Dr Harith Al-Qarawee: From Secularization to Identity Politics: The Reconstitution of Shiʻi Religious Authority in Iraq

In June 2014, the Sunni “jihadi” group that called itself the Islamic State (IS) took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in a shockingly easy operation. As the Iraqi army collapsed and its troops deserted, IS rapidly marched southward threatening to invade Baghdad and the Shiʿi shrine cities. In that moment, Ali al-Sistani, the Najaf-based grand marjaʿ (highest source of emulation in Shi’i Islam) issued a fatwa that called on Iraqi civilians to join the security forces to defend their country against IS. Many Iraqis think that this fatwa has changed the course of the war by mobilizing civilians and paramilitary groups and boosting the collective morale which had faded after the striking loss. In December 2017, when the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the complete liberation of Iraqi territory from IS, he congratulated and thanked the grand marjaʿ. So did his party, the Daʿwa, in a subsequent statement which commenced with compliments to “the sacrificing Iraqi people and the grand marja.”


The power of Ayatollah

This was not the first time that Sistani’s name was applauded in association with crucial events taking place in Iraq. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has appeared as a powerful figure whose words can alter the direction of events. For example, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was forced to abandon its initial plans for the transitional period mostly due to Sistani’s insistence on holding an early election and forming an exclusively Iraqi committee to write the new constitution. In addition, Sistani’s call on Iraqis to participate in the constitutional referendum and subsequent elections has been instrumental in legitimizing the political process and the leadership of Shiʿi Islamist parties.

To a degree, Sistani’s actions are reminiscent of historical events in Iraq and Iran when the Ayatollahs used their religious authority to influence political trajectories. Among these events were the 1891 verdict of Mirza Hassan Shirazi which banned the use of tobacco, thereby forcing the Iranian shah to abandon the concession he granted to a British company to monopolize the production, sale and export of Iranian tobacco; the roles of Mirza Muhammed Taqi Shirazi and other Shiʿi ulama in guiding the 1920 revolution against the British colonial forces in Iraq; and, of course, the inspiring and leading role played by Ruhullah Khomeini in the Iranian Revolution.

However, while Sistani broadly shared with his predecessors a sense of duty to intervene in the public life when circumstances command so, there exists a particular context and peculiar circumstances that conditioned and largely shaped his projection of authority in post-2003 Iraq. Sistani was the grand marjaʿ when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell and a new regime dominated by Shiʿi Islamists began to form. Contrary to his predecessors who faced hostile governments, Sistani was actively involved in a state-building project which, among other things, reconciled the state with religious authority.

Many perceive the marjiʿyya (clerical authority) today as actually the most powerful non-state actor in Iraq, or even describe it as “the guarantor of Iraq’s survival,” to use the words of a Shiʿi cleric I met in Najaf. In the new Iraq, Sistani did not become a Supreme Leader; nor did he obtain a constitutional status. He emerged, however, as an extraconstitutional authority whose positions were highly regarded by officials and non-officials alike. How can we understand and, if necessary, label this authority?

Although some easily accessible answers can be found in Sistani’s understanding of the jurist’s mandate and in his political statements, as illustrated by Khaffaf,[1]Visser,[2]Cole[3]and Sayej,[4]a more substantial explanation of the nature and scope of his authority lies outside jurisprudential manuals and public statements. Such understanding should be linked to the structural change and the broader transformative context that shaped the new power relations in post-Baʿath Iraq. This is not to conceal the agency or the impact of Sistani’s theological and political thought, but to argue that his actions -and inactions- were conditioned by the emerging opportunities and challenges that the fall of the Baʿath regime and subsequent events have generated.

Therefore, a better track to account for reconstitution of the authority of marjiʿyya  is one that is attentive to the longer historical trajectory of the relationship between the modern state and clerical actors. Predicated on an understanding of authority as relational,[5]this essay emphasizes the socio-political dynamics that reshaped and redefined the status and role of the grand marjaʿ in relation to the state.


Secularization and Marjiʿyya

To begin with, I argue that what is often described as a regime change resulting from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was actually a paradigmatic shift in the nature of the Iraqi state. Since its foundation, the post-colonial state in Iraq sought to secularize society as part of its project of modernization and nation-building. At this historical juncture, secularization was a process reinforced by the nascent state in order to control or limit the presence of religion and religious actors in the public sphere. Given that the state was perceived to be the main agent of modernization and national homogenization, its endeavor to create the national subjectivity implied an active policy to de-emphasize transnational and sub-national religious solidarities and the authorities speaking on behalf of these competing imagined communities. Secularization was accompanied by processes of centralization, formalization and rationalization, in the Weberian sense, that expanded the statist domain which, by definition, was secular, while reducing the domain of informal, traditional and religious authorities.

