Global Policy Forum

Call of History Draws


By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post
February 1, 2004

In a meeting steeped in symbolism, 68 tribal elders gathered last month on a worn Persian carpet in a crowded reception hall, sharing tea and cigarettes, and listened to a tall, ascetic cleric summon them to action in a country being transformed.

In ceremonial Arabic accented by his native Persian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani declared that power should be in their hands, not in the hands of those from abroad, two participants recalled. With a keen sense of Iraq's history, he called the tribesmen "descendants of the 1920 revolution," the Shiite Muslim revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Elections, he insisted forcefully in the 45-minute meeting, were the only way to ensure that their voice would be heard.

"We want the authority for you," Sistani said, according to Nijm Abid Sayyah, a 50-year-old participant from the southern city of Rumaythah. "We serve you and all Iraqis, people of honorable history and great glory."

More than words, Sistani's speech on Jan. 10, to tribesmen from the city where the 1920 revolt began, signaled the emergence of a new Iraq and a new ayatollah. Gone was the reserve that ensured his survival under former president Saddam Hussein, who executed and expelled hundreds of his colleagues. In its place was a new assertiveness. For perhaps the first time in a life that has spanned Iraq's modern history, Sistani, 73, sent a message that was more political than religious.

Rarely seen in public, and in isolation for the past six years, the Iranian-born cleric has derailed one U.S. plan for Iraq's political transition and is striving to undo another through a demand for direct elections. He has caused anxiety among U.S. officials who are wary of the theocracy in neighboring Iran and envision Iraq as a secular, democratic outpost in the Arab world. His statements -- often handwritten, seldom spoken -- have already secured the Shiite clergy a crucial if not dominant role in determining Iraq's future.

From his biography and in interviews with fellow clerics, his staff and Iraqis who have met him, a complex picture emerges of a man whose exercise of power is as much a consequence of time and place as of his personality.

A deeply traditional cleric, Sistani has been steeped in the culture of religious schools since he was 10 years old, educated by some of their most illustrious scholars and dedicated to the preservation of the schools' authority. He cultivated such an austere image that he did not buy a refrigerator until a decade ago. Yet he oversees institutions and a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, and in the subterranean contests for power and prestige in Najaf, he has proved himself a skilled infighter.

While his detractors see his newfound activism as cause for alarm -- the onset of clerical influence and the ascent of the Shiite majority in a divided country -- his followers describe his moves as defensive. Sistani fears the loss of what he describes as Iraq's Islamic identity, and he trusts that Iraqis, a Muslim, Arab people, will not disavow it if given a voice through elections. He thinks historically, they say, acknowledging mistakes by the clergy in the 1920 revolt, and chafing at the secular nature of modern Turkey.

Sistani has explicitly refrained from pronouncements on what shape Iraq's constitution and law should take. He is described as a flexible thinker who believes that religion should adapt to time and place. Yet his edicts reveal a profoundly traditionalist view of society. In declarations on the most minute elements of personal behavior, he has said that men and women should not mix socially, that music for entertainment is prohibited and that women should veil their hair.

Through no choice of his own, his interlocutors say, Sistani has now been forced to define his legacy. "Any grand ayatollah would have done exactly the same," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a member of the Governing Council who visits Sistani often. "He keeps on saying that in 50 years from now, if I don't act, people will remember me by saying why didn't he do this, why didn't he say anything? They will say the country lost its identity, and you did nothing to stop it."

A Brilliant Student

Sistani was born in Mashhad, a city in northwest Iran that is home to the country's most sacred Shiite shrine. He was named after his paternal grandfather, a renowned scholar who studied in Najaf's 1,000-year-old seminary. At the time, Iraq's shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala were as Persian as they were Arab. The family's ancestral home was the province of Sistan, in southwest Iran, where for centuries the men in the family served as religious leaders.

