Among Shiite Muslims, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is one of the world’s leading religious authorities. To those who follow him, he is as important as the Pope is to Catholics. And that is tens of millions of Shiite Muslims around the world.
Al-Sistani, who resides in Najaf, a site of many shrines and destination for pilgrims, is often described as having far more influence over Iraqis than most of the politicians in the country. But the reclusive cleric, who is not often seen in public and who had been treated for a heart condition in the past, is aging. He is thought to be around 81 years old.
Still, his potential demise or a possible successor is not often, if ever, discussed in public. The topic is not touched upon by the leaders themselves, the general public consider it one reserved for the internal workings of the Shiite religious authorities and possibly even disrespectful and local politicians won’t talk about it for fear of offending the religious leaders who could influence their electoral power base.
However in an interview with NIQASH a younger cleric, Jawad al-Khoei*, also resident in Najaf, was happy to discuss how a successor to al-Sistani would be selected in the future. He also spoke about the desire of Shiite theologians to be more open to other religions, the effect that the Internet has had on religious schools in the ancient city of Najaf and what qualities a Shiite Muslim leader needs to become a global authority.
NIQASH: A lot of people realise that Najaf is a particularly religious city and the destination for many Shiite Muslim pilgrims from around the region. But why do you believe that Najaf has such a special status?
Al-Khoei:Najaf is known for its modesty and openness toward other schools of Islamic thought. If one looks at its history, it’s hard to find evidence of, or any fatwa that, encourages violence. There is historical evidence though of tolerance – and not only to other Islamic schools of thought but also to other religions.
For example, the holy man, Sheikh Mohammed Jawad al-Balaghi, studied Hebrew in order to be able to read sacred texts in their original language. Today we’re sitting in the house of the deceased leader of the Shiite Muslim sect.Just ten metres away is the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist party and on the right, only 20 metres away, is a square dedicated to [Egyptian leader] Gamal Abdel Nassar, the symbol of Arab nationalism. This is an indication of the openness of Najaf as a city.
NIQASH: So you like the idea of opening up to other religions and of encouraging dialogue between them?
Al-Khoei:Of course. We have to make an effort to maintain Najaf’s status as an open and moderate city. In fact, there are plans to teach other theories of religious thought at the educational institute we are currently building. We’re very ambitious about that. We’d have no objection to hosting students from the Vatican or other spiritual institutions if they wanted to come and study Shiite theology, or to teach other religions’ theology to the students here in Najaf.
I think it is a necessity for Najaf to open up to other schools of religious thought – from inside the Shiite world and the Muslim world in general, and even from outside Islam – as long as they are ready to open up to Najaf too.
NIQASH: There’s a tradition of quietism here: that is, a policy of religious leaders not interfering in political affairs. On the other hand, there is also a tradition of activism among Shiite Muslims, such as that espoused by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But the quietist attitude is the one that’s been taken by al-Sistani over the years. Do you think this could change with al-Sistani’s successor?
Al-Khoei:This tradition of quietism is part of Najaf’s heritage. It cannot be attributed to a certain person or era.Shiite philosophy is built on a tradition of not interfering in politics and the Shiite religious authority does not do this. The Shiite authority is essentially a spiritual and theological authority that is not much concerned with earthly issues. There are some concerns though [that this may change]. But I see these concerns as a positive thing because it reflects the desire not to interrupt a long standing tradition of quietism.
NIQASH: How will al-Sistani’s successor be chosen?
Al-Khoei:There are a variety of mechanisms for electing a successor that are generally different from methods used by other religions to elect their leaders. Firstly, the collective human mind is considered one of the main sources of Shiite authority. This has an impact on Shiite religious institutions which are open to new thought and opinion; dialogue and the exchange of views are very important to us. So any new religious authority can only be chosen through the will, and thoughts, of the faithful people.
Secondly, financial independence is an important quality. Every Shiite donates part of their salary to the religious authority they follow. So the leading authorities, which have more followers, have more financial independence, which gives them the freedom to express their ideas without pressure from anyone. This is another reason why no state authority can influence the choice of a supreme religious authority.
Thirdly, there is a kind of election. But I use the term “election” in a loose way. No cardinals and no earthly authority can elect the new religious leader. His family origin, his nationality and his race do not matter. Nor does it matter if he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, a holy man or an ordinary person.
Certain conditions, relating to his piety and to his religious learning, will have to have been fulfilled. Any new religious leader will have been through a long, slow, dedicated process of theological training. It takes decades of hard work and devotion.
NIQASH: Could you please elaborate on what you call a loose kind of election? Are you saying the ordinary Shiite Muslims can influence this decision?
