The world’s most prominent Shiite religious leader, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, commands a great deal of influence and respect – not just in Iraq, but around the world. Questions about who will succeed the cleric and how the reportedly complicated selection process will unfold are being raised frequently, given his age – and perhaps because of the political instability and rising distress in Iraq and the broader region, especially since the U.S. move to effect regime change in Baghdad in 2003. The principal question is whether he is irreplaceable or if his successor can be expected to fulfill a similar moderating role in Iraqi politics and offer balance in the geopolitics between the United States and Iran. Should U.S. policy makers and strategists be concerned about the transition and succession of religious leadership?
Meeting al-Sistani in Najaf a few years ago was as inspiring as it was intriguing. Simple, straightforward and always to the point, al-Sistani’s discourse was highly instructive. After hearing my views on Middle East geopolitics, he calmly commented, “I neither agree nor disagree with your position.” I was left both curious about his views and in awe of his enigmatic persona. On my request for guidance in my research work on political history of Islam, all he said was, “A true scholar must avoid presenting his opinions as facts.”
It’s no surprise that al-Sistani’s patience and wisdom are widely seen as Iraq’s lifeline today, given his influence in the Shiite-majority country (few recognize that he is still an Iranian national; he has resided in the Iraqi city of Najaf since 1951). Any news about his ill health sends shudders across the country and among Iraq’s well-wishers in the region and around the world. Notably, both U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted about their relief and well wishes for the 89-year-old al-Sistani after he underwent a risky but successful surgery for a fractured thigh bone recently. These expressions of good will came even though Tehran and Washington were aware of al-Sistani’s earlier condemnation of both countries’ recent strikes in Iraq.
Al-Sistani is removed from the reins of power in Baghdad, but his views can define the fate of the government in the capital. With tacit U.S. support, he fathered Iraqi democracy in 2003 when he insisted that an elected body should write the new constitution. For Shia across the world, he is one of the world’s leading marjaa al-taqleed (religious source of emulation) whose words are considered binding for those following him. His picture can be seen hanging in Shiite mosques from Baku to Islamabad and London to Washington, D.C. He refuses to meet any Iraqi government official and stays away from political campaigns of any sort. This only adds to his reputation for neutrality among the people of Iraq. His call to arms in 2014, for instance, played a critical role in mobilizing thousands of Iraqi Shiite fighters to the battlefield to confront the Islamic State. More recently, al-Sistani provided powerful words of sympathy to Iraqi protesters, who have taken to the streets in recent months demonstrating against poor economic conditions and corruption, and strongly criticized the state’s aggression in dealing with them.
Al-Sistani earned this respect gradually. He helped Iraq cope with the trauma of the Saddam Hussein era and then survive the jihadist brutality after 2003 and the Islamic State’s reign of terror. But he also gave people hope that building a new Iraq was possible. There are few eminent Muslim clerics around the world who are as fond of constitutional democracy and equal rights as he is.
A vibrant religious establishment with a chain of Shiite seminaries in Najaf backs al-Sistani in the expanded role that he has carved out for himself. The Najaf seminary has historically stood for quietist tradition, which believes that clerics should stay clear of formal involvement in politics. It is no secret that Shia have been at the receiving end of violence in many Muslim states due to sectarian and extremist tendencies, and these populations would often look up to Najaf for guidance. The message by and large has been to remain patient and to remain loyal to the state one belongs to.
Najaf attracts seminary students from across the world, offering them exposure to a global network to disseminate its messages. Loyal Shiite followers of the institution and millions of pilgrims to holy shrines provide regular financial contributions, ensuring it is well-funded. Critics view the political economy of Najaf’s Shiite clerical establishment as a tool to control religious narratives and patronize like-minded scholars. Regardless, this financial strength allows the Najaf establishment to support major charity work as well as remain independent from political power centers.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran had posed a serious challenge to the Najaf worldview, with its wilayat al-faqih (rule by jurists) system combining religious and political office. Najaf categorically rejected it. Najaf’s credibility – built through fighting British control and confronting despotism under Saddam, while sacrificing the lives of many clerics and their families – helped it take an independent position at a time when revolutionary zeal in Iran was attractive as a new model of defiance.
It is this Najaf religious powerhouse that provides backbone to al-Sistani’s endeavors – and this base is not going anywhere. Al-Sistani in essence has been following the time-honored Najafi principles of political neutrality and public welfare. Where he exceeded expectations, however, is promoting the idea that Baghdad must be held accountable. He also earned goodwill from Iraq’s Sunni Muslims when he turned Najaf and Karbala shrines into safe havens for those forced out of their homes by the Islamic State. His policy of shunning sectarian narratives and policies pursued by extremists among the Shia also helped in reducing sectarian tensions in Iraq in recent years.
What to Expect After Al-Sistani
Al-Sistani will be remembered as someone who encouraged sectarian harmony and defended Iraqi sovereignty, and his successor will no doubt have his to-do list ready. Al-Sistani’s legacy will be too influential to ignore, but it will no doubt be a hard act to follow. The complicated and at times drawn out succession process – built on informal and unwritten protocols – takes into consideration scholarly status among peers, publications, and number of followers, besides other criteria.
The selection process in brief is geared toward building support for the successor as well as developing a consensus among leading contenders. That lends authenticity and credibility to the incumbent. The loyalties al-Sistani is enjoying will largely transfer to his successor. Najaf, as Shiism’s religious headquarters, has produced strong and thoughtful leaders who survived many a crisis, and next time will be no different. It will take time for al-Sistani’s successor to settle in, but it is the institutional strength of the Najaf religious establishment that really counts here.
For the United States, it is time to follow more carefully and listen more attentively to the narratives emanating from the religious centers of Islam, be it seminaries in Qom and Najaf or Al-Azhar and the Islamic University of Medina. Engaging with religious centers of influence in Muslim-majority states will add more nuance to Washington’s understanding and will enrich its policy toolkit besides opening the door of interfaith initiatives to resolve conflicts.
Dr. Hassan Abbas is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a distinguished professor of international relations at the Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington D.C.. His forthcoming book is titled The Prophet’s Heir (Yale University Press, 2021) and tweets at @watandost. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of CGP, NDU, or the U.S. Department of Defense.