According to his official biography, Sistani began learning the Koran at age 5, then entered studies of Islamic law and philosophy at age 10 in Mashhad. By age 19, he was on his way to Qom, a seat of scholarship in western Iran. Less than three years later, at 21, he traveled to Najaf, where he lived for the next half-century. He raised his family in Najaf. His wife is Iranian, but his two sons speak Arabic like native Iraqis. The elder son, Mohammed Rida, serves as his confidant. His other son, Mohammed Jawad, also belongs to the clergy but plays little role in his father's office, choosing instead what residents describe as a quiet life of study.

Sistani's early years in Najaf were a time of momentous shifts in Shiite politics and religion. Najaf, for centuries the preeminent center of Shiite scholarship, was losing influence to Qom, and after the revolt against the British in 1920, a succession of Iraqi regimes -- monarchs, generals and strongmen -- were determined to break the clergy's power. While the clergy did not reach its nadir until Hussein's rule, it was already in decline when Sistani arrived. That loss of prestige, and a desire to reclaim its influence, has created a powerful current in Najaf today.

By all accounts, Sistani was a brilliant student. He studied under the leading ayatollah in Qom, then became a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei in Najaf. Khoei granted Sistani, at age 31, the right to judge religious questions -- only one of two students given that standing. By the 1980s, he had begun grooming Sistani as his successor.

Khoei's students included the most prominent ayatollahs in Iraq today. His advocacy of what is best known as the quietist school in Shiite Islam -- disavowing an overt role by the clergy in politics -- remains the dominant ideology in Najaf. Like his mentor, Sistani showed no signs of political activism in his years in the seminary. But in the often concealed contests for influence, Sistani was an assertive figure and rose quickly through the ranks.

While far more hierarchical than their Sunni Muslim counterparts, the Shiite clergy still have no formal mechanism to choose the supreme religious authority, known as the marja al-taqlid, whose edicts carry the force of law among religious Shiites. Scholarship, piety and purity are considered requisites. But more important is the number of followers who consider an ayatollah their spiritual guide. By virtue of religious taxes paid to the marja, that support translates into finances that bring prestige.

No less crucial is the choice by a marja of his protege. In 1989, Khoei asked Sistani to take his place in leading prayers at the Khadra Mosque. In 1992, when Khoei died at the age of 93, throwing religious leadership in Iraq into turmoil, Sistani was asked to lead the funeral prayers, a highly symbolic gesture of Khoei's intentions.

Within a year, after the death of two elderly rivals, Sistani had emerged as the marja in Najaf among the traditional clergy. That position was contested by outsiders, including an Iraqi-born cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr. But Sistani inherited Khoei's endowment and, among the powerful families in Najaf -- many of Iranian origin with ties to commerce and the clergy -- he was the acknowledged, best-financed leader. After the government assassinated Sadr and two of his sons in 1999, Sistani was left as a largely undisputed first among equals, with Najaf's three other grand ayatollahs deferring to him.

Mystery and Power

At a store selling music and religious recordings in Najaf, nine rows of shelves are stacked with lamentations for Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's most beloved saint, and lectures by religious scholars. There is only one of Sistani -- the footage of his role in Khoei's funeral.

The isolation has given rise to an irony that best defines Sistani's tenure as marja. Even today, as his edicts shape Iraq's political future, most Iraqis know little of his personality, even his birthplace. The little that does emerge portrays a deeply ascetic man, who wears inexpensive clothing, pays rent and decorates his sitting room with cheap carpets and a lone bookshelf.

His day begins with the evening prayers, at about 5 p.m. He follows that by meeting special guests, a simple dinner of cheese, olives and bread, then spends the night in prayer and study, said Essam Kamil, who worked in Sistani's office for three years in the 1990s. After dawn prayers, he sleeps for four hours, then conducts meetings until prayers at noon. He sleeps for two hours in the afternoon before beginning a new day.

Some residents say he leaves the barrani, a two-story brick building up the winding alley where he lives, only to pray on the roof. There, he has a view of the dome of the Imam Ali shrine, the burial place of Shiite Islam's most revered saint. "If the prophet Muhammad was living today, he would live the same way," Kamil said. Ali Waadh, a representative of Sistani in Baghdad, said Sistani cuts off guests who engage in the effusive praise of formal Arabic. Others say he hesitates when followers seek to kiss his hand, and the editors of Holy Najaf magazine, the mouthpiece of the seminary, said they are planning to publish an edict in the next issue discouraging the display of his portrait.

