Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is the highest religious authority for millions of Iraq’s Shia Muslims.The 92-year-old clergyman has been playing an increasingly prominent role in Iraq’s political affairs, mostly by carefully shielding the hard-won Shia power in Iraq while calling for national unity and promoting good governance.
Though Al-Sistani looks in fine fettle, the death of the cleric would be a sad milestone and could change the course of Iraqi history as the country enters a new phase of its transition following controversial elections amid lingering crises.
Who will succeed Al-Sistani matters greatly to Iraq, the region and the world’s Shia Muslims.
Reports have emerged recently on Iraqi social networks purportedly indicating that the country’s Shia religious seminary in the city of Najaf is preparing for the post-Al-Sistani era. Speculation abounds that a battle over his succession could gain in ferocity.
Since the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al-Sistani has dominated the leadership of the Shia marj’aya, the spiritual reference for Shias in Najaf, and turned the holy city into the centre of the community’s political power in Iraq.
The cleric emerged as a powerful voice in Iraq’s political process and a symbol of the newly empowered Iraqi Shia majority after the US-led invasion by forcing the US occupation’s administrators to significantly revise their transition plans.
Al-Sistani’s proactive role in Iraq’s troubled politics after the invasion was also decisive in serving as a stabiliser of the conflict-ridden country through his attempts to forge a common cause for all Iraqi ethnicities and religious sects.
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 then the mass protests against the Shia political establishment over recent years.
Al-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 at the city’s seminary near the gold-domed Imam Ali Shrine.
A year after the death of the prestigious mujtahid Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Al-Khoei in 1992, Al-Sistani succeeded him as the grand marj’a for Shias worldwide. His succession came amid the turbulence that followed the Shia uprising against Saddam following the 1991 Gulf War, but he remained focused on religious affairs and avoided politics.
Mujtahid and marj’a are Shia religious titles.
Al-Sistani also remained opposed to the controversial theory of the wilayat al-faqih, the “guardianship of the [Shia] jurist,” advocated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and exercised in Iran following the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Instead, Al-Sistani has advocated the notion 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.
He has not only rejected the dogma of “guardianship,” 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 and its proxies in Iraq.
At a time when successive Shia-led governments in Iraq have showed abysmal dysfunction, Al-Sistani has raised the reform of Iraq’s inefficient political system to the forefront of his mission and has remained outspoken against rampant corruption and mismanagement.
He has also been critical of some social customs that have flourished in the country in a time of lawlessness, such as the tribal justice exercised in some parts of Iraq to resolve disputes. In a remarkable fatwa (religious ruling) issued last month, Al-Sistani blasted underage marriage, an emerging phenomenon encouraged by some Shia clergy and overlooked by the authorities.
However, amid concerns about Al-Sistani’s health, questions have been raised about the next spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shias, with some senior Najaf-based clerics being touted as possible successors.
Unlike a monarch whose succession is regulated by descent or a Roman Catholic Pope who is elected by papal conclave, a Shia marj’a, or supreme spiritual guide, is chosen through a complicated process of acclamation by learned clerics and allegiance from large groups of followers.
Under a centuries-old informal system for the succession, no one is “appointed” and there is no immediate declaration of a successor. It can take months or even years until one cleric garners enough followers and influence to gain consensus as the new marj’a or leading source of emulation.
In Al-Sistani’s case, the mechanics of the succession process mean that whoever replaces him must receive a pledge of allegiance from a network of Al-Sistani’s agents worldwide and be likely to continue on his path in Shia theology.
Among the most likely contenders are two grand Ayatollahs, Afghan-born Mohamed Ishaq Al-Fayadh and Pakistani-born Bashir Al-Najafi. However, given their advanced age – both men are over 90 – seminary watchers have recently floated possible candidates from a younger generation.
One of these younger candidates who is probably qualified and is seen as preparing for the post is Sheikh Baqir Al-Irawani, for many years a prominent scholar in the Najaf hawaza, or seminary, whose audio lectures are widely listened to by the Shia faithful worldwide.
Al-Irawani, who has been keeping a low profile, recently opened an office in Najaf where he started receiving dignitaries, students and followers, a sign that he may be preparing to be one of the contenders in Al-Sistani’s succession.
Though nationality has not been a liability for former guides of the Shia faith, Al-Irawani, who is believed to be an ethnic Azerbijani, may face obstacles to becoming the grand marj’a at a time of the revival of Iraqi patriotism in the face of entrenched sectarianism and increasing Iranian influence.
There are also a few other scenarios for what might happen after Al-Sistani dies, ranging from a quiet selection of a new spiritual guide to a split at the top if potential contenders meet challenges that could take the shine off their appeal.
Speculation has run rampant that Iran, which has stakes in both the Shia spiritual leadership and in Iraq, may try to get in the way of Al-Sistani’s succession. It would obviously prefer a clergyman who supports its model of Shia theocracy based on the principle of wilayat al-faqih practised in the Islamic Republic in the Najaf seminary.
Since Saddam’s fall, Iran has set out to build a support base for its version of Shiism in Iraq, but its efforts to push for allegiance to its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instead of Al-Sistani and other Najaf marj’as have raised suspicions among most Iraqi Shias despite initial success among its proxies.
The death of Al-Sistani could create a tremendous vacuum in Iraq’s Shia leadership, which Iran would certainly use to expand its influence in the Najaf seminary and in Iraq at large.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr will likely keep a close eye on the death of Al-Sistani and whoever might be his successor. Al-Sadr himself is not a mujtahid, or scholar of theology, making him inelligible to join those vying for Al-Sistani’s succession, but his influence might still outsize that enjoyed by many of the contenders.
His political movement, the Sadrist Trend, was the biggest winner in the Iraqi elections last October, and it seeks to dominate the political conversation among the Iraqi Shias. Al-Sadr is known to have a sense of Iraqi nationalism, and his supporters, who still follow his late father Ayatollah Mohamed Mohamed-Sadiq Al-Sadr, advocate a Shia marj’a of Arab descent.
Last month, Al-Sadr issued guidelines for his supporters in Iraq to follow fatwas issued by his late father, who was assassinated in 1999. The instructions are important because they underline Al-Sadr’s intention to keep power over the Shia school of theology within his family line.
Broadly speaking, Iraq’s next Shia grand Ayatollah will find himself obliged to keep up with Al-Sistani’s legacy and show that he is willing to work through the challenges of Iraq’s chaotic transition, including staying committed to checking the entrenched Shia oligarchy that is seen as being responsible for Iraq’s miserable dysfunction.
A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.