Will Sistani be the Last Legend? The Challenge of Succession and the Future of the Marj’aiyyah

The Relationship between Najaf and Tehran

During the Qajar (1789-1925) and Pahlavi (1925-79) eras, the Iranian shahs showed great respect toward the religious authority of Najaf; some of them even proclaimed the emulation of the grand marj’a of Najaf. Doing so was a way for them to confront and push back against the religious authority of the Qom Seminary. The marj’a has religious authority over his followers, who are obligated to follow his fatwas. Those who imitate other marj’as, however, are free from this obligation. By contrast, the Najaf marj’a did not provide legitimacy to Baghdad’s government, which at the time was controlled by a Sunni elite. So, those Iraqi rulers had no motivation to court the traditional Shi’a authority, who also had no interest in them, especially given the financial independence of the marj’aiyyah, which is ensured by the religious taxes paid directly by worshipers.

The recognition of Najaf’s authority by the shahs of Tehran was a point of support in the favor of the Najaf Seminary. The head of state in Iran favored an outside marj’a over the local ones. Thus, the grand marj’a of Najaf increased his chances of enjoying popularity in Iran and political support worldwide. For non-Shi’a, they considered the grand marj’a of Najaf as the religious authority respected by the strong Iranian king.7

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 was not merely a change in the Iranian regime. Iranian foreign relations were also significantly affected, especially with the war with Iraq (1980-88). During the Iran-Iraq War, the grand marja’a in Najaf, al-Khoei, refused to issue a fatwa supporting the Baathist regime, while the Iranian army was blessed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was, as the supreme leader, the chief commander of the army. Al-Khoei’s passive stance was appreciated by neither Baghdad nor Tehran. Thus, the long-term alliance between Najaf and Tehran was terminated, and the Baathist regime started to harass the marj’as without the risk of provoking Tehran. The Islamic regime in Tehran adopted the theocratic principle of velayat-e faqih, under which the faqih (jurist) serves as the general deputy of the Hidden Imam, who is authorized to act on behalf of the prophet and the 12 imams, including overseeing the governance of the country as the wali al-amr (guardian) of the Muslims. Khomeini and later Ali Khamenei imposed their will upon the Iranian public sphere as a source of legitimacy apart from Qom and Najaf. The marj’aiyyah of Najaf maintained this passive political status from the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 until the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003.


The Rise of Sayyid Ali al-Sistani

Sayyid Ali al-Sistani was a student of three former marj’as: Borujerdi, al-Hakim, and al-Khoei. He was a very close disciple of al-Khoei and one of the top mujtahids when his teacher passed away in 1992. Indeed, Sistani was the one who led the prayer on al-Khoei ‘s body in a very private funeral, which is, in the Shi’a tradition, a sign of respect within al-Khoei’s circle.8 His knowledge and close relationship with al-Khoei, however, were not the only reasons why he was able to gain the current position and standing he holds today.

During the 1980s, a number of distinguished scholars passed away. The Baathist regime executed Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in 1980. Al-Sadr was a young creative marj’a and influenced many clergy members who later become marj’as themselves, such as Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah (1935-2010). In addition, when the regime assassinated Sayyid Nasrallah al-Mustanbit in 1986, who was al-Khoei’s son-in-law and his substitute imam and prayer leader, Sistani replaced him in the role. Al-Khoei also brought exceptional members of the Najaf seminary to Qom either by choice or to escape the cruel regime in Iraq. Scholars such as Mohammad Hussaini Rouhani (d 1997), Jawad Tabrizi (d 2006), Wahid Khorasani, and Mohammad Sadeq Rouhani would have had a better position if they had stayed in Najaf, the major seminary of Shi’a theology.

When al-Khoei passed away on Aug. 8, 1992, Sistani was the grand marj’a’s closest disciple. The only major scholar alive in Najaf at that time was Sayyid Abd al-A’la al-Sabziwari (1910-93), who passed away a year after al-Khoei. From 1993, Sistani took on the role of grand marj’a of Najaf. The majority of al-Khoei’s wakils (representatives), including al-Khoei’s sons who run his foundations, pledged allegiance to Sistani as their new marj’a — a strong supportive action in Sistani’s favor.

