- - Thursday, July 31, 2014

In an unprecedented move, six of the world’s top grand ayatollahs have voiced public support for Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani and his handling of the ongoing crisis in Iraq. For any grand ayatollah to comment on the activities of another is rare, and for six of them to publicly support the specific activities of any one grand ayatollah is history in the making. Specifically, the grand ayatollahs have insisted that Ayatollah Sistani be followed in all political matters, indirectly referencing the latter’s calls for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to either step down or be voted out of his position.

The six Shiite grand ayatollahs are Sheikh Vaheed Khorasani, Sayyid Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim, Sheikh Basheer al-Najafi, Sheikh Ishaq Fayyadh, Sheikh Safi Golpaygani, and Sheikh Nassir Makarim Shirazi. The title “Sayyid” implies ancestry tracing back to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, whereas “Sheikh” indicates a “normal” lineage. In Shiite practice, all religious scholars are referred to by either title, and “Grand Ayatollah” is a partial translation of the phrase “Marja e Taqleed” (literally: source of emulation). All Shiites are obliged to follow a grand ayatollah for religious matters.

Thus far, the governments of Iraq, Iran and the United States have not made significant progress in either reuniting Iraq or reducing support for Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s band of militants. Analysts believe that the public show of unity behind Ayatollah Sistani is intended to be a major step in resolving the deadlock over action against the violence sweeping Iraq.

The level of public backing indicates not only widespread support for Ayatollah Sistani, but just as importantly, immense dissatisfaction with the prime minister. In the Shiite world, Mr. al-Maliki is believed to have largely contributed to the current crisis, and the rise of the “Islamic State.” Expressing the Shia community’s irritation with the sectarian policies of the Iraqi leader (who is also a Shiite), the grand ayatollahs have turned to Sistani to have the politician removed from office, albeit through the rule of law, rather than any sort of uprising.

Ayatollah Sistani popularly called for Iraq to function as a democracy wherein each citizen was entitled to a vote, famously rejecting alternative styles of government. He also had a hand in influencing the country’s constitution, favoring an inclusive government. That Mr. al-Maliki is believed to have pursued a sectarian agenda, despite publicly supporting Ayatollah Sistani, has greatly disappointed the grand ayatollah, according to reports. Acting in response, Sistani issued a statement calling for politicians to “not cling to power,” taking the wind out of Mr. al-Maliki’s attempts for a third term as prime minister.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon met with Ayatollah Sistani, marking the first high level meeting between the Shiite leader and any Western group. To date, Sistani has not met with any other leaders from the United States or Europe, despite holding immense sway over the fate of Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The U.N. chief issued off the cuff remarks iterating his strong approval of the Grand Ayatollah, as well as expressing his personal respect for Sistani.

Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi went so far as to release his statement on his official website, saying, “In my opinion, they [politicians] need to refer back to the opinion of the respected religious authority of Iraq, his Eminence Grand Ayatollah Sistani, to end their conflicts and seek the help of his highness to resolve their problems.”

Similarly, Sheikh Golpaygani called on Muslims to follow the guidance of Sistani “to reach noble Islamic goals.”

Rumors had swirled that Grand Ayatollah Khorasani, a widely popular figure, had thrown his support behind Mr. al-Maliki, prompting an immediate response from the religious leader, as told to Khabar News, “Any news of his Eminence’s support to any politician in Iraq is incorrect, and his Eminence’s opinion is that the people and the government of Iraq must follow the vision and the advices of the religious authority in city of Najaf .”

The nearly 84-year-old Ayatollah Sistani, who resides in Najaf, is often colloquially referred to as “the religious authority of Najaf” or sometimes simply “Najaf,” indicating his high-ranking stature. Al-Hakim, al-Najafi, and Fayyadh also reside in the city, and are well known for their long-standing support of the grand ayatollah.

According to analysts, the support for Ayatollah Sistani and his political work is not in reference to any sort of religious government, nor is it a call for a “wilayatul faqih” (Guardianship of the Jurist) government similar to that of Iran. Instead, it is a call for ordinary Shiites to follow the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Sistani when exercising civic matters, such as voting for candidates to replace Mr. al-Maliki.