
Such a recognition by Khomeini’s adherents outside Iran would be interpreted as constituting a contradiction with state sovereignty, national identity, and independence.
But if Al-Sadr’s remarks are put into a broader perspective, they mean that the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric has entrenched himself on the opposite side of the theological divide.
Many prominent Shia religious leaders do not support Khomeini’s doctrine of the “absolute guardianship” of the cleric and argue that a prominent clergyman can only be a “source of imitation” (marja’ al-taqlid) concerning religious issues and not of political ones.
Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has implicitly rejected Khomeini’s concept of the absolute rule of the supreme jurist as manifested in Iran’s authoritarian rule.
Al-Sistani’s more liberal interpretation suggests that the authority of the marja’, or spiritual leader, lies in the defence of Islam and not in absolute power over state affairs.
The controversial theory is also problematic in countries with substantial Shia populations, such as Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The late Lebanese Shia cleric Mohamed Mahdi Shams Al-Din called for the ethnic identity of Shia Arabs to remain independent of the Shia in Persian Iran.
Shams Al-Din, who died in 2001, had his own problems with the Islamic Republic over the interpretation when he was chair of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council in Lebanon.
He reiterated that Shia Muslims in the Arab countries should remain loyal to their native homelands, and he rejected any political affiliation with Iran.
He advocated the theory of the wilayat al-umma, or “the rule of Muslims,” over their own affairs in contrast to Khomeini’s argument for the jurisdiction of the clergy over the state.
Shams Al-Din’s ideas brought him into conflict with the Lebanese Hizbullah Party, which advocates Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih.
It is not clear how Al-Sadr, who does not have high credentials in the Shia religious hierarchy, views this debate, but he has called for a civil and democratic state in Iraq.
Relations between Iraq’s most-powerful Shia leader and Iran also plummeted to their lowest ebb since the elections after Al-Sadr did not heed the Islamic Republic’s offer of mediation to end the current government crisis.
Al-Sadr has insisted that his bloc should form a broad-based government in alliance with Kurdish and Sunni groups that would exclude his Iranian-backed opponents from power.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that triggered the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iran has been pursuing a key goal of consolidating its influence in Iraq through strong ties with the country’s Shia groups.
In order to stretch further into Iraq, Iran has had to unite the country’s Shia groups under its auspices and help to empower the community by translating their demographic weight into political influence.
Iran’s interference has infuriated many Iraqis, and the turning point came with the 2019 uprising in the largely Shia-dominated provinces of Iraq that showed increasing anti-Iran sentiment.
During their current protests in Iraq, Al-Sadr’s followers have also chanted anti-Iran slogans such as “Iran out… out” and demanded an end to Iran’s hegemony over Iraq’s politics.
Even before he fired his bombshell, Al-Sadr had fuelled Tehran’s anger by refusing to join with the Iran-aligned Shia parties in forming a new Iraqi government.
By escalating his rhetoric, Al-Sadr has driven his standoff with Iran into further uncertainty as the influence of the Islamic Republic begins to wane in Iraq.
Though Iranian officials have been tight-lipped about their hidden tension with Al-Sadr, Tehran’s “unofficial” spokesmen and media have been decrying his stances.
Most of the criticism heaped on Al-Sadr by Iranian sources has focused on his sowing discord among the Shia, an accusation which amounts to sedition.
“At a time when the Sadrist Trend has triggered turmoil in Iraq, Iraqis calling for unity and resistance have gathered to stand up against a trend which willingly or not stands with the enemies of the Iraqi people,” said an article in Kayhan, a mouthpiece of Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s Ettelaat, Sharq and Sobha Noo newspapers, which reflect the opinions of different sectors in Iran, have charged that Al-Sadr’s behaviour is anti-unity, “especially the unity of Iraq’s Shias.”
Al-Sadr has often criticised what he calls the “dependence” of his political rivals on Iran and accused them of breaking Shia ranks.
But this is the first time he has gone as far as to defy Iran on its most sacred turf and challenge its claim of representing the world’s Shias.
Al-Sadr’s statement has dealt a severe blow to Iran’s Islamic revolutionary discourse because the criticism comes from a powerful Shia cleric who descends from the prestigious clerical family of Al-Sadr.
It is not clear what Al-Sadr’s endgame is, but he has certainly positioned himself as one of Iran’s main foes in Iraq and probably also beyond.
By engaging the Iranian regime’s ideology, which it has established a worldwide network of religious and cultural organisations to propagate, Al-Sadr is challenging Tehran’s hegemonic pursuits around the Middle East.
For many, Al-Sadr, who has long been trumpeting his own Iraqi nationalist accreditation, is now introducing himself as an advocate of Arab Shiism in the face of Persian Iran’s version of the creed.
The current feud is crucial in view of Al-Sistani’s poor health, which has thrown a spotlight on the succession to the leadership of the prestigious Shia religious seminary in the Iraqi city of Najaf when he passes away.
Reports have been circulating that Iran may try to get in the way of Al-Sistani’s succession by pushing for clergymen who support its model of Shia theocracy and have allegiance to its own valayi-e faqih in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On Saturday, Al-Sadr paid a visit to Al-Sistani’s sanctuary driven in a car that his father, Ayatollah Mohamed Al-Sadr, used before his assassination in 1997 in a sign that the ailing 92-year-old clergyman may be tilting against Iran in the standoff.
Al-Sadr may also be receiving backing from US allies the heavyweight Arab regimes in the Gulf, which believe he could save Iraq from Iran.
While he has demonstrated his ability to shake up Iran’s influence in Iraq, it remains to be seen how Tehran will respond to Al-Sadr’s defiance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.