By Roy Parviz Mottahedeh
No story has been more confusing for the Western news media to cover in
postwar Iraq than the politics of the country’s Shi‘ite majority. That the
Shi‘ites would be a central story was universally expected. They had
suffered systematic repression under Saddam Hussein, especially after the
first Gulf War, when they staged a revolt in the South. If anyone required
liberation in Iraq, it was the Shi‘ites.
But after they failed to welcome their liberators with rapturous joy, and
one of their religious leaders was brutally murdered by followers of another
one of their religious leaders, the rosy storyline of liberation collapsed
amid a host of unanswered questions.
Were the Shi‘tes pro-American (“grateful”) or
anti-American (“ungrateful”)? Did they look for direction to the Shi‘ite
religious leaders in neighboring Iran? What did they want? And why did they
have so many leaders?
There were, of course, the normal orthographical problems associated with
transliterating a strange alphabet, and some of these had more than merely
orthographic significance. For example, after some floundering the New
York Times (followed by most other papers) decided to identify the
leader of the Shi‘ite Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution Iraq as
Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, not realizing that “Bakr” is conventionally used by
Sunni Muslims, “Baqir” by Shi‘ites.
Observing such linguistic niceties mattered less than making readers aware
of the basic outlines of Shi‘ite religious history. At best, the news media
offered brief accounts of the figures of Ali and Husayn, but that, while
useful, was not enough to make Shi‘ite behavior in Iraq understandable.
Ali was the first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the husband of his
eldest surviving child, Fatima. According to Shi‘ite belief, Ali was
designated by the Prophet as his successor, and endowed with divine guidance
so that the community of Muslims would not go astray.
In 661 Ali was murdered—an event that for Shi‘ites represents the rejection
by the Muslim majority of the opportunity for a truly godly government. His
burial at Najaf, now an Iraqi city with a population of 585,000, established
a religious center for Shi‘ism. Shi‘ites believe that a succession of Imams,
each appointed by his predecessor from the line of Ali, possesses the same
infallibility that Ali possessed.
After Ali only the third of these Imams, Ali’s son Husayn (through Fatima a
grandson of the Prophet) made a bid to be an actual political ruler, and he
was brutally murdered in 680. (To their eternal shame, his followers, afraid
of the anti-Shi‘ite government of the time, failed to come to his aid.) It
was not long before some Shi‘ites began to flagellate themselves on the
anniversary of his death, and his martyrdom is still commemorated on that
Husayn is buried at Kerbala (Karbala), which became the second most
important Shi‘ite shrine city and now boasts a population of 572,000.
Reliving his passion is, for Shi‘ites, what reliving the passion of Jesus is
for many Christians.
If some newspapers did get the bare bones—if not the emotional
significance—of this early Shi‘ite history right, they almost universally
skipped everything between 680 and the 21st century. For present
purposes the crucial issues in subsequent Shi‘ite history are: the absence
of a current Imam; the establishment of a madrasa, or seminary, at
Najaf; and the change in the structure of Shi‘ite leadership in the 19th
In 941 Shi‘ite leaders declared that the 12th Imam had
disappeared to return as the Messiah at the end of time. Those Shi‘ites who
accept this disappearance are often called Twelvers. This left the Shi‘ites—the
overwhelming majority of whom are Twelvers—with the same dilemma faced by
the Jews in the absence of their Messiah. Many Shi‘ites chose to withdraw
from politics and quietly await his coming.
Around 1057 a man named Tusi, the leading Shi‘ite scholar of his day,
migrated from Baghdad, where Sunnis had burned his house and books, to Najaf,
where he began the systematic teaching of Shi‘ite learning. Shi‘ites
understand this to be the parent of all their madrasas down to the present.
Already by the end of the 10th century Shi‘ite scholars had
developed full systems of theology and jurisprudence that—like Catholic but
unlike Sunni thought—were based on natural law. In the 19th
century Shi‘ite teaching underwent a dramatic transformation when, after
much controversy, the majority of madrasas accepted that only the most
qualified jurists could establish norms of behavior for ordinary Shi‘ite
believers. Each of these few jurists, who seldom numbered as many as 10, was
called a “Source of Imitation”(marjac at-taqlid).
Consequently, unlike most other Muslim groups, the Twelver Shi‘ites have a
semi-hierarchy with figures roughly equivalent to Catholic bishops or the
Grand Rabbi of Vilna.
Knowing this history would have saved English-speaking reporters from many
mistakes. Take, for example, the Hawza of Najaf, identified by the Los
Angeles Times’ Megan K. Stack April 29 as a “council of scholars”
and by the Washington Post’s William Booth May 15 as an “open
university.” Abbreviated from “al-Hawza al-Ilmiya” (“the learned area”), the
Hawza was supposedly established by Tusi and is now used to designate that
part of the city where the madrasas are located—and, metaphorically, the
seminary community as a whole.
