The bad boy of Iraqi politics is going back to school. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, is studying to become an ayatollah. It might seem like a minor development within Iraq’s notoriously insular Shiite politics, especially against the backdrop of daily bloodshed. But Sadr’s decision has enormous implications for Iraqis and the United States.
The 33-year-old Sadr is taking a long view, showing greater political skill than the United States and his Iraqi rivals usually give him credit for. Once a renegade cleric with a ragtag militia fighting US forces, Sadr has transformed himself into a statesman. He controls a key bloc in the Iraqi Parliament and he was a kingmaker in the selection of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister. Now Sadr is trying to burnish his religious credentials, which would make him an even more formidable force in Iraqi life. After he attains the title of ayatollah—the second-highest clerical position in Shiite Islam—Sadr can issue his own fatwas, or religious rulings, and he will no longer have to defer to senior clerics. He will also be able to teach other clergymen, and his followers must obey his rulings.
Sadr’s aides told the Associated Press that he is on track to attain the status of ayatollah by 2010, or even sooner. That would be a remarkable fast-tracking of the normally rigid system of Shiite scholarship. In the Shiite hierarchy, Sadr is a low-level cleric, several ranks and many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah. It’s not even clear that he truly reached the status of hojat al-Islam, which is what his supporters call him—more out of respect for his leadership than his religious achievement. In normal circumstances, it can take two decades for a cleric to establish the record of teaching and deep study of Islamic law required to become an ayatollah.
The title of hojat al-Islam applies to a range of seminary students, from those holding the equivalent of a master’s degree to others with a freshly minted doctorate. (Sadr first enrolled in advanced seminary studies in 2000, but he dropped out after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.) An ayatollah is akin to a tenured, senior professor who has published several books and has a wide following. Think of superstar academics like Stanley Fish or Cornel West—that’s what Sadr is aspiring to.
Why did Sadr suddenly decide to resume his long-neglected religious studies, and why is a seemingly esoteric debate about clerical status so important to the future of Iraq? The answers lie in the marshy fields of southern Iraq, where oil and religion mix. Sadr is positioning himself for a new battle with his main rival for dominance of the Shiite heartland: the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, led by a US and Iranian-backed cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. On December 16 British forces handed control of Basra Province—home to the vast majority of Iraq’s oilfields and the country’s only port—to the Iraqi government. In reality, that means Iraqi police and security forces loyal to Sadr, Hakim or the smaller Fadhila Party. Whatever Shiite faction ultimately rules Basra will be in a position to dominate the rest of southern Iraq. And in a few years, the master of Basra (undoubtedly, he will be a cleric) will control much of the oil and the means of shipping it. He will become the most powerful man in Iraq, regardless of who is prime minister in Baghdad.
To have a leg up on his competitors, Sadr is looking for more religious legitimacy. He can only get it in Najaf, the seat of Shiite theology.
Quietism or Activism?
I first went to Najaf in May 2003, a few weeks after the US invasion. In the warren of alleyways around the Imam Ali Mosque, fruit and meat vendors jostled with those hawking prayer beads, gold-leafed religious books and faded postcards bearing the stern photos of various clerics. It is a place of religious intrigue, where men speak in whispers outside the homes of Shiism’s leading theologians. The rumors that emerge from Najaf’s dusty alleys make their way to the rest of Iraq, and they are carefully dissected by the country’s Shiite majority. This is the world of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Amid the euphoria that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime, clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They also defied the US occupation and its plan to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi.
On the other side were the Najaf traditionalists and disciples of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, who viewed political power as fleeting. One afternoon, I went to the home of Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Kharsan, who at the time was 42 years old and considered one of the best “young” theologians of Najaf. Like most Shiite clerics, he lives in a modest house, down an alleyway where sewage runs along the side of the street. The walls are bare, except for a poster of Sistani and a Quranic verse. “Politics involves getting ahead through tricks and deception; these are not the things that Shiite clerics should be involved with,” Kharsan said as we sat cross-legged on a floor covered with faux Persian carpets, drinking sweet tea. But as a religious leader, he argued, you could ultimately hope to wield far more influence than a mere politician. “When you are a government minister, there is a prime minister above you. Maybe you can serve for four or five years, and then you are out,” he said. “People trust us with their lives, with their money, with their spiritual welfare. We want to win the hearts and minds of people forever. That is not something that politicians can do.”
Sadr wanted to be both: a respected cleric and a politician. Shortly after the US invasion, his followers took control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. They provided social services in the absence of a central government. Posters of Sadr and his assassinated father lined the walls of Shiite neighborhoods. He drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He created a militia, the Mahdi Army, which had several thousand fighters—most of them poor, young Shiites from Baghdad’s slums and southern Iraq. In 2004 Sadr twice instigated revolts against US troops in Shiite sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Mahdi Army was crippled in its confrontations with US forces, and Sadr’s future was in doubt.