Those who have met Sistani describe a forceful personality, with an extremely sharp intellect molded by the seminary's emphasis on logic. Despite more than 50 years in Iraq, he still speaks Arabic with a heavy Persian accent, and he does nothing to conceal his Iranian origins. Sistani rarely if ever smiles, they say, nor does he get angry. But unlike his mentor Khoei, who would often answer in one- or two-word phrases such as "possible" or "not possible," Sistani is said to be an engaging conversationalist.

If disagreements persist, he is said to choose silence as a sign of disapproval. In April, Sistani issued a fatwa or religious edict, forbidding looting. When looting persisted, recalled Fatih Karmani, a 33-year-old resident of Najaf, Sistani closed his barrani in protest for three days. Only after appeals from tribal leaders, who for decades have served to protect the clergy, did he reopen the office to the public.

"He expected a response," Karmani said. "He expected people to obey his fatwa." Adnan Pachachi, the current head of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, visited Sistani this month, delivering a letter from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that cast doubt on the feasibility of elections. Sistani's reaction was sharp. "We did not ask Kofi Annan to issue a fatwa from New York, but to send experts to Iraq to assess the situation on the ground," Mohammed Aal Yahya Musawi, an adviser to Sistani, quoted him as saying.

Sistani has refused to meet U.S. officials, forcing them to rely on Iraqi interlocutors perceived by the Americans as having their own agendas and interests. In recent months, he has exchanged letters with the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer. Inside his office, Sistani is surrounded by a close-knit group of advisers. All of them have been with him since he became marja in the early 1990s, although one died last month. Of the other three, two are Iraqi and one is Iranian. But their collective influence is overshadowed by the role of his son Mohammed Rida. "Right now, the only person who has authority in his office is Mohammed Rida," said Mustafa Yaacoubi, a cleric in Najaf.

From the barrani, Sistani's network -- a constellation of advisers and representatives, their authority rarely formalized -- spreads across southern Iraq and the rest of the Shiite world, which constitutes an estimated 10 percent of all Muslims. He has offices in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai; Qom; Mashhad; Damascus, Syria; Beirut; and London, as well as men known as wakils, or representatives, in Iraq's largest cities.

As in centuries past, most business is conducted in person. Sistani has refused interviews with Western journalists, but he remains accessible to most Iraqis. Formal decisions come in the form of edicts -- often handwritten and posted on the walls of Najaf -- that must bear the stamp of his office. Once issued, they are spread in rigidly hierarchical fashion through the community by sermons, e-mail, fax and, increasingly, his London-based Web site.

His office in London said in response to written questions that Sistani "has not amassed any gold or property." But befitting a marja of his rank, his financial patronage spans the Shiite world, with much of it concentrated in Iran. Since the 1990s, he has financed the construction of public housing and dormitories for students, centers for Iraqi and Afghan refugees in Iran and medical clinics and hospitals. He provides tens of millions of dollars a year in salaries to religious students in Syria, Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan and Iraq.

All of it is administered from his well-guarded barrani, down the road from barbershops, bookstores and small hotels, with a web of tangled wire overhead and oversized balconies that block the sun. The entrance is unmarked except for a leaflet on the wall that pledges support for Sistani's political demands.

Turning to Isolation

The theology of Shiite Islam -- a sect repressed for centuries, often ruthlessly, by the Sunni establishment -- has a concept known as taqiyya. It translates as dissimulation, a principle of hiding one's beliefs to avoid persecution or harm.

Many of Sistani's followers describe his reticence in the years under Hussein as a version of taqiyya. An Iraqi official recalled his sister visiting Sistani in 1995. Her son had died, and she brought Sistani several thousand dollars for charity as a way to remember her son. Sistani refused to accept it to avoid attracting attention of the authorities. "He was playing it very, very careful," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He didn't challenge the regime at all."

