September 18, 2005


WAITING FOR THE MAHDI, Part 1: Sistani.Qom: In the wired heart of Shi'ism (Pepe Escobar, 8/31/05, Asia Times)

Secular voices in Tehran are adamant: Ninety percent of the political power in Iran is in Qom. One may be tempted to add that at least 70% of the political power in Iraq is also situated in Qom.

It's only a small room, one of its walls plastered with blue cabinet files containing e-mail printouts from all over the world. Behind a glass wall, five youngsters scan documents non-stop. Appearances are deceptive.

This is the room housing, arguably the nerve center of Shi'ite Islam today, run by a soft-spoken, scholarly looking man, Ali Shabestari. Some grand ayatollahs may be grander than others. Since the war, invasion and occupation of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - based in Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, but born in Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran - has become the paramount voice of Shi'ism. The victory of the Shi'ite-led coalition in the January elections in Iraq was basically a Sistani victory. Most of his closest aides are based in Qom, in Central Iran about 200 kilometers south of Tehran. Sistani's unquestioned moral authority has put the limelight on nothing less than a silent battle for the core of the Shi'ite soul. [...]

The figure of the marja'a - a source of imitation by the faithful - is at the center of Shi'ism. The marja'a represents Imam al-Mahdi, the hidden Imam who will reappear one day to save mankind. Marja'as are also at the center of the barely disguised rivalry between the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Zadeh says that previously Najaf was the center "because there were more marja'as. Under repression by Saddam Hussein, most of them migrated to Qom, and now they are mostly here. Imams predicted in books that the center [of the Shi'ite faith] would move to Qom."

According to Zadeh, there are now eight marja'as, all of them grand ayatollahs. Only Sistani is based in Iraq, in Najaf. The others are Khamenei, Makaram Shirazi, Fazel Lankarani, Tabrizi; Bahjat, Safi Golpaygani, and Shirazi. All the Iranians are close followers of the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Zadeh adds that "in each time there is a supreme marja'a. Now it is Ayatollah Khamenei." But who were they before Khomeini? Zadeh points to a list of all marja'as since the 7th century.

Zadeh says, "All marja'as have a duty to establish an Islamic government. And this government should be established according to the will of the people. Imam Khomeini was ready; people wanted it." This implies that Sistani in Iraq was just delivering what the Shi'ite majority of the population wanted. Iraq may not become an Islamic republic, but at least none of its laws shall contradict Sharia, or Islamic law.

Zadeh explains that velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) is "the duty and belief of all marja'as. The fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] should be running political and social life." The devil, of course, is in the details. "Shi'ites in practice believe that state and religion go together." Does that mean the absolute preeminence of Sharia law? "Islam says we have solutions for all aspects of life. And all Iranians accept this." But it's important to remember that when the concept of velayat-e-faqih was erected as the basis of Iran after the revolution, it was opposed by Ayatollah Khoei in Najaf (a traditionalist), Ayatollah Shariatmadari in Qom (a liberal) and Ayatollah Taleqani in Tehran (a "leftist", meaning progressive). Even with different positions, they all agreed that the marja'a should not mess around with politics.

In the long run, the fact that the practice won't work and that it violates the orthodoxy will make it rather easy for them to ditch Islamicism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2005 11:59 PM
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