Global Policy Forum

It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah


By Juan Cole*

Washington Post
August 15, 2004

The battle for Najaf has catapulted the names of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and lower-ranking cleric Moqtada Sadr onto the front pages of American newspapers once again. Though their names may have become more familiar to American ears, they are a part of a long tradition of Shiite clerical leadership over which a veil was drawn in the time of Saddam Hussein. Now those clerics -- along with three other grand ayatollahs in Najaf -- have reemerged as major leaders. Examining their influence, and how they attained it, offers a deeper understanding of Shiism and the forces at work in Iraq.

Sistani, who is 74 and an adroit religious politician committed to a form of parliamentary democracy, has intervened in key ways to shape Iraq since the fall of Saddam. More than a week ago, he abruptly quit Najaf for London, a departure that signaled the beginning of an all-out campaign against the fiery Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

The beefy Sadr, who is 30, peppers his interviews with rough, gutter Arabic, though as a seminarian he is perfectly capable of eloquence. As a young man, he saw the bullet-riddled bodies of his father and two elder brothers brought home after Saddam's secret police sprayed their car with machine-gun fire. An angry hothead, with a ruthless streak born of his struggle against the Baath Party, Sadr leads a radical Shiite minority throughout the south that is loyal to his father's ideals.

His movement is sectarian and based on charisma, appealing predominantly to the young and poor. His followers demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and advocate an Iranian-style, clerically ruled state. They view the caretaker government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as a mere puppet. Though Sadr is too young to be taken seriously by Sistani and the other Shiite ayatollahs, he has inherited the followers of his father, who inspired fanatical devotion in many poor slum dwellers in the south, and they have transferred their loyalty to his son.

Since the invasion, Najaf has emerged as ever more treacherous ground for the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. As home to Iraq's highest religious authorities, Najaf rests on a landscape where history and grievance inform every struggle; the battle there to control the future of Iraq crosses lines of religion, identity and generation. Shiite Muslims revere Najaf as keeper of the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, considered by Shiites to be his vicar. Sunni Muslims honor Ali as well, and control of such a sacred shrine brings prestige and wealth through contributions of pilgrims.

Najaf also has Shiite seminaries, where clerics study for years, graduating with a degree in religious jurisprudence. Those graduates who write and teach move up a ladder of positions bestowed by the consensus of other clerics. The first step up from a simple jurisprudent is Hujjat al-Islam, or proof of Islam. Sadr's followers often use that title for him, but most observers doubt he has even finished his formal studies.

The high rank of ayatollah is achieved by those clerics who write many respected works, including a comprehensive manual for lay persons about the correct practice of Shiism, and who attract some popular following. Iraq -- which is about 65 percent Shiite -- once had hundreds of ayatollahs, but their ranks were much depleted by Saddam's assassinations. Although the current number is hard to know, the most senior of them rise to be grand ayatollahs in Najaf, and there are currently four.

The most revered of the grand ayatollahs is the marja, or source of religious authority. His fatwas, or rulings, on matters of religious law have enormous moral authority for the laity, and are often persuasive with other clerics. All Shiite lay persons must choose a learned and upright cleric, whose rulings on the details of religious practice they must follow. Sistani is the current source of religious authority for most Iraqi Shiites, a position that depends both on the esteem of other clerics and on popular acclaim. He also has large followings in Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere. Because Shiite Iran itself has 10 or so claimants to grand ayatollah status, Sistani has only a small following there.

The other three grand ayatollahs in Najaf include Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani; Ishaq Fayed, an Afghan; and Mohammed Saeed Hakim, an Iraqi. Hakim is a distant relative of Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the important political party allied with the United States, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. All three strongly support Sistani.

If Sistani, who is under treatment for heart problems in London, were to die, a period of uncertainty in the Shiite leadership would ensue. He would almost surely be succeeded by one of the other grand ayatollahs in Najaf. There is a dispute in the Arabic press about which is the leading candidate. Some suggest that Najafi, who has expressed vehemently anti-American sentiments, is next in line. Another contender is Fayed, 75, who is said to reject the idea of clerical involvement in politics altogether, being more politically quietist than Sistani.