Those years marked a brutal chapter in the history of the Iraqi clergy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of clerics were arrested, executed or expelled, and students who refused to inform were hounded. Although Sistani survived, he was also harassed. With other senior clergy, he was imprisoned in Baghdad for a short time after the 1991 Shiite uprising that followed the Persian Gulf War. His official biography says he was repeatedly threatened with exile. In 1994, the government shut down the Khadra Mosque he inherited from Khoei. A sign still hangs there: "Closed for renovations and repairs."

Sistani twice faced assassination attempts. The most serious was in 1997, when, before evening prayers, two men in turbans entered his barrani. Carrying bags said to contain money, they requested a meeting with Sistani. Before Sistani arrived, his staff recalled, the men pulled out pistols, killing a worker who served tea and wounding another assistant. The assailants fled.

Through the 1990s, residents recall, Sistani was not a visible figure in Najaf. The few who recognized him saw him occasionally walk down Prophet's Street on his way to pray at the Imam Ali shrine. But in a trait he has often displayed as an act of protest, he chose greater and greater isolation. After the Khadra Mosque was closed, he rarely ventured outside. Since the attempt on his life in 1997, he has not left his barrani. While supporters say he was never put under formal house arrest, the government posted guards outside his office in a clear message of intimidation.

"We considered it an act of protest for the sayyid to stay at home," said Karmani, using a title of respect.

Drawing From the Past

Sistani's political activism has surprised many, even his supporters. In April, he issued statements insisting that the clergy play no direct role in politics. But he soon began weighing in with opinions that drove to the heart of Iraq's future. In June, he issued a fatwa insisting that delegates to a constitutional convention be elected, followed by statements in December insisting on a direct vote for a transitional government. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites have echoed his demands in protests.

Sistani's supporters point out that even Khoei, his mentor, remained a tactician. Khoei spent much of his life trying to deflect the pressures of Hussein's government. With no less persistence, Khoei rebuffed, with more success, attempts by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's revolutionary leader, to claim the mantle of Shiite leadership for his Islamic republic.

Sistani's spokesmen have said he draws lessons for today from the six-month revolt in 1920 against the British occupation. Once it was put down, the Shiite clergy remained in opposition, rejecting participation in elections that followed and discouraging followers from entering the government and its institutions, which soon were dominated by minority Sunnis.

That year "is like a complex in the hearts and minds of the Shiites," said Mohieddin Khatib, the secretary of the Governing Council. "It is a very deep regret, and he is saying you will not hear something like this from me."

Just as significant, Sistani's supporters say he sees the clergy on the defensive, the lone check on an aggressive campaign by the U.S. occupation and its allies to build a secular society. In a handwritten response to questions last year, Sistani described secularism as Iraq's greatest threat. "There is a grave danger in obliterating [Iraq's] cultural identity, whose most important foundation is the honorable Islamic religion," he said. A government that reflects the majority's will "should respect the religion of the majority, adopt its values and not conflict in any of its decisions with any of the stipulations of that religion."

"He's driven by fear," Rubaie said, fear of secularism and "fanatic liberalism." He said Sistani acknowledges his call for elections is not grounded in Islam. Rather, he said, he is trying to hold the West to its pledges to bring democracy to Iraq. Some of Sistani's detractors -- among other sects and among more radical clergy loyal to Sadr's son, Moqtada -- have criticized Sistani's role. The disapproval often springs from his Iranian nationality. Others view his assertiveness as a response to criticism that his management style was weak.

But among religious Shiites, Sistani's authority remains largely unquestioned. Their loyalty may be less to the man and more to the marja, the institution that, in the chaos of postwar Iraq, retains the most credibility with the community.

In Rumaythah, where tribesmen gathered last week, conversation quickly turned to politics, and politics turned to Sistani. "We consider him the leader. If he says die, we die. If he says live, we live," said Aufi Abid Rahi, a tribal leader. "If Sistani gives a word to fight, I will fight to the death," said Meshkur Abid Sayyah, another tribesman. "He's my marja."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.