Post-Sistani Iraq, Iran, and the Future of Shia Islam


During a recent trip to my hometown of Najaf in southern Iraq, I stumbled across a book titled My Leader Khamenei in the personal library of a cleric studying in the Islamic seminary known as the Hawza. He had picked it up at a bookstore near the shrine of Imam Ali, where the first Shia Imam is buried. It is a popular destination for Muslim pilgrims – especially Shia Muslims – from across the world.

Najaf, which lies 100 miles south of Baghdad, is the heartland of Shia Islam. Home to a seminary established in the early 11th century and the seat of the Marja’iyya – the influential religious establishment led by Ayatollahs.

The fascinating aspect of the book was not that it was published in Najaf (by something called the Pure Islam Foundation) but that it came with a powerful endorsement on the opening page by none other than Shia Islam’s leading religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. According to this publication – Sistani had said:

Always walk behind Sayyid Khamenei and support Wilayat al-Faqih. Today, the reputation of Islam depends on the reputation and dignity of the Islamic Republic [of Iran], and the dignity of the Islamic Republic depends on protecting the dignity of Sayyid Khamenei.Iranian-Prop

The quote is a fabrication. Sistani, like the vast majority of Shia clerics based in the city of Najaf, is well-known for his opposition to Wilayat al-Faqih. This is the Iranian model of theocracy which compels Shia clergy to hold political power based on a jurisprudential interpretation of Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini put into practice in Iran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Sistani has not only rejected this dogma, but has even explicitly called for a “civil state” in Iraq rather than a religious state. His is a theological position based on an orthodox interpretation of Shia Islam that can never be compatible with theocracy. Despite the stark differences of opinion between Tehran and Najaf, the book mentioned above represents just one of the many pro-Iran propaganda campaigns being launched in Najaf. Alongside the obvious military and political presence of Iran in Iraq, it is these more subtle, intellectual and lesser-understood forms of Iranian soft power that raise questions over the future of Iraq  and Shia Islam, especially once the 86-year-old Sistani passes on.

However, fears of an Iranian religious takeover in a post-Sistani Iraq, cited by both Arab and Western media, are greatly overstated. These fears underestimate the resilience of the religious establishment in Iraq as well as the deep-rooted resistance to theocracy among the luminaries of Shia Islam in Najaf. Concerns that Tehran will supplant this orthodoxy also overstate the reach and influence of Iran in Iraq. Efforts to do so, such as the book mentioned above, are not taken seriously by seminary students in Iraq. They are even laughed at by many for their brashness. Any cleric who is associated with Iran – or any other government for that matter including Iraq’s own – would not be able to rise up the religious ranks in Iraq. Support from Iran may help political and militia leaders in Baghdad, but any such support for Shia clerics is counterproductive in Najaf.

The Role of Sistani

The Marja’iyya of Najaf – with Sistani at its head – has played a central role in the post-2003 order in Iraq. Sistani sees himself as above politics and has played a unifying role in Iraq since 2003. He believes clerics should not play a role in executive or administrative arms of the state but has himself made a number of powerful interventions during times of crises.

Sistani forced the American occupation authorities – with the help of the United Nations – to hold general elections in January 2005, far sooner than the Bush administration would have liked. The Americans initially planned to appoint a constitution drafting committee and create the first national assembly though caucuses. However, after relentless pressure from Sistani, the Americans eventually agreed to a democratic general election instead. It was these tensions between Najaf and Washington over the post-Saddam political process that led U.S. constitutional scholar Larry Diamond – who at the time was advising the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad – to note that Sistani “repeatedly assumed more pro-democratic positions than the United States itself.

In June 2014 Sistani issued a call to Iraqi citizens to take up arms and push back ISIL after they occupied Mosul and Tikrit. He then paved the way for Abadi to take over from Maliki by sending a letter to the ruling Islamic Dawa Party making it clear that Iraq needs a new Prime Minister, effectively ending Maliki and Tehran’s hopes for a third term.

