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Najaf 1 - Qom 0
Schism within contemporary Shi'ism

August 30, 2004

The lingering conflict in Iraq, more than a year after the end of the year, demonstrates the subtle dynamics of Iraqi Shi'ism and the extent to which it affects power brokering in the Iraqi state. By handing over the keys to the Imam Ali mosque, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrine, Sadr was transferring the ideological legitimacy to the authentic victor of the Najaf uprising, Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

To create the waves of Shi'ite sympathy necessary for the success of his revolt Sadr's strategy was to dare the Iraqi government to violate the Shrine: in effect dare them to be barbarians. In the face of that challenge, Iraqi government on one hand had to convince Sadr that they were prepared to cross that line if it meant saving the integrity of Iraq or having Sistani intervene on their behalf.

The big question was will Sistani throw his weight behind beleaguered Allawi regime? Or would he call for the mass uprising that could have change the course of Iraq to exist as a unified entity. The stakes were high and so were the repercussions.

Sadr overestimated the degree of protection the mosque and its proximity to the shrine afforded him, since it could be easily trespassed. His militias were not protected by any physical boundary but by a sacred one from within the sanctuary, which civilized men hesitate to cross. Mortars were fired from the courtyard of the Imam Ali Shrine by men who didn"t even fortify their positions, secure in the knowledge that they could slay men too decent to fire back.

The exemplary self restraint by the forces encircling the shrine discredited Sadr's strategy to use the shrine as a shield to promote his delicate agenda of ideological grandiosity. It was a rebuke to his strategy that Shiites refused to descend on the shrine despite of his repetitive calls; a solitary call by Ali Sistani was answered by thousands of weeping Iraqis. It was significant that Grand Ayatollah Sistani, said to be under treatment in London, remained largely silent on the fighting which had engulfed his religious capital, almost as if the Pope had no comment on fighting raging through St. Peter's square.

Sistani's timely stroke helped broker a deal that on surface looks a face saver for Sadr, as he and his forces were being decimated, the deal allows Sadr to be a free man despite his indictment for the murder of Khoei, for this concession he had agree to surrender the mausoleum of Imam Ali, disarmament of his militia and promise to join the mainstream Iraqi politics.

Scratching the wounds a little deeper it was actually Sistani and Sadr who were fighting for the heart and soul of Shiite mainstream sympathies; it is Sistani who has emerged as winner and has emerged as the grandest of the Ayatollahs that has the power to incite popular resistance.

Sadr was perfectly aware that with impending denunciation his future role in Iraqi politics was restricted, one collateral benefit from this peace deal brokered by Ali Sistani is that he has been declared a free man. The individual victory of escaping from a damning indictment aside his ideological power base has been dented and exposed.

The origin of the bloody feud is ensconced in ideological and individual vendetta. Inspired by the religious leader Kazim al-Husseini al-Hairi of Qom, calling for an Islamic government in Iraq some clerics, most notably the young Muqtada al-Sadr of Najaf and Muhammad al-Fartusi in Baghdad, issued bold statements. They moved to extend their influence in some Shi'ite cities in the south and in the slum area of Baghdad known before the war as Saddam City (now renamed Sadr City, after the religious leader Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was gunned down in Najaf in 1999).

The fierce struggle within Shi'ite religious circles took an ominous turn with the murder of Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, son of Abu al-Qasim, who had been brought to Najaf by American forces in the hopes that he would be able to exert his influence in the city. The killing of Abd al-Majid, a man who exemplified the sober and moderate face of Iraqi Shi'ism, has underscored the role of violence in Iraqi politics as well as the difficulty of reaching an agreement with Sadr. Sadr was accused of collusion in murder of Majid al-Khoei by an Iraqi judge.

This was the final effort by Sadr to control of mainstream Shi'ism, the end game between Sistani of Najaf and the Ayatollahs of Qum who were backing Sadr was an effective coup d'état to bury "quietism" practiced by the al-Hawzah al-'Ilmiyyah in Najaf.  Qum was playing the game of ultimate ideological supremacy through their proxy Sadr. Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ite strains have little love lost for one another the differences borne out during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 and the 1991 Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq.

