By Hasan Mustafa
Apart from Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, few religious leaders today command as much respect among Muslims and non-Muslims as Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the 91-year-old “supreme marja” of Shia Muslims in the country. world.
Al-Sistani was a disciple of Ayatollah Abu Al-Qasim Al-Khoei, who for decades was the most renowned religious teacher in the Iraqi sanctuary city of Najaf, where he was known as the “professor of jurisprudence”.
His lectures were attended by hundreds of students, many of whom would themselves become leading Shia jurists in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and the Gulf.
After Al-Khoei’s death in 1992, a number of Najaf’s religious scholars became prominent muftis. Among the most influential were Sayyid Abd Al-Ala Al-Sabziwari, Sheikh Ali Al-Gharawi and Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani.
There was also a group of jurists at the seminary in Qom, Iran, which included Sayyid Mohammed-Reza Golpaygani, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Al-Araki, Sayyid Mohammed Al-Ruhani and Sheikh Mirza Jawad Al-Tabrizi.
After the deaths of several of these great muftis, Al-Sistani was appointed marja – which literally means “source to follow” or “religious reference” – granting him the power to make legal decisions within the limits of Islamic law.
And this despite the presence of popular personalities in Iran like the “guide of the revolution” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Sheikh Nasser Makarem Shirazi, and others in Iraq like Sayyid Mohammed Saeed Al-Hakim and Sheikh Ishaq Al-Fayadh.
Al-Sistani quickly became a popular and trusted religious guide, but after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, his name rose to prominence beyond the borders of the seminary and even beyond the borders of Iraq.
His influence was such that international delegations visited him regularly in his humble house in Najaf. Iraqi politicians have also flocked to meet with Al-Sistani to gain his support. But as he grew increasingly disappointed with the spread of corruption and bigotry in Iraq, he stopped giving these audiences.
Now, given Al-Sistani’s advanced age, the question of who will succeed him has become increasingly urgent.
Over the past two decades, there have been four great jurists in Najaf: Al-Sistani, Mohammed Saeed Al-Hakim, Bashir Al-Najafi and Ishaq Al-Fayadh. Al-Hakim was seen by many as the likely successor, but he passed away on September 3 of this year, casting doubt on the succession.
Sheikh Hussein Ali Al-Mustafa, a Saudi scholar specializing in Islamic sciences, said that the inevitable death of Al-Sistani would be a blow, but one that the community will absorb and eventually overcome.
“The post-Sistani era will face all the problems and the Najaf seminary is able to fill the void, although the absence of Al-Sistani will be a great loss not only for Shia Muslims, but for all those who believe in moderation, tolerance and coexistence, ”he told Arab News.
“There are basic constants in the Najaf School of Jurisprudence and these constants will not change whether Al-Sistani is dead or alive. These constants are: avoidance of direct political action; no truck with political parties; focus on the interests of people and alleviate their suffering through social and economic services; and satisfactory answers to the jurisprudential questions of believers.
But why is the fate of Najaf’s seminar so important?
“Najaf has five important characteristics,” Jawad Al-Khoei, secretary general of the Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, told Arab News. “It is the oldest scholarly area of Shia Muslims that has survived to this day, being over a thousand years old, in addition to the fact that it includes the resting place of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib.
“He has also been known for decades of financial independence, which has made him relatively free to issue fatwas; its refusal to mix religion and politics; its rejection of calls for the establishment of an Islamic government; and for research and the scientific freedom it enjoys.
He added: “All of this gave Najaf a role that transcends his religious duties, that of sponsoring the interests of the people, striving to ward off the evil of the people and seeking to resolve their social, life and cultural problems. , with the main objective of the marja. concern for being people.
Al-Sistani’s authority has gone far beyond the traditional role of the marja, including helping out in trying to bridge the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In 2007, he said he was “in the service of all Iraqis”, stressing that there were no “real differences between Sunnis and Shiites”.
In a speech by his representative, he said: “The Shiites must defend the social and political rights of the Sunnis before the Sunnis themselves do so, and the Sunnis should do the same.