During the following years, the grand marj’as of Qom passed away in turn, the most important of which were Sayyid Mohammad Reza Golpaygani (d 1993) and Sheikh Mohammad Ali Araki (d 1994). Gradually, Sistani was recognized as al mojtahid-e aalam, which enhanced his authority to be the grand marj’a for Shi’a worldwide.

Sistani’s path to becoming the grand marj’a was very traditional, as the grand marj’a is generally raised to the position either by being a strong competitor or a close disciple of the previous one. When a scholar becomes the grand marj’a of Najaf, he will most likely also become the marj’a for Shi’a worldwide.


The Marj’aiyyah in the Post-2003 Era

From the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the position of grand marj’a was focused on religious affairs and had a very limited role within the political realm. During that period, the supreme leader in Tehran built a strong political, economic, and social network worldwide, serving the agenda of the Islamic Republic. The Imam Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation, which was established in 1989, was not a competitor with the Iranian network. Located in London and with 15 branches in some of the world’s most important cities, this traditional organization concerns itself with charitable and missionary educational functions historically associated with the marj’aiyyah in Najaf; they currently follow Sistani as their marj’a.9

The collapse of the Baathist regime in Iraq was a turning point in the Middle East that affected the region’s political, economic, and social affairs. The marj’aiyyah started to face new challenges with great expectations from Iraqis who had just been freed from dictatorship and faced foreign invasion. As the grand marj‘a of Najaf, Sistani carries the hopes of Iraqis to deal with the complications resulting from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, including the American military occupation itself, as well as issues like sectarian violence, political fragmentation, and corruption.

At this point, the marj’aiyyah shifted from a focus on surviving the harassment from the Baathist regime in Baghdad to observing the political landscape and interfering only in the most critical circumstances.10 Sistani is turned to for guidance and his advice is sought by politicians in times of crisis, as they expect the Shi’a population to obey his pronouncements.11 This is a reasonable assumption, since the Iraqi prime minister “needs to take enough tangible steps on reform and combatting corruption to secure a meeting with the Grand Ayatollah.”12 Since the invasion of Iraq, U.S. administrations have dealt with Sistani as “a major power broker”13 who does not exercise power but holds great influence upon the public sphere and would get involved when it is absolutely necessary. Sistani, however, approaches the political scene with the pragmatic and circumspect behavior of a civil state leader, rather than following the theocratic model of Khomeini (i.e., velayat-e faqih). That is to say, regardless of the significant power that Sistani has, he is not interested in using it to impose his will as a ruler or to get involved in governance. This attitude reflects his view of the marj’aiyyah as a religious position, not a political one. The more a marj’a gets involved in state affairs, the more potential mistakes he could make. In addition, becoming deeply involved in Iraqi politics would only put the grand marj’a of Najaf in the difficult position of choosing between two undesirable options:

  • Becoming involved in the political scene of other countries with large Shi’a populations, in order to maintain his role as the transnational grand marj’a.
  • Remaining in a passive political role, which would call into question his status as the grand marj’a of Shi’a in general, or even only among Iraqis.

It is clear that neither position serves the marj’aiyyah as a transnational religious leadership. Thus, Sistani is establishing a new doctrine of the marj’aiyyah,14 which aims to balance his potential power in the host-state of Iraq with his broader spiritual leadership of the Shi’a population worldwide. Sistani has never taken any position or issued any fatwa regarding political upheaval in any country other than Iraq.15 This wise attitude should serve as an example for the future marj’as of Najaf; otherwise, Iraq and the Shi’a worldwide would face a tough future with their Arab neighbors and other regional powers such as Iran, India, Pakistan, and Turkey. Following what I call “Sistani Doctrine” should serve as the model for future marj’as to avoid potential political crises.


Sistani and the Issue of Succession

Based on the historical background provided above, it is not an easy task to succeed the dominant transnational marj’a of Najaf. Succession entails many factors beyond just religious knowledge. The strong network of students and clergy and the leaders of Shi’a communities are even more important than being al mojtahid-e aalam (most knowledgeable scholar), which is usually determined by the experts who are already or about to become mujtahids. Those experts generally support their teachers and the marj’as with whom they already have a good connection and a wikalah (certificate of representation).