This endeavor was not necessarily the outcome of the ruling elites’ ideological commitment to secularism, but rather an integral part of the way the post-colonial state has envisioned its role. This understanding of the state’s role was represented, for example, in the widely cited letter written by Iraq’s first monarch, Faisal I.  In this letter he lamented that in Iraq there was “no Iraqi people” but “masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie… of these masses we want to fashion a people.”[6]“Fashioning” a people that is not imbued by “religious absurdities” became an objective that was embraced more resolutely by elites that ruled Iraq after the fall of the monarchy in 1958. Despite their ideological differences, these elites embraced variations of developmentalist nationalism which considered the state its main tool to command development and undermine “reactionary” forces.

It is true that there were intervals in which the secularizing state suffered interruptions or setbacks due to political fluctuations. For example, in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein’s regime was weakened by the war waged by US-led coalition after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, uprisings and harsh international sanctions, it sought to carefully devolve some of its functions to non-state actors and to deploy religious discourse and symbols. However, this state-sponsored Islamization was less a change in the secularizing state paradigm and more an attempt to employ the growing religious sentiments in order to serve the regime’s need for re-legitimation as its secular Ba’ath ideology was waning.

Secularization posed serious challenges to Shiʿi clerical authority, especially given that the state was often dominated by Sunni groups who were suspicious of Shiʿi clerics, the autonomy of Shiʿi seminaries and the dominance of Iranian ʿulama in the high-ranking clerical cliques. Nakash[7]and Jabar[8]wrote seminal works discussing how the authority of Shiʿi ʿulama was declining in tandem with the advancement of the nation-building project. They also discussed how these challenges have divided the ʿulama along ideological lines (activists vs. quietists or reformists vs. traditionalists), ethnic lines (Arab vs. Iranian) and status (higher ranking vs. lower ranking). These divisions were accompanied by polemics about the role and structure of marjiʿyya and the degree to which it should be institutionalized. Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (executed in 1980) was a leading voice in advocating for the institutionalization and modernization of marjiʿyya. However, his calls were rejected by traditionalists who argued that the existence of marjiʿyya would be better secured by the absence of strict regulations and the continuity of its traditional norms and practices.[9]

Sistani’s mentor, Abu Qassim al-Khoui, who emerged as the grand marjaʿ between 1970 and 1992, represented the latter view. Many think that his traditionalist modus operandi was crucial to the survival of Shi’i seminaries during the extremely repressive Baʿath rule. Based on his research of the Baʿth party archive, Khadhim portrayed a detailed picture of the way the Baʿath leadership  conspired to weaken and coopt the hawza, the center of Shiʿi seminaries in Najaf, and to target Khoui and other senior clerics.


Identity politics and the post-secularizing state

The status quo’ radically changed after the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. I argue that Sistani became the powerful character that he is today principally due to the sociopolitical transformations that created a context conducive to his emergence as an influential actor.

Importantly, the 2003 war did not only result in a regime change, but it changed the fundamental way by which the Iraqi political community was previously defined. The repressiveness of Saddam Hussein’s regime, including its acts of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, began to be publicly and internationally recognized beginning in the late 1980s as his relations with the West were worsening. Following his brutal suppression of the 1991 uprising, the Shiʿi and Kurdish victimhoods became essential definers of the discourse about Iraq. Many in the West and in the Iraqi opposition concluded that the main objective after the toppling of the Sunni-Arab dictatorship should be the empowerment of the repressed Shiʿi majority and the large Kurdish minority. The 1990s was also the decade when Cold War polarization ended, hence depriving regimes with totalitarian tendencies of the maneuvering room made available by this polarization. Western policy-oriented discourse became more inclined towards a vision about “representation,” “empowerment” and “negotiation of identities,” mainly based on culturalist categorization of sub-national communities in post-authoritarian (and mainly post-socialist) states. This vision was reinforced by the wars in the former Yugoslavia and became operative in the political settlements that followed.

Envisaging Iraqi society as a totality of Shi’a, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other small religious and ethnic minorities was common among US policy makers, as well as inside the Iraqi opposition which was heavily dominated by Shiʿi Islamists and Kurdish nationalists. Implicit in this vision of Iraq was the non-existence of a category of “Iraqi” that is independent from ethnic and religious communities. Accordingly, the new state-building project was not based on the old modernizing/secularizing vision of King Faisal I or republican regimes that ruled after 1958, but on power-sharing between elites “representing” religious/sectarian and ethnic communities. In this increasingly sectarianized context, the power vacuum that resulted from state collapse, along with the weakness and fragmentation of Shiʿi opposition groups that returned from exile, created the conditions to assert and re-invent the institution of the grand marjaʿ as the ultimate legitimate leader of Iraq’s Shiʿi majority.