Al-Sistani’s patriotic stance has made him a kind of guardian for all Iraqis. His good faith was polished in Najaf in March this year by the meeting between him and Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, during which they discussed ways to promote peace and coexistence.
Clearly, Al-Sistani’s disproportionate personality will weigh on his successor, who will likely be someone deeply influenced by his ideas and who has worked within his team. But the question remains as to which of them will try to fill their shoes.
“Usually, a lawyer does not immediately become a marja after being appointed to the position of marja. Rather, it happens in different stages and over several years, ”Al-Khoei said.
“Either other jurists of equal rank die, or they are appointed by seminary experts and the most important professors who carry out precise specialized research on their level of expertise and their number of disciples, not to mention the number of testimonies. of ijtihad that they received from the seniors. jurists who preceded them.
“Then there are the jurist’s books, the level of their depth and scientific precision, plus another important element, which is piety. “
There are currently over 40 religious scholars who offer “external research” courses at Najaf Seminary. These studies of jurisprudence and highly specialized religious sciences are equivalent to a doctorate at mainstream universities. Those who pass this stage receive a degree of “ijtihad”, although its levels vary from scholar to scholar.
The jurists most likely to emerge during the “post-Sistani” era can be divided into three broad categories, according to the hierarchy of age, education and experience.
The first category includes older, highly educated jurists loyal to Al-Sistani. These include Al-Fayadh and Al-Najafi.
However, their advanced age and classic style will make them less attractive to the new generation of Shiites, who want the marja to be younger, more modern, and better able to understand the rapidly changing times.
Al-Fayadh and Al-Najafi are now taqlid maraji – or a “source of emulation”. If their status remains unchanged, it is possible that a small number of “followers” of Al-Sistani, notably the Shiites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will regard him as their benchmark after his death.
The second category includes highly qualified jurists such as Sheikh Baqir Al-Irwani, Sheikh Hadi Al-Radi, Sheikh Hassan Al-Jawahiri, Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim and Sayyid Mohammed Jaafar Al-Hakim.
Given the Al-Hakim brothers’ advanced age, ascetic lifestyle, avoidance of political issues, and unwillingness to address fatwas, they are unlikely to be considered for the position of marja. after Al-Sistani.
Al-Radi, Al-Irwani and Al-Jawahri have a large circle of students and are highly respected within the seminary.
“These three names have the greatest advantage in the post-Sistani phase, due to their jurisprudential depth and research capacity,” said Islamic scientist Al-Mustafa.
“They have experience and exposure, so the wider audience of Al-Sistani supporters will – most likely – refer to them, whether in Iraq, the Arab Gulf or Europe.”
The third category includes academics such as Sayyid Mohammed Ridha Al-Sistani, Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Sistani, Sayyid Riyadh Al-Hakim, Sayyid Ali Al-Sabziwari and Sayyid Sadiq Al-Khorsan. They too enjoy “ijtihad” and have students spread across international seminars.
However, sources close to the Najaf seminary told Arab News that the Al-Sistani brothers will not hold the post of marja after their father’s death because “seminary traditions prohibit the inheritance of the post of father’s marja. in son ”.
Moreover, “despite the proven knowledge of Sayyid Mohammed Ridha Al-Sistani, he has no personal desire to be a marja. He is happy to teach and participate in the management of the affairs of his father’s religious reference.
Ayatollah Riyad Al-Hakim, considered a modernizer, is the son of the late Sayyid Mohammed Saeed Al-Hakim. He resides in both Iran and Iraq and “has very good administrative experience as well as the ability to understand political, social and cultural developments,” a source close to Al-Hakim’s family told Arab News.
All indications from Najaf are that Mohammed Baqir Al-Irwani, Sheikh Hassan Al-Jawahiri and Sheikh Hadi Al-Radi are the three most likely candidates to assume the mantle of Al-Sistani.
But the process of selecting the “supreme marja” is so frigid that Al-Sistani’s successor is unlikely to be known anytime soon – or even immediately after the end of his era.