But the cleric’s followers infiltrated Iraqi security forces and regrouped as local civil defense units across southern Iraq. In the towns where Sadr’s fighters hold sway, they enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They have bombed liquor stores and movie theaters, and they harass women who do not wear full veils. They also run death squads that assassinate Sunnis and drive them out of Shiite neighborhoods.
During Sadr’s first uprising, in April 2004, I often heard his supporters in Baghdad chanting: “No Sistani, no Hakim, Muqtada is our zaeem.” It was a carefully chosen slogan, meant to avoid insulting Sistani or to challenge his religious authority, but also to portray Sadr as the best zaeem, or political leader, for Iraqi Shiites. “Muqtada stood up to the Americans from the first day they came to Iraq, while the other clerics stayed quiet,” a 22-year-old fighter in the Mahdi Army once told me when I asked why he respects Sadr. “Muqtada is young, that’s true. But he has a right to lead the Shiites of Iraq. And he never left Iraq like those other clerics who went to live in London while Saddam massacred the Shiites. Muqtada suffered like the rest of us.”
By the time elections were held in December 2005, Sadr managed to turn his strength on the Iraqi streets into political influence, with his supporters winning thirty seats in the 275-member Parliament—the largest share of any single faction. Over the past year, US forces have again targeted Sadr’s militia, and in protest he withdrew his ministers from Maliki’s government. But Maliki still relies on the cleric’s support in Parliament. In the end, Sadr proved himself to be a better politician than a militia leader.
Because Sistani and other clerics shun political involvement, they create a power vacuum in the Shiite community. Sadr’s early challenge exposed how distant the senior clerics—especially those affiliated with the Hawza, the Shiite school of learning in Najaf—had become from the Shiite masses. “The question must not be, ‘What is wrong with the Shiites who rally around Muqtada al-Sadr?’ Rather, it must be, ‘What is wrong with the grand ayatollahs who lose their constituents to Muqtada?’ “ wrote Abbas Khadim, an Iraqi Shiite who teaches Islamic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in Al-Ahram Weekly in August 2004. “They cannot hide behind their theological jargon in the middle of crises. If they fail to act, someone else will pick [up] the pieces.” In this case, Sadr was ready and waiting.
Inheriting a Martyr’s Legacy
In the struggle for power within the Shiite community, Sadr has two claims to leadership: He is the son of a revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he never left Iraq to live in comfortable exile. His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Shiite world. Yet he had rivalries with other senior theologians—unlike Sistani, the elder Sadr argued that clerics should be politically and socially involved—and some of that enmity has been passed on to his son.
Muqtada has tried to model himself after his father’s vision of an activist clergyman, but he has been hampered by his youth and lack of religious credentials. This problem will be solved if he becomes an ayatollah, even if he can never reach the same stature as his father. Sadr may not be capable of doing the careful scholarship required of an ayatollah, but he’s clearly on a fast track to attaining the title. Once he reaches that point, he will have a firm religious standing to challenge Hakim and the Shiite hierarchy represented by Sistani.
Since he emerged in 2003 as the fiercest Shiite critic of the US occupation, Sadr has been remarkably adept at using religious symbols to position himself as heir to a long line of Shiite martyrs. By doing so, he has tapped into a central trait of Shiism: dying in defense of one’s beliefs, as the sect’s founding figures did in the seventh century.
During months of traveling around Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I saw the same poster hanging in homes and on walls of Shiite neighborhoods: Muqtada cradling his assassinated father, blood dripping from his forehead and chest. The elder Sadr is holding up a copy of the Quran, as the faceless shadow of Shiism’s founding figure, Imam Ali, looms over father and son.
In reality, Muqtada was not with his father when he was gunned down by agents of the Baathist regime in 1999. The cleric’s two oldest sons were with him, and they too were killed. But the painting is one example of how Muqtada has used his father’s martyrdom to build support among Iraqi Shiites—and it helps explain why young Iraqis are willing to die for him, even as senior clerics urge them to avoid confronting US forces. “Muqtada has always tried to use his father’s legacy as his claim for leadership of the Shiite community,” Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, leader of a prominent Shiite family in Najaf, told me in the summer of 2004, as Sadr’s militia battled US troops. “The senior clerics have not challenged him. He is really a disobedient child who needs to be restrained.”
Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq’s most effective politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their rarefied religious authority would be more enduring than the young upstart’s fleeting political power. But now Sadr is working to enhance his political influence, claiming the heavenly mandate that comes out of being an ayatollah. The disobedient child is on his way to becoming a master teacher—and an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.
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