Is the nationalism of Muqtada al-Sadr—the Iraqi Shia cleric and leader of the diverse electoral alliance Sairun (meaning approximately “People in Movement”)—only political, or does it also have a religious component? The distancing from Iran by al-Sadr, a former prominent fighter against the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq (at the head of the Mahdi Army), appears to also have a religious motivation.
It could not be otherwise. Although Al-Sadr did not reach the highest level of education in the Ulum diniyya (Islamic religious studies), he is, after all, the son of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, one of the most respected figures among Shiites, who was assassinated in Najaf in 1999. And he is the cousin of the famous Imam Musa al-Sadr, the founder of Movement of the Disinherited in Lebanon, who himself disappeared and was never heard from again during a trip to Libya. From the latter event rose the Amal (“Hope”) Movement, the most prominent Shiite militant organization in Lebanon.
When discussing his policy choices, al-Sadr explicitly refers to the differences between Shiism in Iraq and Iran, stressing first and foremost the difference between the thought of Ayatollah Ali Sistani—of Iranian origin but based for decades in Najaf, the Shiite holy city in Iraq—and that of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
When Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, the undisputed marja al-taqlid (authority to be followed) among Shiite Muslims, died in Qom in 1962 without having named a clear successor, two distinct camps emerged among the Shia: one, representing the majority of believers, which followed Ayatollah Mohsin Hakim from Najaf, and a minority that guided itself by the increasingly influential and enterprising Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of wilayat al-faqih (“Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”), meaning clerical political rule, which has shaped the Islamic Republic of Iran ever since the 1979 Revolution.
Ali Sistani, 88, and Ali Khamenei, 79, are the present-day successors of Ayatollah Hakim and Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite the ongoing dialogue between the two—which resulted in their common decision in 2014 to remove Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from power—they represent fundamentally different political philosophies.
Khamenei, on the basis of wilayat al-faqih, which vests him with ultimate authority over the authentic and correct interpretation of Sharia, oversees every action of the Iranian Parliament, is the commander of the Iranian armed forces, and his opinion is final on the key issues of foreign and domestic policy in Iran. By contrast, Sistani has been staying away from any direct political role in Iraq, even as his views are held in high esteem. In 2014, his call to fight Daesh mobilized tens of thousands of Shiites against the Caliphate proclaimed in northern Iraq and Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Sistani is also viewed as marja al-taqlid far beyond Iraq’s borders.
The important Shiite religious leaders Hassan al-Saffar (in Saudi Arabia) and Ali Salman (in Bahrain) also look to the Iraqi Ayatollah for guidance. The highly respected Lebanese Ayatollah, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who died a few years ago, was also close to Sistani, notwithstanding his leading role during the ‘80s in founding Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement sponsored by Khomeini, whose current leader, Hassan Nasrallah, supports the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih.
Going beyond political calculations and regional influences (by which he appears to be affected as well), Muqtada al-Sadr has founded his new nationalist approach, at least in part, on the conviction that the Iraqi school of theology, represented by Ali Sistani, has a larger following and is more respected among the world’s Shiites than the Iranian school.
However, Sistani is very old, and many are saying that his death could create a power vacuum. His possible rumored successors are Ayatollahs Muhammed Said al-Hakim, Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi, all from Najaf. Not possessing the religious titles or the requisite charisma, al-Sadr does not himself aspire to the role of marja al-taqlid and spiritual guide. On the other hand, he will not fail to exert the full extent of his influence on the Shiite religious bodies when the time comes to name Sistani’s successor, trying to ensure that the Ayatollah who is chosen will have the fewest ties to Iran, will be in continuity with Ali Sistanis’ teachings, and, of course, will be closest to al-Sadr’s own current vision of the relationship between Baghdad and Tehran.