Western reporters sniffed but could not identify the Shi‘ite hierarchy. By
far the most important Source currently on the scene in Najaf is Ayatollah
Sistani, and this is what makes him, as many reporters did say, the “senior”
cleric. In fact, no other Iraqi mullah possesses his learning or piety, and
he has more followers in the Twelver Shi‘ite world than any other Source
Also confusing to reporters were the Sadrs, an important clerical family
that has been a source of at least two Sources. Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr (or
al-Sadr) was the most innovative Iraqi Shi‘ite thinker of the 20th
century. Aware that the Communists had a disproportionate appeal to Shi‘ites
in Iraq, Sadr studied Marxist thought with a view to fighting back. He
believed in “Islamic government” but thought the time was not ripe for it,
and his exposition of the principles of Shi‘ite jurisprudence has replaced
older books in Iran as well as Iraq.
In the 1970s Sadr’s followers founded a political party and, excited by the
success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, attempted to assassinate the
foreign minister Tariq Aziz. The shock was enormous when Saddam had him and
his sister killed in 1980, because he seemed destined to head Iraqi (and
possibly Iranian) Shi‘ites. When the Shi‘ites in the South revolted in 1991
it was Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr’s portrait that was seen everywhere.
After the revolt, the Baathist government asked the leading member of the
Kelidar family in Najaf to suggest, as the Kelidars had done for
generations, an official head of the Shi’ite community. Rather than consult
the Sources or their close associates, the man put forward a list of
clergymen considered to be politically pliant and of strong Arab identity.
One of these was a remote cousin of Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr’s named Ayatollah
Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Muhammad Sadiq was pious, and he had written on
morality and the history of Shi‘ism, but he was not a great legal expert.
Nevertheless his “pastoral” ability gained him increasing favor with the
ordinary Shi‘ites and he was accepted as a Source.
Eventually Muhammad Sadiq’s piety and pastoralism led him to voice the
desires of his flock and he became his own man to an extent intolerable to
Saddam. In 1999 he was killed along with two of his sons.
But another son, Muqtada as-Sadr, was not killed, and, now in his twenties,
he is seeking to play an important role in post-Saddam Iraq. While the press
caught the essence of this father-son story, the relationships were often
jumbled. For example, on May 14 Peter Ford of the Christian Science
Monitor wrote that Muqtada “derived most of his popularity from his
relationship with his grandfather, Muhammad Bakr Sadr, and his uncle,
Mohamed Sadeq Sadr.”
The semi-hierarchical system means that no one but a Source can give an
answer (or “fatwa”) to a question on a disputed point of law. A local mullah
might tell a member of his flock that a strange species of fish was or was
not kosher, but he would be ashamed to issue a fatwa on how to behave toward
the central government as long as superiors were available. (It was thus
embarrassing to discover, in a good New York Times article by Douglas
Jehl and David E Sanger April 24, that U.S. special forces troops and
intelligence officers were “identifying friendly clerics in small towns and
cities and encouraging them to issue fatwas in support of the postwar
For his part, young Muqtada as-Sadr, who may not have passed even the
intermediate stage of Shi‘ite seminary study, would be at sea without the
advice and counsel of Sayyid Kazim Ha‘eri, an Iraqi who lives in Iran.
Indeed, the interaction of Shi‘ites in Iraq and Iran explains a great deal
about Shi‘ite politics both countries today.
Shortly after Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr was executed, Saddam put Ayatollah
Khoei, the senior Source at the time, under house arrest and expelled the
so-called “Iranian” Shi‘ites, many of whom were so Arabized that they could
not speak Persian. About 40,000 left in 1980, more in succeeding years, and
their property was confiscated and auctioned off.
Out of fellow Shi‘ite feeling Iranian clergymen got government jobs for some
of these refugees. One, the highly conservative Sayyid Mahmud Hashimi
Shahrudi, now heads the Iranian judiciary. (He and Haeri were Muhammad Baqir
as-Sadr’s closest pupils.) As the mood in Iran has turned against the
conservatives, the Iraqis, who have long been seen by Iranians as more hard
line, are less and less welcome, particularly in positions of authority.
Something of an exception is Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who mirrors the views
of more moderate Iranian clergymen. Like Muqtada as-Sadr he is the son of a
Source but unlike him he has more than his lineage to rely upon.
Now 63, al-Hakim completed the higher level of seminary study with Muhammad
Baqir as-Sadr and went on to run the office of his father and, eventually,
the office of Sadr himself. (Every popular Source has an office in order to
supervise, among other things, the payment of religious taxes.) Somewhat
before Sadr’s death, al-Hakim fled to Iran where he became the head of the
Supreme Council for Islamic Revolutions in Iran (SCIRI), which commands the
10,000 to 15,000-member Badr Brigades of Iranian-trained Iraqi exiles. He
has watched the conservative Iranian clergy lose their following and in
certain respects distanced himself from them.