Ayatollah Kadhim Haeri, a dark horse, fled to Iran around 1980 to escape Saddam's persecution but might return from his home in Qom. He was a leader of the Shiite Dawa Party in the 1970s and was close to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Haeri was originally Sadr's mentor, but the two broke over Sadr's military moves. Earlier, Iraqi Shiites were less oriented to the scholastic, clerical version of the religion popular in Iran. Most were rural and practiced Shiism as a tribal folk religion. During the past 17 years, however, the Shiite majority in Iraq has largely turned to religion in reaction against persecution by the secular Baath Party. This process was hastened by the fall of Saddam, and religious parties and movements have spread rapidly.

Because they had to fight Saddam's army and secret police, all major Shiite political movements in Iraq developed paramilitaries. Moqtada Sadr's father formed his in the 1990s. From summer of 2003, Moqtada Sadr formalized the Sadrist militia, calling it the Mahdi Army, and it quickly gained recruits. Many Sadrists believe they are living in the last days, and that the advent of the Muslim messiah, or Mahdi, is around the corner.

Although Sadr's Mahdi Army, entrenched in East Baghdad, had little local support in the holy city of Najaf, it took over the city in April after the Americans attempted to arrest or kill Sadr. The American onslaught apparently was so unpopular that other paramilitary and Iraqi police forces in the city yielded to them. Sadr militants streamed into the city from elsewhere, and most local Iraqi police defected to them.

The scenes of battle in Najaf have become a huge public relations disaster for the United States. Even skirmishes in the vicinity of the shrine last spring made the U.S. Army look like a blasphemer to many Shiites, and not just in Iraq. Shiites held angry demonstrations in Lebanon, Bahrain, Pakistan and India. By May, the favorability rating in Iraq polls for the U.S. military was only about 10 percent, down enormously from the previous year.

The grand ayatollahs, including Sistani, were drawn into mediating between Sadr and the Americans, even though Sistani condemns Sadr's ideas. Sistani believes that the Shiites made a strategic error in 1920 when they revolted against British colonial rule after World War I. The British turned to the minority Sunnis for support, ensconcing them in power for the rest of the century. Sistani believes that by showing patience, the Shiite majority can come to power in Iraq through the ballot box if it avoids alienating the Americans.

Although Sadr complains about Iranian dominance of Iraqi Shiism, the religious leadership has long been multinational, and few doubt Sistani -- who was born in Iran but has lived in Najaf since 1952 -- has Iraq's best interests at heart. The hard-line clerics in Iran generally support Sistani, whom they see as one of their own and whose vision of an Iraq ruled by a Shiite-dominated parliament is acceptable to them. Sistani is also a favorite with many of Iran's reformers, but he has asked Iran to keep out of Iraqi domestic affairs.

The Marines' campaign in Najaf against the Mahdi Army will succeed militarily, since the latter more resemble American ghetto gangs like the Crips and the Bloods than they do a genuine military force. But in the course of destroying Sadr and his followers, the Americans will inevitably create a host of martyrs, and the blood of martyrs has been the seed of more than one church. The American desecration of sacred Najaf and its cemetery makes the blood boil among Shiites throughout the world. There is likely to be a violent reaction from them at some point down the road.

All the Mahdi Army clansmen have cousins who will step forward to avenge them. The Sadr movement itself survived Saddam, despite his assassination of Sadr's father. The movement will throw up new leaders, as long as the vast Shiite slums of the south offer no more attractive political or cultural opportunities. In the meantime, the Allawi government is discrediting itself with the religious Shiites by calling on the Marines to do a job that should have been undertaken by Iraqis. Even the cautious and long-suffering Sistani will eventually lose his patience if the holy sites are too brutally trampled and if the Americans overstay their welcome. Several potential successors to the ailing Sistani will likely be less patient with the Americans than he has been.

As for Sadr, he desperately wants the Iraqi people to toss the United States out of their country, as the Iranians did in 1978-79. He seems to think that if his life cannot convince them to do so, his death might. Long-time expatriate secularist politicians in Iraq -- and U.S. Defense Department officials who know almost nothing about Iraqi culture and society -- are gambling that he is wrong.

About the Author: Juan Cole is professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. He maintains a Web log on Iraq, "Informed Comment" (

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