After decades of aggressive secularization, the Shiʿi clerical class, although weakened and divided, remained among the few autonomous actors who survived the Baʿathrule without fully losing their social capital. Indeed, the growing religiosity in Iraq and the Middle East during the 1990s created more demands for religious goods, hence revitalizing the social appeal of religious actors. Additionally, the hierarchical nature of marjiʿyya, assisted by the existence of a transnational network of representatives and agents, provided the needed machinery to project Sistani’s authority in the context of state collapse and rising demand for social order.

In this context, the interplay between agency and structure becomes more relevant. Sistani was not the only actor seeking to shape the new political realities. Other Shiʿi religious rivals such as Moqtada al-Sadr, Muhammed al-Yaqubi and Kadhum al-Hairi, tried to seize the moment to strengthen their positions in the religious field, to use Bourdieu’s terminology. However, Sistani was better equipped with symbolic and material resources to overpower his rivals. Coming from a traditionalist ideological-theological background, he opted to project his authority strategically. His approach of defending Shiʿi interests without being a sectarian hawk, opposing the CPA’s transitional plans without confronting them violently, and endorsing Shiʿi political groups but simultaneously keeping a distance from them, helped him sustain both his social capital and political relevance while other actors were exhausting theirs. For example, Sadr’s premature military confrontations with US forces and the involvement of his Mahdi Army in the brutal civil war with Sunni militants have limited his appeal and increased his enemies. Also, the Supreme Islamic Council led by the al-Hakeem family was perceived as too close to Iran and, due to its long years of exile, distanced from its targeted social base. In contrast, Sistani’s independence from the Iranians and his concurrent opposition to the occupation and the CPA’s plans, have further legitimized his communal leadership. Sistani’s main advantage, then, was his measured approachability to varied and even competing players, internal and external.


“Formalizing” the public authority of marjiʿyya 

While sustaining its informal character, the marjiʿyya gained a degree of formality, or more precisely, a formally protected visibility in the public sphere. The grand marjaʿ was hailed in the prologue of the 2005 Constitution, frequented by international visitors and sought for guidance by Iraqi politicians. The previous animosity and distrust between the state and clerical authority were substituted for arrangements that discursively placed the marjaʿ above the state, mainly as a guide and symbol, but sometimes as an influential actor when circumstances obliged. Against this backdrop, one can understand the impact of Sistani’s 2014 anti-IS fatwa or his influential role in forcing Nuri al-Maliki out of the prime minister’s office afterwards.

While it is important not to jump to definite conclusions on state-clerical authority relations in Iraq’s fluid and precarious situation, one can identify some incipient reconfigurations. On the one hand, due to the fact that the state faced military challengers and its institutions were weakened by neo-patrimonial politics, it continued to rely on material and symbolic capitals of external legitimizers. The marjiʿyya stood as one of these legitimizers, along with foreign powers such as the United States and Iran. On the other hand, the marjiʿyya itself has been changing and part of this change resulted from these emerging reconfigurations of authority.

Therefore, I propose the term neo-traditional marjiʿyya in an attempt to characterize Sistani’s authority. Sistani did not seek to formalize his role, as did Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution, nor did he remain politically inactive. Indeed, he maintained the traditional modus operandi of his religious network while obtaining new tools of influence and visibility that were not available to other marajiʿ before him, at least to the same degree of continuity and convenience.

Since 2004, the Iraqi Parliament has adopted laws and regulations that, to a degree, formalized parts of the marjaʿ’s public authority. For example, the law of Shiʿi endowments, of which Sistani’s office was a key drafter, stipulated the marjaʿ’s role in the selection of the director of the Shiʿi endowments office. Rather than safeguarding the state’s control over the religious field, which was the goal of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs that the Baʿath government created in 1981, the new law organized the shared management of this field. This was emphasized by the law of “the management of holy Atabat and Shiʿi pilgrimage sites” which the Parliament passed in 2005. According to this law, the directors of Atabat (the shrine cities of Iraq) must be approved by the marjaʿ. Since then, Sistani’s representatives became the directors of all major shrines in Najaf and Karbala, thereby ending the competition between various religious groups to control these vital institutions in Shiʿism.

In an increasingly Islamized and sectarianized public sphere, the Atabat emerged as pivotal symbolic pillars for a collective identity that was simultaneously revitalizing itself while being violently targeted by Salafi-Jihadi groups. Suffice to say that the 2006 attack on al-Askariyayn shrine in Samarra incited unprecedented vicious retaliation by Shiʿi militias, which led to an atrocious civil war in Baghdad and other areas. Friday sermons given by Sistani’s representatives in the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas became occasions to deliverthe marjaʿ’s teachings to the public and, hence, to project his authority beyond the Hawzaand traditional networks of emulation. Consequently, by excluding other clerical voices from the most significant religious platforms, the undisputed authority of Sistani as a formally recognized grand marjaʿ was legalized.

