Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Showdown in Najaf

The current crisis in Najaf is a test for the Shia religious leadership in Iraq, writes Abbas Kadhim*

Najaf lies at the heart of Shia identity, a symbol of the Shia heritage. The city is where the shrine of Ali Ibn Abi Talib stands reminding the Shia of justice and glory they have not experienced since his death, and it is the final resting place for their loved ones and ancestors.

But equally important is the status of Najaf as a city where unchallenged religious authority resides. Yet, this authority has been questioned, to say the least, since the beginning of the Anglo-American invasion. While the restrictions of past days have been lifted and many impediments are no longer in place, the positions of the Hawza (the Shia school of learning) do not point towards any sense of full emancipation from its long tradition of quietism. This is especially puzzling for many observers because, in the few times of action, the Hawza achieved impressive success.

This position of the Hawza can be explained by two facts. First, it is not entirely accurate to make the analogy, as some people often do, between the clergy in Najaf and the religious hierarchy of Roman Catholicism. The Shia clergy are not a hierarchy and the Ayatollahs do not report to one another.

Aside from the core principles of theology and jurisprudence, every Ayatollah is completely free in shaping his opinions. They can practise certain levels of peer pressure on one another, but not always with success. One can cite the example of the Iranian clergy who attempted to excommunicate Ayatollah Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah for his independent opinions. The result was complete failure on their part.

The second fact has to do with the composition of the clergy as a leadership. Contrary to what is often perceived, the Hawza is only one component of this guild. There are many respected Ayatollahs who are not officially affiliated with the Hawza. They often have different opinions and positions on social and political events. The Hawza, however, is the de facto leader of the Shia community, since its head acquires most of the visibility and authority. The authority of other Ayatollahs remains limited to their personal followers ( muqallidoun ).

The history of interaction among the Shia scholars does not reveal public rivalries over theological or juristic matters. These issues are often addressed in amicable ways. The most visible rivalries however arise from differences over political matters. Prominent examples are: the split of the Ayatollahs over the resistance to British colonisation and the government that came into being under its auspices early in the 20th century; the rivalry between Ayatollah Khomeini and the Hawza over the role of religion in the political process; and the current rivalry between Moqtada Al-Sadr and the senior Ayatollahs of Najaf.

The lack of action on the part of the Hawza has always encouraged, and empowered, other contenders for authority in the Shia community. Yet, in the past, the Hawza managed to maintain its prestige, thanks to the gullibility of the people. But today's average Shia follower is more sophisticated and well informed. Questioning authority is the main feature in a free society, and the Ayatollahs are no exception among all other forms of authority. They cannot hide behind their theological jargon in the middle of crises. If they fail to act, someone else will pick the pieces, and life continues forward.

Those young and energetic men who are being driven to the rank and file of Al-Sadr movement are sending a message to the grand Ayatollahs that time has come to set aside the discourse over ablution and purity and types of water, and start paying attention to the affairs that matter in a world that is moving at the speed of light. It is no longer acceptable for a leader to hand down two written lines and remain aloof from the masses. Unlike their counterparts in Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere, the Ayatollahs of the Iraqi Hawza have been unapproachable for decades. This is not a viable method to lead a crowd so used to demystifying its icons and role models.

What we need are 20th-century Ayatollahs who talk on satellite TV about world issues, who use computers and cell phones, but who also have the common touch to walk in the markets and speak with vendors and shoppers. If Imam Ali were alive, he would have done that and more. His deputies must not hold themselves above it.

The phenomenon of Moqtada Al- Sadr is a testimony to the sorry state of affairs in the Shia community. It proves, inter alia, that the old links no longer bind the leader and his constituency. Therefore, the question must not be, "what is wrong with the Shia who rally around Moqtada Al- Sadr?" Rather, it must be, "what is wrong with the grand Ayatollahs who lose their constituents to Moqtada Al- Sadr?"

* The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

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