On March 6, Pope Francis will pay a courtesy visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, head of the Shiite religious establishment in Iraq and spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims around the world. The visit is one of many stops in the Pope’s busy schedule, but it captured the popular imagination, being the first of its kind and raising questions about what it means for the future of Shi’a participation in global interfaith cooperation.
The question that is less discussed, but perhaps more important and foundational, is the question of whether this is a visit by Grand Ayatollah Sistani or the religious establishment in Najaf, known as the Hawza. In other words, does the world view the Hawza as an institution, like the Vatican, or as an individual personified by Grand Ayatollah Sistani? The answer to this question will determine how the world will deal with the Shiite religious establishment in the future, when Grand Ayatollah Sistani is not in power. It will also determine whether the gains this visit is said to achieve – from recognition of Najaf’s centrality to its role in global interfaith cooperation – are lasting.
In some accounts, perhaps as a means of understanding the estate’s complex structure and nature, it has been likened to the Catholic Church. These comparisons stem from the visual hierarchy of the estate, which has historically allowed it to assume a leadership role in politics. In fact, the two institutions differ widely, with the Catholic Church being highly bureaucratic and monolithic, the religious establishment in Najaf is less institutionalized, and even its hierarchy depends, to some extent, on more flexible and contested understandings of clerical authority. Regardless, these comparisons make the symbolism of the Pope and the meeting of the Grand Ayatollah even more powerful.
Najaf’s status as a Shiite center does not need consolidation, it is the burial site of one of the most respected Shiite historical figures and the home of centuries-old religious institutes that trained prominent clerics such as the late Grand Ayatollah in Iran. Ruhollah Khomeini to the late Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Despite this importance, the Shiite religious establishment has historically been unable to assume its role in global interfaith networks, given the pressures of living under a sectarian and authoritarian state. After 2003, after the Ba’athist dictatorship was overthrown, the religious establishment was given space to assume a greater role.
As political events unfold in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has been looking for guidance on navigating this unrestricted terrain. His leadership was commissioned and tested during certain moments in contemporary Iraqi history. Most recently, Grand Ayatollah Sistani played a major role in maneuvering Iraq toward stability during the October 2019 protests, when his representatives delivered messages carefully linking the line between citizens’ rights and the sanctity of the constitution and the electoral system. The Grand Ayatollah’s involvement in politics generally has garnered praise from a variety of people beginning with Kitab al-Rai.Nobel Prize for SistaniIn the New York Times (for academics)Ayatollahs patriotsWritten by Caroline Sage). Despite this well-deserved praise, it is still difficult to deconstruct analytically whether it was the person of Sistani or the institution of the Hawza that invaded Iraq during these crises.
A systematic review of the history of the Hawza’s political participation indicates that the institution’s importance is underappreciated. at Research Regarding the participation of elite clerics in anti-government protests throughout Iraqi history, I find that the religious establishment responded in much the same way regardless of whether the protesters were protesting an colonial, totalitarian, or democratic state. In every case it encountered, the estate gave priority to maintaining law, order, and stability. In different periods of time and under the leadership of various grand ayatollahs, the hawza has seen itself as a guardian of society and a safety valve during crises.
Moreover, the social structure of the Najaf hawza, the strict academic training it imposes, as well as the personal demands it places on its students, make its members social in a specific mold. By the time they were ready to assume leadership positions in the estate, most clergymen have adopted a certain perspective that prioritizes social and economic stability. In my interviews with elite clerics who are the potential heirs of the religious establishment, I am struck by the consolidation and propagation of their political views.
The history of the Najaf seminary as well as the rhetoric published by contemporary clerics indicate that Grand Ayatollah Sistani is not far from the Najaf clergy. In his calculated intervention, Ayatollah Sistani ranks the average cleric in Najaf. There is no reason to believe that if a colleague had been equally qualified and trained in his position, the course of Iraqi history would have progressed differently. Most importantly, there is no reason to believe that his successor will differ greatly in his views or actions. The estate, in the socialization of the clergy, sustains itself.
It is unclear whether this view of the religious establishment is shared by the international community, but it may be revealed through commentary that will emerge after the Pope’s historic visit. But this is clearly the view held by many Iraqis. In a recent speech at the Brookings Institution, President Barham Salih advertiser That, “As a Kurd, I do not see Najaf as just a Shiite issue, as Najaf has historically talked about Kurdish rights.” President Saleh was most likely referring to Prof. Religious fatwaIt was declared by one of the predecessors of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim in 1966, who forbade killing Kurds at a time when a former Iraqi president wanted to launch attacks against them. In fact, this sentiment was repeated by members of other ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim, too Issued Religious edict to protect the indigenous Christians who were facing persecution in northern Iraq in the 1960s as well. This indicates that, from the Iraqi’s perspective, it is the institution of the Hawza and not necessarily the individual Grand Ayatollah that is deemed decisive.