In Iraq, 60 percent of the population follows Shiite Islam. Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is the supreme Shiite religious authority or marja for Iraq. Iraqi and Iranian Shiites represent contrasting cultural legacies -- Arabic in Iraq and Persian in Iran -- but adherence to Shiite Islam does not bridge this and other distinctions. Iraqi Shiites and Iranian Shiites think differently today about the place of religion in politics.
Before the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, Muslim clerics in both countries held to a social doctrine called, typically, "quietism." Clerics were granted competence only in religious affairs. Apart from rare charismatic preachers or mystics who rose to political power, clerics throughout the Muslim lands were expected to advise the leaders -- usually military figures or hereditary rulers -- not to govern in their place.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced a new scheme, repudiating "quietism" in favor of "governance by the religious jurists." This theory, upon which the Iranian Islamic Republic was established, was innovative in Islamic history and even heretical. But it spread and mutated, attracting some Sunni Muslims as well as Shiites.
A few Iranian Shiite clerics and the overwhelming majority of their Iraqi counterparts rejected "governance by the religious jurists." Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, like most Iraqi Shiites, has preserved his loyalty to "quietism," declining to either approve or refuse the Iranian system. He has, instead, supported parliamentary democracy.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani directs the prestigious hawza or Shiite seminary at Najaf in Iraq. Since Al-Sistani is now 82, many observers wonder who might succeed him as Iraq's Shiite guide and mentor of the Najaf hawza. If Najaf comes under Iranian influence, Iraq's Shiites may succumb to the Khomeinist paradigm.
Such a warning has been delivered repeatedly by an Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayad Jamaluddin, a partisan of secularism, opponent of "governance by the religious jurists," and adversary of Iranian penetration of Iraq in general. In an interview with the Al-Arabiya television network on April 27, Jamaluddin described Najaf as a place that had been left with religious "generals," or teachers, but no "soldiers," or students, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The students had gone instead to Qom, the main hawza in Iran, where they were indoctrinated in Khomeinism. The Iraqi cleric accused Khomeini and his successor as the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, of long-standing ambitions to capture the hawza at Najaf, and asserted that Iranian control of Najaf is inevitable.
Jamaluddin restated this prediction in an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal, published on July 17 and titled "Political Islam and the Battle for Najaf." There he wrote,
"Sistani is an elderly man. Iran's government is eagerly awaiting his death, at which point it will try to put forward a Khomeinist candidate as his successor. Its most likely choice will be Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary. If he assumes the mantle of leadership in Najaf, Khomeini's work will be complete -- the old Shiite faith, with its institutions and its moderate outlook, will have been replaced by the new faith of Khomeinist political Shiism. This is dangerous not just for Shiites but for the entire world."