Sayyed al-Sistani’s 2005 fatwa calling on Iraqis to participate in elections demonstrated the power of clerical influence, especially within the political process.
According to Saeed Khudair, a political researcher at Basra University, the level of clerical influence asserted in Iraq today is unprecedented. “The manner in which clerics interfere in the political process, both in the southern provinces and Iraq in general, has not been witnessed anywhere else, not even in Iran,” he said.
“In Iran the decision is in the hands of al-Wali al-Faqih [the ruling Islamic legal scholars], while in the Najaf Hawza [seminary of Shiite Islamic studies] there are several authorities and everyone has a different opinion,” he said, while acknowledging the pre-eminence of Sistani who he says “plays a profound role in directing the political process, despite his attempt to not appear a main player.”
Khudair says that he knows people that were avowed political secularists and supporters of Iyad Allawi who changed their political position “for fear of God's anger” as a result of a Sistani fatwa.
The influence of clerical fatwas in modern Iraqi history can be traced back to the creation of the Iraqi state in the 1920s. It began with a fatwa issued by Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mahdi Al-Khalisi against the election of Faisal as King. Al-Khalisi issued a fatwa stating that “elections and the participation of Iraqi citizens… oppose God, the Prophet, and the Imams.” This fatwa represented the beginning of a long struggle between successive governments and clerics. In 1961, the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sayyed Muhsin al-Hakim issued a fatwa prohibiting membership of the communist party. The fatwa stipulated that “membership in the communist party is prohibited for it is a heresy, atheism.” Some considered the fatwa dangerous, giving the government a mandate to attack party cadres. But through the history of Iraq there are many examples of fatwas being used for political gain.
Clerical interference in public life has not, however, been limited to politics. Clerics have interfered in all spheres of life from trade regulations to salutations to sexual matters to views on Western culture.
Of late, economic fatwas have risen to the fore. Ayatollah Sayyed al-Yacoubi, the spiritual leader of al-Fadhila Islamic Party, which controls Basra provincial council, recently issued a fatwa banning transactions with capital investment companies. Meanwhile, another cleric, Sheikh Qassem al-Taei, recently prohibited the drinking of “Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola,” on the basis that “Pepsin – a key ingredient in both drinks – is extracted from pig intestines.” Al-Taei also banned men’s beauty salons which provoked the assassination of some barbers by extremists.
According to Khudair clerics today often issue fatwas for personal gain. “Junior clerics who claim knowledge issue strange fatwas to become famous, to gain religious and social recognition and to attract young religious men,” he said. “These kinds of fatwas suddenly appear creating confusion and are then forgotten.”
However, Abdul-Samad Hammadi, a follower of al-Taei, justifies the fatwas saying that they are based on solid authority. “Fatwas are only issued by clerics who possess wisdom and are based on the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the Hadith.”
Yet observers say while many fatwas are issued by clerics, only those from reputable authorities hold sway with the Iraqi people.
“If the fatwa is issued by a religious authority that does not hold great influence with the Iraqi people its impact will remain limited,” said Ibrahim al-Maryout, a member of Basra’s chamber of commerce. “The fatwas with greatest impact are those issued by the supreme authorities in Najaf who influence eighty percent of Iraqi Shiites.”
The shelf-life of fatwas remains uncertain. According to Khudair, “religious fatwas have their own charm; they can be revived even after one hundred years.”