Aware of the limitations of trying to establish a place for himself in Iraq
from an office in Tehran, al-Hakim has sought to enhance SCIRI’s standing by
diplomatic efforts. These have ranged from meeting with Crown Prince
Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to serving as a member (not always active) of the
Iraqi National Congress, the organization led by the indefatigable and
unquestionably liberal secularist Shi‘ite Ahmed Chalabi.
Al-Hakim’s well-orchestrated return to Iraq was well covered on May 12 by
the London Times’ Stephen Farrell, who traveled a considerable
distance with him and paid close attention. The cleric’s line has been
fairly consistent. As Farrell reported, the motifs throughout his speeches
are “Islam, democracy, Islamic law, unity, freedom and tolerance of other
religions”—and, one might add, Iraqi nationalism.
Of course, some of this is accommodationist: The Americans are listening.
But everywhere al-Hakim was greeted by large crowds. He is a real
politician, and he understands the need to pay a political price for what he
The Americans are suspicious of al-Hakim. After all, the conservative
“Supreme Leader” of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, accompanied him to the airport
as he left Iran. He received Iranian financial support during his long years
in Iran and may still receive such support. Yet the Americans need him as
much as he needs them. As a Shi‘ite vegetable and fruit merchant in Nasiriya
told the New York Times’ Craig S. Smith April 12, “If Hakim is shut
out, the Iraqi people, especially in the South, will not accept this.”
Unlike al-Hakim, Ayatollah Abdul al-Majid Khoei, the Sh‘ite cleric favored
by the U.S. and Britain, was a known quantity to the West. A respected
cleric in his own right as well as the son of a Source, Khoei made the Khoei
Foundation in London into a center for devout but liberal Iraqi Sh‘ites. But
when he returned to Iraq in May he was murdered by thuggish followers of
Muqtada as-Sadr as he was about to enter the shrine of Ali in Najaf—an event
well narrated with interesting detail in the May 19 issue of Newsweek.
The most telling event in Shi‘ite clerical affairs in post-Saddam Iraq as of
this writing may have been the siege of Ayatollah Sistani’s house in Najaf.
The thugs that killed Khoei besieged the house and asked Sistani to leave.
After a few days Shi‘ite tribesmen arrived and the besiegers departed. The
tribes from which so many settled Iraqi Shi‘ites trace their origin have
always looked for guidance to that Source whose authority has been
recognized by the consensus of the teachers at the Hawza in Najaf, and
Sistani is the genuine article. While he detests politics, his circle has
repeatedly asserted that Iraq should be ruled by Iraqis. The Americans would
do well to show him and his opinions respect.
Only William Booth, writing in the Washington Post May 15, has
demonstrated a grasp of the importance of national origins when it comes to
the leading figures in the Hawza. Sistani is from Mashhad in Iran but has
spent most of his life in Iraq and was the leading pupil of Khoei, the
previous Najaf Source and father of the Ayatollah Khoei who was killed. He
is accepted by some Iranians and most Arab Shi‘ites. But the Afghan Shi‘ite
community looks to their own Ayatollah in Najaf, Fayyad. The South Asian
Shi‘ites look to Bashir Najafi, who is of Pakistani origin. And the
complexities of ethnic allegiance in the Hawza only begin here.
The difficulty of reporting on the Iraqi Shi‘ites has at times been
physically dangerous. I join the many friends of NBC’s David Bloom who mourn
his loss under fire. So many reporters traveled to the same
mullah-controlled hospital and mosque in Sadr City because it was a
relatively safe destination. Fartusi, a comparatively minor mullah who
preaches there, became perhaps the most interviewed Shi‘ite cleric in
history, which he doesn’t deserve to be. The public would have been better
served had the journalists been a little more adventuresome.
Meanwhile, it would have been a service if someone had tried to move beyond
the issues of what the Shi‘ites think of the United States and actually told
us what the Shi‘ites believe. The New York Times’ Daniel J.
Wakin filed a characteristically interesting story on Shi‘ite
self-flagellation in metropolitan New York on April 25. But might the shock
at seeing self-flagellation among Iraqis (forbidden by the great ayatollahs
but so far unstoppable) have been tempered for both the reporter and the
reader by the realization that Jesuits flagellated themselves until recently
and that members of Opus Dei and Native American Christians in the Southwest
When it comes to the Iraqi Shi‘ites, the U.S. government would do well to
heed the views of Brandeis University’s Yitzhak Nakash, a foremost expert in
the field, writing in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.
Reminding us that Fadl Allah, once the guiding spirit of Hezbollah in
Lebanon, no longer advocates an Islamic government, Nakash suggests reaching
out to moderate Shi‘ite clerics. Their pragmatic approach to their flocks
suggests that they are accomplished at adjusting to political realities if
they have a say in matters vital to them.
It will be very hard, and possibly very unwise, to build a new Iraq without
allowing some of the Shi‘ite clergy to participate. President Bush might
feel comfortable with calling them “faith-based political leaders.”