In August 2015, against the backdrop of a growing Iraqi protest movement against government corruption, Sistani issued calls to Iraqi political leaders to push ahead with much-needed reforms. Unlike his other interventions which had an immediate impact, his calls for reform were met with strong resistance by an entrenched, corrupt elite which has successfully blocked any meaningful reform to maintain their privileged status.

What Happens After Sistani?

Once Sistani passes away, there will certainly be a period of uncertainty in Najaf and the wider Shia world, but this will not become a vacuum that any outside power can fill or exploit. The transition from Sistani to the next leading Grand Ayatollah may take weeks, months, or years. Unlike the Catholic Church, where cardinals meet at the Vatican to cast secret ballots until the next Pope is elected, the process in Najaf is much more fluid, vague, and includes both top-down and bottom-up pressures.

For starters, Sistani’s existing global network of institutions and representatives will play a key role in shaping the transition. They will lean towards one or more particular clerics after their patron dies. Though the succession process is complicated, it is far easier to predict who the next the Grand Ayatollah will be as opposed to the next Pope because there only exist a handful of clerics today senior enough to take Sistani’s place. This leadership succession will be based on consensus over knowledge and piety. As it takes decades of learning and teaching to become a Grand Ayatollah, clerics overtime develop a firm understanding of how good individual scholars are, much in the same way students rate their professors in colleges after taking classes with them.

It is highly unlikely that anyone outside Najaf – which has flourished since the fall of the Ba’athist regime in 2003 – would assume the leading position for the foreseeable future. Najaf is home to three other Grand Ayatollahs besides Sistani: Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayadh, and Bashir Hussain al-Najafi. They may have different political visions and positions on matters of Islamic law. Each certainly has his own unique style and personality. Crucially, however, none believe in the applicability of Wilayat al-Faqih.

The transition process will also be influenced by grassroots dynamics as tribes in southern Iraq, ordinary Shia laymen, and families across the region and wider world will begin to organically defer to one of the existing Grand Ayatollahs after Sistani. Eventually, within a time frame that no one can predict, one of the Grand Ayatollahs will achieve a critical mass of followers and peer recognition to emerge as a “first amongst equals” to assume the mantle of leadership.

It is important to remember that the transition from Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim al-Khoei to Sistani, which started in 1992, took over six years to finalize, but this happened during a particularly difficult time for the Shia religious establishment. The earlier transition in 1970 from Grand Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim to Khoei took around one year.

Some predict that the post-Sistani transition could take between two and four years, but the dire political and security situation in Iraq, combined with the unprecedented freedom now enjoyed by Najaf as well as modern communications methods, may speed up the process. The instability in the rest of the country may push the clerics in Najaf to hasten the succession process to limit the level of uncertainty that will inevitably remain in Iraq even after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.

The Post-Sistani Age

Sistani is not a unique individual in a broad religious sense but rather a product of a thousand-year-old institution that produced many Sistanis before him. It will produce the next Sistani too and many after that. This religious institution in Najaf is an opaque and loose network of schools, clerics, and functions that even confuses insiders, but it is a system that prides itself on financial and political independence from any center of power. It is built on traditional and orthodox values of Shia Islam that Iran, despite all its economic, military and political power, will not and cannot change. This does not mean that the Iranians will stop trying to influence the debate within the wider Shia world for their own national interests, only that they will inevitably fail in doing so. As research into Ba’ath Party archives has revealed, not even Saddam Hussein at the height of his power could force Najaf – at one of its weakest moments in history – to take a pro-government position during the Iraq-Iran war.

The United States and Arab world should recognize that the Marja’iyya in Iraq, unlike other religious establishments across the Middle East which serve as government mouthpieces or whose heads are political appointees, is not a politicized religious establishment that can succumb to domestic or foreign diktats. Sistani’s influence today is a burden that will be carried by his successor. We will witness continuity, not change, in Najaf as a moderating force on Iraqi politics.


Hayder al-Khoei is Research Director of the Centre for Academic Shia Studies, a London-based center on contemporary Shia Muslim affairs. He is also a member of the Atlantic Council’s Task Force on the Future of Iraq. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Image: IsaKazimi, Public Domain