Al-Khoei:Yes exactly.Once the current religious leader is gone, then his followers will move to support one of a handful of the remaining similarly qualified, religious leaders. The percentages of followers that each leader eventually has will differ: For example, one man might have 20 percent of the followers, another 40 percent. And a successor will emerge. This result will take time to emerge though – I’d estimate between two and four years.
And things have been working well in this way for more than a thousand years. So there is no need to worry. A new Shiite leadership will emerge to lead the Shiites to safety.
NIQASH: A lot of people would say that the religious authorities in Najaf are actually quite similar to those at the Vatican in Rome, with one central figure as leader and a number of clerics surrounding him, as the cardinals do the Pope. Your thoughts on this?
Al-Khoei: Formally speaking, there are some similarities. But in Rome, the cardinals elect a new Pope and, as I explained, the way that a new religious leader is chosen in Najaf is more of a spontaneous operation. Shiites are known for their openness and for the fact that there are diverse opinions within the Shiite sect itself. A Shiite can choose which religious leader’s edicts he wishes to follow. Not everyone follows the same leader.
And a religious leader is only focused on spiritual or religious matters. He doesn’t give any opinion on issues such as medicine or engineering, as someone like the Pope does. The latter fields have their own experts.
NIQASH: Some say that the two religious cities of Qom and Najaf compete with one another and that when al-Sistani goes, that Najaf will lose that contest.
Al-Khoei: Nowhere on earth can compete with Najaf or challenge its spiritual authority. It is home to the oldest Shiite university in the world as well as the shrine of Imam Ali, peace be upon him. Scholars from Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and the Gulf states always come here rather than going anywhere else. Would-be religious leaders know they have more opportunity for advancement if they live here. That’s why many theologians call themselves “Najafis” even if they’re not from the city originally.
NIQASH: Some say that the next religious leader in Najaf should be of Arab origin.
Al-Khoei: Ethnic origin should not be of any significance. Over the centuries we have had religious leaders of a wide variety of ethnicities, including Iraqi, Lebanese, Iranian and Azerbaijani. I believe such diversity is positive. The only criteria for a leader is the kind of advanced knowledge that contributes to development.
NIQASH: How do you think Najaf contributes to the region’s identity? After all, so many pilgrims pass through here every year.
Al-Khoei: Najaf’s impact on the renaissance of Shiite identity in the region is very deep.
And it manifests in different ways. It’s certainly contributing to the spread of moderate Islamic thought. It also has a deep spiritual impact because of the number of significant holy shrines in the city. So Najaf is contributing on both a spiritual and religious level as well as to the definition of a Shiite political identity.
Najaf’s impact seems to have become far more overt after the changes of 2003 [editor’s note: after a US-led invasion toppled former leader Saddam Hussein’s regime; Hussein was a Sunni Muslim whose state dominated the Shiite Muslims in Iraq]. And today there’s constant evolution.
NIQASH: Tell us some more about the impact of information technology on the ancient study of Shiite theology in Najaf.
Al-Khoei: Najaf is a modern city and, despite its spiritual status, it is not isolated from the rest of the world. Today religious individuals here own mobile phones and communicate via the Internet. Each has his own Facebook page and e-mail account. During religious lessons, students have eschewed pen and paper and will often record lectures on MP3 players. When they return home, they write up their comments or essays on their laptops.
Additionally information technology has allowed the religious leaders in Najaf to communicate with followers all over the world. A hundred years ago it was very difficult for the average person to get a religious opinion on, say, marriage or inheritance. Letters took a long time to arrive. Now, you only need to press a button on your computer to send a question to a religious leader’s website and in a few days you get your answer.
NIQASH: Along the same lines, have there been any changes in traditional methods of teaching Shiite theology?
Al-Khoei: Yes, things have actually changed. The Shiite religious leaders are now in contact with the outside world and they learn more about it – mainly because there is more knowledge easily available as well as the opportunity for a wider exchange of ideas and expertise.
*Jawad al-Khoei is the son of the late Mohammed Taqi and grandson of the late Grand Ayatollah Qasim al-Khoei, who was the current Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s predecessor. Al-Khoei is currently the director of the Iraqi branch of the charity his grandfather founded, the Al-Khoei Foundation.He has spent most of his life engaged in studying theology, both in Iraq and Britain, and he has a master’s degree in International Islamic Sciences from the University of Jordan. He continues his theological studies in Najaf today.
Al-Khoei is a proponent of interfaith dialogue and a supporter of the “Common Word”, a 2007 letter signed by 138 Muslim clerics and intellectuals that discussed the common ground between Christianity and Islam, described as “a landmark in Muslim-Christian relations’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2010.