During the war with Iran, Iraqi Shi'ites, who formed the rank and file of the Iraqi infantry, fought against their Iranian coreligionists, demonstrating that their loyalty to the Iraqi state overrode sectarian allegiance and their discontent with the Sunni-dominated Baath regime. Iraqi Shiites are known historically for their "Iraqi nationalism" whereas Iraqi Sunnis have looked towards "Arab nationalism" as the clarion call.

To understand the background of this schism between Qum and Najaf, one needs to look profoundly at contemporary centers of Shi'ites learning's. Four senior Grand Ayatollahs constitute the Religious Institution (al-Hawzah al-'Ilmiyyah) in Najaf, the preeminent seminary center for the training of Shiite clergymen. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Najaf was the most important center of study for Shia religious leaders.

However, Saddam Hussein ordered mass arrests and the expulsion of senior clerics, giving the Iranian seminary in the city of Qom the opportunity to take over the religious leadership of the Shias. Qom became the pre-eminent religious center for Shia Muslims since the Iranian revolution, however, Najaf has a history of more than a millennium of leadership, and the Iranian clerics who run the holy city of Qum, are facing a revived rival.

As of mid-2003 the seminary in Qom hosted between 40,000 and 50,000 clergy, while the number in Najaf stood at about 2,000, down from about 10,000 before the Ba'ath regime took. The first exodus from Qom to Najaf is expected to be by exiled Iraqi clerics, estimated to number between 3,000, and 5,000.

At the heart of schism lies reluctance of seminary of Najaf to get involved in worldly affairs -- in essence al-Hawzah al-'Ilmiyyah in Najaf wants to shield the highest Shi'ite religious leadership, the marjaiyya, from politics - this is an old tension within Shi'ite Islam between two conflicting tendencies, quietism and activism.

Whether clerics should confine their activities to religious affairs or also seek a role in politics has been a matter of fierce debate among Shi'ites for well over a century. Sunnis, who in theory are expected to obey their rulers and even tolerate a tyrant in order to avoid civil strife and preserve the cohesion of the Muslim community, observant Shi'ites recognize no authority on earth except that of the imam.

The twelfth imam is believed to be hidden from view and is expected to return one day as a messianic figure, the Mahdi. In his absence, there can be no human sovereign who is fully legitimate. This ambivalence toward worldly power has resulted in different interpretations within Shi'ite Islam regarding government accountability and the role of the clerics in state affairs. Imam Khomeini's concept of the rule of the jurist is only one among several competing views.

Qom is worried to face a challenge over the concept of the Velayat-e-Faqih - the God-given authority for a top religious leader to oversee secular in the absence of the Prophet Mohammad and infallible imams. The Najaf seminary's view of the Velayat-e-Faqih is that of a supervisor and adviser. The Qom school believes the opposite, with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, officially considered as the highest religious authority of the world's Shias. Qom sees the direct involvement of clerics in state ruling and executive affairs as their legitimate right and moral obligation.

The battle of wills in present altercation was undoubtedly won by the elder grand Ayatollah Sistani and his favored doctrine of "quietism" won over calls of "activism." From designed chaos aimed at popular uprising of the South to peaceful withdrawal Sistani political maneuverings helped defuse the crisis, in the process he has emerged as a new force to reckon with. Iranian born Sistani plan to have higher goals his ambitions of Shiite heart and soul stems from his desire to shift the thrust of Shiite theocracy from Qum to Najaf and Karbela.

The recent upspring of the Sadr rebels was a blatant attempt to rob Sistani of its hardcore support, by showing Sistani soft on resistance Sadr purpose was to build a momentum that would lead to popular mass uprising those intentions did not materialize. Sistani call to "mass popular uprising for peace" was a de-facto call for Sadr withdrawal, that Sistani achieved very ingeniously, someone who is not even a born Iraqi to accomplish this ideological following in Iraq is matchless.

This is major victory of the al-Hawzah al-'Ilmiyyah  and the marjaiyya in Najaf over that of Ayatollahs of Qom, this may not be the last one too, in political pragmatism it is clear that Sistani keeps his cards very close his chest, when he decides to play he plays them well too.

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