Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Shiites of Iraq and the succession of religious authority | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Among the traditions of Shiite religious authorities in the city of Najaf, as well as in various parts of the world, is that this kind of authority is not inherited nor should be passed down from one generation to the next. There is no electoral system or a structure after the death of the highest authority. There is no white smoke floating out of the chimneys in Najaf, and there are no sectarian cardinals conducting any conferences. In fact, it is well known that succession is achieved in an idealistic and smooth way.

The successor becomes prominent during the lifetime of the one whom he succeeds. Such inheritance of authority is common amongst Imams, however there are exceptions to this. Regarding contemporary religious authoritative references: Sheikh Mousa Kashef Al-Ghatta”a (1827) succeeded his father Sheikh Jaafar Al-Akbar (1813) and the two Sheikhs Ali and Hassan succeeded their brother Mousa.

This however, did not occur merely due to inheritance but rather on the basis of knowledge and effort, for at the time they were the most suitable or most knowledgeable to succeed those before them.

Additionally Sheikh Mohammad Mahdi Al-Khalisi (1963) succeeded his father Sheikh Mohammad Mahdi Al-Khalisi (1924). It seems that the Al-Khalisi family whose authoritative reference is limited to the Kazimia region, attempted to continue succession. The opinions of the young Khalisi angered other scholars which in turn weakened his authority. Some of his opinions are found in his book &#34Shiites and the Struggle with Heresy and Superstitions Foreign to Religion&#34.

In all cases, those who follow a religious authority are the sons. This son is usually the eldest of his siblings and closest to his father. He accompanies his father on his trips, writes his fatwas and acts as the mouthpiece of the authority.

This tradition does not include the children of the ”Afendis” as some had objected to them studying at Al-Howza. Al-Khalisi junior was the shadow of his father during the revolution of the 1920s, his spokesperson in Baghdad, and his consultant while he was in exile too.

Sayyed Mahdi Al-Hakim (killed in 1988) acted as spokesperson for his father Ayatollah Mohsin Al-Hakim, and his ambassador. Sayyed Mohammad Reza (Mahdi”s brother) whose connection to the Baath party was subject to much speculation in Najaf took over these tasks at a later stage. Mohammed Reza appears in one of the photographs welcoming the Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim standing beside his sick father”s bed. He was later murdered in a wave of killing by elements of the Baath .Dr. Mohammad Makkiya said, &#34Al-Sayed Mahdi Al-Hakim was enlightened and held contemporary views. He was concerned about ending poverty and ignorance. He absence is felt in Shiaa circles today.”

For his part, Ayatollah al Khoi depended greatly on his son, Jamal Eeddin al Khoi, who died in his lifetime and was replaced by Mohammad Taqi Al-Kho”i. The latter accompanied his father to visit Saddam Hussein after being kidnapped by the Iraqi security services. This was an exceptional move as, traditionally, the supreme authority did not make such visits. In 1994, the son who was a scholar in his own right with several books and writing published to his name was killed in a premeditated car crash. It was due to his efforts that the Al-Kho”i Foundation was established with its headquarters based in London and with branches all over the world. However, it suffered a loss with the brutal death of the youngest son, the secretary general of the establishment, Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Kho”i after his return to Najaf in 2003. The case against the perpetrators is still awaiting the appropriate political conditions to proceed.

Finally, Sayyed Mohammad Reza Al-Sistani has emerged as the spokesman of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, his father. With the country lacking a functioning state, army, and police and with no central figure to assemble around amidst such crises and sadness, Iraqis have turned towards religious authoritative figures. The Ayatollah’s son featured prominently on Iraqi news by receiving and seeing off delegations, making statements and overseeing messages, letters and fatwas issued from his father”s office, as well as taking part in negotiations that led to the formation of ”Itilaf”, the Shiite coalition.

Mohammad Reza presented the most famous of fatwas on behalf of his father that referred to elections. According to the fatwa, elections were crucial for the future of Iraq. His move embarrassed the US administration which concentrated its efforts to guarantee their success. At the same time, the Commission of Muslim Scholars and the Muslim Sunni front reinforced their position after the Shiites announced their support of the elections.

Another fatwa announced by Al-Sistani on behalf of his father created a dispute between the participating political parties when it announced the authority’s support for list 169 on the electoral register and denounced those who did not vote for it as having to answer to God on Judgment Day!

Additionally, with the efforts of Al-Sistani’s son, and without knowing the extent of involvement or coordination with his father, the picture of Ayotallah Al-Sistani was raised as propaganda for the elections. This angered a number of religious scholars who were not part of the coalition list, most notably Sayyed Hassan Al-Sadr who insisted that Al-Sistani should not have featured.

Political observers have indicated that Al-Sistani junior has played a dangerous role in the political game, in the name of his father, in addition to seeking to achieve an unannounced ”wilayat faqih” (the rule of a jurisprudent) through constitutional articles. In fact, some men were seen promoting the message of the supreme authority, or perhaps his son, by word of mouth, confirming the elections were going to place, instead of publicizing it through the media.

Overall, Al-Sistani junior plays a role in the political lives of Iraqis in the name of his father. No delegation visits Iraq without seeing Al-Sistani’s son. Furthermore, no fatwa or letter is issued without his consultation or approval. It is from this point that the responsibility towards the spiritual authoritative status and towards all Iraqis is evaluated.

The power of the supreme authority stems from his spiritual clout. If he becomes involved in matters of state and government, his position might suffer. The Chaldean patriarch Emmanuel Delly described Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the Shiite Muslim cleric as one who worked for God and for the good of Iraq.

The question is does his son and confidant present every issue to Ayatollah Sistani for him to analyze it or does he have a different plan especially considering Iraqis are approaching a constitutional