News this Thursday of Ayatollah Sistani’s health issues very much put in focus the matter of his succession, and maybe more pertinently yet, Iraq’s ability to weather such a catastrophic loss to the integrity of its institutions.
“His Eminence was subjected to a twisting in the left leg that led to a fracture of the thigh bone, and he will be operated on today,” a statement from a source in his office read (January 16, 2020)
While the surgery was successful, fears remain that he may suffer complications.
If Ayatollah Sistani’s official scope of influence is limited to the religious, he nevertheless holds much of Iraq in the palm of his hand – to the full acknowledgement of both Iraqi state officials and their foreign counterparts. The keeper of Iraq’s legitimacy, history, and in more ways than one, its tradition, Ayatollah Sistani has been the one constant throughout Iraq’s modern history, the one institution never to have faltered or abandoned Iraqis in their hour of need, regardless of their faith, political preferences or ethnicity.
Every administration formed since the 2003 U.S. invasion has sought Sistani’s blessing and approval. During times of crisis, and they have been many, Sistani, to his credit, has consistently and systematically called for national unity, compromise, and for elected representatives to heed the will of the people.
If not for his call to arms back in the summer of 2014, Iraq would likely have fallen to the armies of ISIS, drowned in the fury of a battle the Iraqi army deserted at its most critical moment for a lack of leadership.
In June 2014, Iraq had already lost a third of its territory to the hands of ISIS and stood for all intents and purposes to be swallowed whole by Terror. Before such existential threat Baghdad found itself petrified, unable to organize any real resistance to the advances of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Came Sistani’s fatwa (religious edict) calling on all willing men and women to form a popular resistance movement. Within hours men and women across Iraq joined into what is now known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – over 65,000 volunteers, including 17,000 Sunni tribesmen.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Grand Ayatollah has been instrumental in helping shape Iraq’s democratic transition, acting both as a guide and a bulwark against what was perceived as foreign meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. It is common knowledge in Iraq that a word from Sistani can make or break political careers and force foreign powers to cede ground.
Such sentiments were best expressed by Judith Yaphe from the National Defense University (Washington DC) when she noted in comments to the press: “Sistani represents the middle of the road in Iraq’s political spectrum… We have to listen to and deal with what Sistani is saying.”
The Grand Ayatollah’s ability to shape Iraq’s politics far exceeds his mandate as religious leader. It was he, who, back in 2003 called for the formation of a National Assembly so that Iraq would have the institutional bedrock upon which to draft a new constitution.
In 2006, as Iraq stood on the verge of a grand sectarian unravelling over attacks by Sunni radicals on Samarra’s holy shrine, it was Sistani again who called for restraint and demanded of all parties involved to scale back their dangerous rhetoric.
Ayatollah Sistani’s prime influence comes from his status as Shia Islam leading marjah, a title which translates to ‘object of emulation’. Followed by tens of millions of Shia Muslims across the world, the Ayatollah is undisputedly the most powerful figure of the Shia Islamic world.
Born in Mashhad, Iran, 75 years ago, began his religious studies at the tender age of 5. A prodigy, he quickly rose through the ranks of the clergy. He has studied philosophy, rhetoric and law under the great scholars of his day and has developed a reputation for penetrating to the ‘real meaning’ behind the words of key Islamic texts. His followers speak of his holiness, personal asceticism and intellectual rigour characterised by a keen interest in modern science, economics and international politics.
Most pertinently, he is a specialist in ijtihad, the use of reason to apply Quranic values to contemporary situations – a discipline which only the most distinguished Shia clerics are allowed to practise.
One needs not to agree with Ayatollah Sistani to grasp the breadth of his power over Iraq’s future.
As the Carnegie Middle East Center writes in November 2019, “Sistani has occupied a central place in Iraqi Shi‘a politics, revered by all parties as a higher moral guide and sometimes as the ultimate informal authority.”
To lose him at any point will carry vast and unpredictable repercussions.
To lose him now, at a time when Iraq and the broader region are experiencing unprecedented levels of insecurity, political instability, and pressure would be devastating.
Catherine Shakdam is a research fellow at the Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements. She is the author of A Tale of Grand Resistance: Yemen, the Wahhabi and the House of Saud. She writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.