One of the most effective steps for recognizing the new transnational grand marj’a is the pledge of allegiance from the transnational philanthropic foundations that serve as missionary charitable agencies associated with the former grand marj’as. The Imam al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation has pledged allegiance to Sistani by listing him as the marj’a of the organization.16 According to the fifth article of the Khoei Foundation’s constitution, “The institution is working under the supervision of the Grand Marj’a of the sect, His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul-Qassim Al-Khoei as long as he is alive. After him, the Grand marj’a of the sect who is recognized by the majority of the respected scholars, with the approval of at least three-quarters of the members of the central committee of the institution.”17 There is another narrative stating that the foundation had pledged allegiance to Sayyid Mohammad Reza Golpaygani (d 1993), who refused to give his blessing to the foundation without having actual authority over its administration and actions. Thus, the chairman of the foundation, Sayyid Abd al-Majid al-Khoei,18 decided to declare that it would following Sistani as the grand marj’a.19

Sistani’s marj’aiyyah is not limited to the recognition of the Al-Khoei Foundation, which offered the new marj’aiyyah a supervising role in an honorary position that enables the foundation to collect religious taxes under Sistani’s auspices without giving him actual authority regarding the administration. When he declared his marj’aiyyah in 1992, Sistani’s son-in-law, Sayyid Javad Shahrestani (b 1954), was already a well-established figure in Qom. Shahrestani, who moved to Qom in 1977, founded the Ahl Al-Bayt Institute for the Revival of Shi’a Heritage in 1986. During the 12 years he spent in Qom before declaring his father-in-law as a marj’a, Shahrestani established a strong network that enabled him to promote the new grand marj’a of Najaf in Iran. The Ahl Al-Bayt Institute turned into the arm of Sistani’s marj’aiyyah in Iran and the broader Middle East. Shahrestani supervises the office of the marj’aiyyah, which is associated with 25 Islamic centers and institutes in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Germany.20 Away from the Iraqi political scene, Sistani’s office in Qom and Shahrestani are the voice of the grand marj’a worldwide.21

Sistani’s staff launched new foundations such as the Imam Ali Foundation in London, which identifies itself as the liaison office of Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani headed by the representative of the marj’a, Sayyid Murtadha al-Kashmiri, Sistani’s son-in-law.22 Al-Kashmiri’s young brother, Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri, is running the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya (I.M.A.M.), Inc. located in Dearborn, Michigan and Fairfax, Virginia. While Murtadha al-Kashmiri has the title of chairman of both foundations, Mohammad Baqir, the vice chairman, is the de facto leader of I.M.A.M.23 Today, those foundations are stronger than the Al-Khoei Foundation. So, any future candidate for the position of grand marj’a must obtain a pledge of allegiance from these foundations. At this point though, Kadhim and Slavin argue that the wide network of loyalties to Sistani will not easily transfer to a successor.24

Moreover, the other sorts of networks would not play as effective a role as these institutions do. Community leaders who support other marj’as cannot avoid promoting the successor supported by these wealthy transnational institutions. For example, many Iraqis followed Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr (1953-99)25 right after al-Khoei, but this did not affect Sistani’s marj’aiyyah worldwide. In Saudi Arabia, the most senior Shi’a scholars did not declare the marj’aiyyah of Sistani until 2006. Instead, they supported Mohammad Hussaini Rouhani (1917-97), then Sheikh Mirza Ali Gharavi (1931-98), then Sheikh Jawad Tabrizi (1926-2006), and finally recommended Sistani alongside Sheikh Wahid Khorasani (b 1921) and Sayyid Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim (b 1934-2021). This attitude, held by a number of the most influential scholars in the Saudi Shi’a community, did not put any marj’as as a serious competitor to Sistani, even in the Saudi Shi’a community. As a result, the junior scholars who decided to ally with the transnational foundations of the marj’aiyyah gained more status in their communities by supporting the grand marj’a.

Iraq’s political fragmentation may also affect the new marj’as, who will inherit Sistani’s neutrality and lack of support for any particular political party. Such an attitude requires a high level of independence and popularity. The new grand marj’a needs to be popular, so politicians will consider his attitudes toward political issues, and he also needs to be independent, so that he will not need their support or worry about their anger. This includes the Popular Mobilization Committees (PMCs), which need the blessing of the marj’aiyyah as a form of social/religious legitimacy.

Countries with sizeable Shi’a minorities might be interested in having a local marj’a or at least having their Shi’a population follow a clergy who does not have significant political power, even if it is a latent power. The centrality of the marj’aiyyah causes great anxiety regarding the relationship between Shi’a citizens and their religious transnational leaders, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.26

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