Furthermore, the Atabat eventually became multi-function institutions that extended their jurisdiction beyond the purely religious dominion. They opened profitable schools, hospitals, food factories, and farms that are competing in the local markets. Recently, using the “extrajudicial status” given to them as religious entities, the Hussein Shrine administration contracted a company to build a new large airport in Kerbala, despite the stated objections of the governor.

Moreover, the Atabat administrations formed armed militias to join the fighting against IS under the umbrella of  al-Hashd as-Shaʿabi (Popular Mobilization Forces). Among these militias were the Ali AlAkbar Brigade, which was formed and funded by the administration of Imam Hussein Shrine, the Imam Ali Brigade (affiliated with the administration of Imam Ali Shrine) and the Abbass Brigade (affiliated with the administration of Abbas Shrine).These groups are often labelled in the media as Sistani’s Hashdto distinguish them from groups backed by the Iranian government.

The activities and projects conducted by the Atabat administrations continue to create new networks of beneficiaries with a differentiated set of secularized interests and a notable leverage beyond the religious domain. It could be useful to compare the growing authority of Atabat administrations with that of Imam Riḍa in Mashhad, Iran, whose top administrator was the main contestant to President Rouhani in the 2017 election and is still a strong candidate to succeed Khamenei as a Supreme Leader.

The formalization and legalization of the role of the grand marjaʿ, even if theoretically reduced to the religious field, would have consequences for intra-clerical dynamics. The grand marjaʿ is a relatively novel invention that evolved to its current shape in the nineteenth century and never gained an elaborated institutional framework. There are no written rules regulating the selection of the grand marjaʿ (even the term is relatively modern). This status is not simply about identifying a person who meets its criteria. Increasingly, it is designated and defined in a process influenced by the socio-political context.

Therefore, one can expect that recent laws that stipulated the grand marjaʿ’s role have also given the state, as the main implementer of these laws, a leverage in determining to whom this status would be given after Sistani. Besides, given that the grand marjaʿ is sharing with the state the management of religious institutions, it will be less likely to bestow this status to a clericliving outside Iraq because of political and legal complications that could arise. Thus, “one can push the argument a step further by stating that these arrangements could amount to (1) drawing new boundaries between Iraqi and non-Iraqi Shiʿi religious spaces, and (2) formalizing the status of the grand marjaʿ, thereby effectively impacting the non-institutionalized and informal processes of the selection of the future successor of Sistani.”[11]

Finally, this constant negotiation between the formal and the informal, the religious and the secular, has resulted in new reconfigurations of authority. These reconfigurations did not only resist previous polarized binaries between state and non-state actors, but also reflected the on-going struggles for power and legitimacy in a context no longer defined by the secularizing paradigm of state-building. In this context, not only the state power and functions are redefined, but also the structure and authority of religious actors are reconstituted in relation to what can contingently be characterized as the post-secularizing state.




* This is essay is largely based in its content on a longer article by the author. Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee (2018) “The ‘formal’ Marjaʿ: Shiʿi clerical authority and the state in post-2003 Iraq,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2018.1429988.






[1]Hamid Al-Khaffaf,AnNussus AsSadira ‘an Samahat AsSayyid AlSistani Fi AlMas’ala AlIraqiyya,6th ed. (Beirut: Dar Al-Mu’rikh Al-Arabi, 2015).

[2]Reider Visser, ‘Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism?’(Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2006).

[3]Juan R.I. Cole, ‘The Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq’, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Paper 7 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).

[4]Caroleen Marji Sayej, Patriotic Ayatollahs: Nationalism in Post-Saddam Iraq, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[5]Paul Kingston, ‘Reflections on Religion, Modernization and Violence’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 13(3) (2001), 293–309.

[6]Adeed Dawisha, “The definition and redefinition of identity in Iraq’s foreign policy,” in Shibley Telhemi and Michael Barnett (eds.), Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 119.

[7]Yitzhak Nakash, The Shiʻis of Iraq,2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[8]Jabar, F. A., The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, (London: Saqi books, 2003).

[9]They often use the expression that the organization of marjiʿyya is sustained by the lack of organization (niẓamuha fi laniẓamuha).

[10]Abbas Khadhim, The Hawza Under Siege: A Study in the Ba’th Party Archive (Boston, MA: Instiute for Iraqi Studies—Boston University, 2013).

[11]Hasan Al-Qarawee (2018) “The ‘formal’ Marjaʿ: Shiʿi clerical authority and the state in post-2003Iraq,” op.cit, 14.